Sunday, 23 August 2015

Mass Effect 2 (PC) - Part 1

Developer:BioWare|Release Date:2010|Systems:Windows, Xbox 360, PS3

Today on Super Adventures, I'll be going through the entirety of Mass Effect 2 in an epic 70 part Let's Play! Actually no I've got a better idea, I'll show off the start of it, skip through to the bits I have something to say about, then wrap it up in let's say... 2 parts. That'll mean much less writing for me, much less reading for you, and everyone's happy! Plus the last thing I want to do is spoil the whole game for people who haven't played it.

That said, this will have SPOILERS ALL OVER THE PLACE, including the identity of all recruitable characters, the outcome of Mass Effect 1, the events leading up to the ending of Mass Effect 2 and what's waiting for players at the end. But I'll put another warning before the really massive spoilers at the end so you can safely skip right past them.

If you find my spoiler warnings to be inadequate in any way, then please scream at me in the comments later so I can be depressed and guilty about ruining the game for you fix them.

(Click screenshots to open up a higher resolution version.)



First up I get to import my Mass Effect 1 character and continue playing as them! That’s some old-school western RPG shit right there yo. Though the bloody game also made me type in my EA online account details before I could 'sign in' to the 'Cerberus Network' and access my 'DLC', and that's pretty new-school.

Hey that 'Genesis' interactive story thing they're advertising on the right seems handy for people who haven’t played the first game, almost worth signing into the Cerberus Network for… oh I have to pay money for it? 320 Bioware points? Well, I guess I could always just replay the entirety of Mass Effect 1 again instead. Or use a save editor.

“Shepard did everything right”, apparently, according to ‘Chuck’ actress Yvonne Strahovski over there on the left. I wish I could say this is because I had a flawless run in Mass Effect 1, but truth is that she says that whatever you do. The very first words of the game give the message that there's either no wrong choices, or there are and picking them just ain't going to make a difference. Probably not what they intended.

These two are from a sinister pro-human paramilitary group called Cerberus and they’re very keen on making sure that the human race isn’t wiped out by a race of ancient sapient starships called the Reapers (the main villains of the first game). The group’s also into horrific illegal experimentation and terrorism though, so they’re not exactly well liked by our hero or the galaxy in general.

The player on the other hand might be totally unaware of Cerberus. They appeared a few times in Mass Effect as unambiguously evil side-quest villains, but it's easy enough to miss them entirely until now.


THE DEATH AND CHARACTER CREATION OF COMMANDER SHEPARD.


The year is still 2183, but things actually have changed a bit due to my choices in the first game and now humanity has a seat on the Citadel Council, the most powerful political group in the Milky Way. I could’ve chosen to sacrifice the council for a tactical advantage, but I saved their lives from the Reaper plot at a terrible cost and now the councillors finally believe me that the other Reapers will soon arrive to wipe us all out…

Hah, nope they’re still entirely sceptical, despite all the Reaper wreckage left scattered all over their space-lawn, and so they’ve sent protagonist Commander Shepard and her crew on the Normandy out to catalogue lens flares or something instead.

Commander's Log, Stardate 43989.1: SSV Normandy arrived at the Amada System to patrol for geth, following reports of missing ships in the area. Stealth systems were activated, making us invisible to sensors, but unknown vessel didn't receive the memo and immediately began using our ship for target practice. Now everything's a bit 'on fire' and our surviving engineers are going to be stuck tucking cables back into the ceiling for the next week.

The corridors are quickly filling up with smoke, but I'm taking the fire as a good sign as it means we still have oxygen in here... for a little while. I'm wearing a spacesuit though so personally I'm fine either way. My helmet also serves the secondary function of covering my face, so I haven't needed to visit the character creation screen yet. My miserable asshole pilot (semi-ironically called Joker) isn't going to be so well protected though, so I need to get to the upper deck and make sure he's not having any dumb ideas about going down with the ship.

So basically Mass Effect 2 starts with a stroll around the ship just like the first game does. Except with the Normandy falling apart around me, and fewer dialogue trees.

Commander's Log: Oh shit, what have they done to CIC! Those aliens have turned my ship into a convertible! I'm kind of torn between mourning the loss of my state of the art starship, and wanting to climb out of the gaping hole to get a better view. Not of the planet Alchera out there, I'm getting a good enough view of that from right here. I mean I want to see exactly how the insides fit inside the outside of this vessel of mine.

I strolled up to the bridge with my gravity boots on, pushing floating chairs aside along the way, and found Joker sitting safe behind a forcefield with delusions of being able to save the ship.

C'mon Joker you've seen enough sci-fi to know how this works: first the shields go down, then the engines cut out, then life support, then the hull explodes, and THEN the artificial gravity breaks. We are in a floating chairs situation right now and that means things are beyond bad, so quit whining about your fractured arm and get your ass into an escape pod before I break that too.

His ass I mean, not the pod.

My little orange conversation ring is back from the first game pretty much unchanged. Conversation responses are located on the right, while questions would appear on the left if I had any to ask. There's usually three kinds of responses, with the top right being the nice guy 'Paragon' option, the bottom right being the bad ass 'Renegade' option, and the middle one being pointless. But I guess there's just no nice way of to yank a guy with brittle bones out of his chair and drag him to an escape pod.

Commander's Log: Well... fuck.

The good news is that Shepard got Joker to an escape pod in the nick of time and around two thirds of the crew made it out alive. The bad news is that Shep couldn't make it into the pod herself and ended up stranded out in space as the Normandy disintegrated around her.

The worse news is that she smacked her suit on the way out, broke an air hose, and then asphyxiated to death in the cold vacuum of space, her lifeless body falling to the planet below.

Bit of a shitty morning for the Normandy crew really.

Fortunately a mysterious organisation with improbable money and resources has managed to recover Shepard's shattered burned up corpse, and they're going to take a shot at putting the pieces back together again.

Annoyingly though the reconstruction process takes place during an ABSOLUTELY UNSKIPPABLE CGI intro cutscene, and this is kind of an issue when the character creation screen comes after it. If I change my mind about how my character's face looks in game, or just want to play around with the thing, I have to walk through the burning Normandy and sit through the whole cutscene again. Takes around 10 minutes by my reckoning.

BioWare could've at least stuck a save point here.

And I've finally reached the face editor!

Even though I'm playing as an imported character, the game has been nice enough to let me do a little plastic surgery on her. Well a lot of plastic surgery actually, as choosing to customise her appearance has wiped her old face entirely. I'll be going back and sticking with her original look, but first I just want see how the editor's changed.

And... it seems pretty much the same as it was in Mass Effect 1 really. It's just as easy to use and just as limited. In fact I think the only real difference is that I can't give my character old scars, as her resurrection is going to leave her with a brand new set to deal with.

One other thing that's definitely worth mentioning though is that code at the bottom, which basically lets me save my face or use one someone else has created. I'm playing the PC version so I've got copy and paste buttons too, so I don't have to type it all in by hand (with my handy keyboard). The downside of the PC version is that there's no controller support! Seriously, it's a AAA game released in 2010 and it doesn't let you use controllers.

The game's let me change my class as well! I thought I'd be locked into the same character type I was playing in the first game, but nope. I'm fairly sure I'd be stuck with my old class in New Game+ though.

Mass Effect 2 doesn't give me any attributes, skills or perks to set (it doesn't like numbers), but I do have to choose whether I want to be a fighter (Soldier), a rogue (Engineer), a wizard (Adept) or any combination of two. This will affect what weapons I can use and what skills I have, so it can make a big difference in how I play the game.

My imported character has the tech-fighter hybrid 'Infiltrator' class but I'm thinking of switching over to the tech specialist 'Engineer' class, because the idea of being able to freeze, electrocute, and hack enemies before I blow them up appeals to me. Plus I want to know what the deal is with the mysterious Combat Drone power.


SHOOTING, HACKING, BACK STABBING AND THE MANDATORY USE OF A GRENADE LAUNCHER.


Shepard wakes up in an unfamiliar lab, hearing a voice yelling through the speakers, telling her to get her pistol and armour from the locker. So I did.

"This pistol doesn't have a thermal clip," replies Shepard, obviously suffering from extreme brain damage and memory loss due to her ordeal, as weapons in the Mass Effect universe don't have clips.
They fire tiny grains of metal shaved off a block inside the gun, giving them infinite ammo as far as gameplay is concerned. You just have to wait for them to cool down a bit every few shots.

Actually that's not exactly the case any more, as the entire galaxy has switched over to a new type of weaponry that requires constantly swapping around of heatsinks, and they apparently managed it in the months between Mass Effect 1 and the prologue to Mass Effect 2.

Personally I think this is a great thing, as I always hated the way guns overheated back in ME1, and it's nice to be able to hit a reload key and get a full set of shots back. It's just a shame that the stubborn bastard game won't let me remap 'delete' as the reload key... because it deletes the entry or something. I gave in and changed it to a key it liked, but the pop up hints are convinced I've left everything at default! "Press R to reload" it keeps telling me, and its advice about other commands isn't any better. Now who's got the brain damage, huh?

Yeah there’s definitely some brain-related trauma here, as Shepard finished Mass Effect 1 with a great deal of skills and training, but my imported character is right back to level 2.

Hang on, only four upgrades per power? I remembered that the game streamlined the RPG elements a little, but I don't recall it being this stripped down. I had 140 of those little boxes to pick from back in Mass Effect 1, compared to the 24 I’ve got here, and my sidekick characters will have even less! Also they've took out the weapon skill bar entirely, meaning I now start off fully trained in whatever guns my class is qualified to hold (which is pretty much just pistols and sub machine guns really).

The 4th block in each row does present me with a choice between two final upgrades, but that doesn't exactly make up for how basic the rest of it has become. On the plus side, I guess this means that upgrades should be more noticeable in gameplay. Theoretically.

Speaking of gameplay, I should get on with the gameplay. Robots are slaughtering every human being in this base and Shepard needs start running around in third person and find some waist-high walls to hide behind!

Oh, so my combat drone flies around and distracts the enemy, keeping them from shooting at me? Not the flashiest power, but it sounds like it’s got its uses. Plus I’ve also got ‘overload’ if I want to point at robots and make them explode.

This is the tactical HUD, which pauses the game and lets me command my squad, select powers and think about my next move. You know, if I want to. I could just skip the thinking part and run around from cover to cover hitting hotkeys to trigger skills in real time.

The big change to how powers work this time is that there’s a universal cooldown, so instead of being able to spam all my available powers at once, I can only choose one at a time. Should make fights a little less frenetic and a bit more tactical.

Another room, another group of robots that need killing... only this time there's a grenade launcher here for me to borrow, and the tutorial's adamant that I learn how to use it before I move on.

This thing uses actual ammo instead of thermal clips like the other guns, but once it’s empty I still get to hold onto it; it’s not a 'fire and throw away' kind of thing. I suppose Shepard has a free space for heavy weapons on her back now that she isn't dragging around guns her class isn't even trained to use any more.

I should mention how the new thermal clip system works, as it’s surprisingly not terrible. The clips are basically a universal ammo pick up that all regular guns use, but unlike in Deus Ex: Invisible War guns all get their own separate pool of ammo, and collecting a clip adds to all weapon pools. So even if I fire off all my sniper rifle ammo (for example) I’ll still have the pistol to fall back on and I'll never struggle to find more rounds for it. Not that my Engineer actually gets to use sniper rifles.

It turns out that I'm trapped on a space station right now! Fortunately it's not the kind with a xenomorph prowling the shadowy hallways, but I do have plenty of hacked robots to shoot. Miranda, the friendly voice on the speakers, is doing her best to keep them distracted so I haven't had to go up against any hulking ED-209 mechs yet, just these smaller ones that like to explode when I shoot their head off. 

Also I’m finding audio logs from Miranda and others, talking about the process used to bring Shepard back to life. Turns out it wasn’t quick and it wasn’t cheap, and the reconstruction required quite a bit of cybernetic augmentation. Which is cool, as it makes Shepard's new facial scars glow red. I guess Saren wasn’t lying at the end of Mass Effect when he said that biosynthesis was awesome.

Oh look, there’s a red box around that wall safe over there and that means I can break into it and make some cash. Unlike Mass Effect 1 there's no skills relating to hacking or decryption, so I can hack anything from the start without spending a single skill point.

Mass Effect 2 bypassing minigame
Mass Effect on the PC used a Frogger minigame, but here I’ve been given a 'match two' memory test. I hover the cursor over each blue node in turn to see its glyph, then when I find a pair I quickly click the two nodes to join them up and run a bypass. And so on until they're all done. Not bad as hacking minigames go, but I can see this getting boring after the 13 thousandth time.

It didn't take me long to find two other survivors in here, and one of them’s Steve Blum! This is great, but I tend to kill things much more effectively when I have two sidekicks following me around everywhere.

Also it turns out that everyone on the station works for Cerberus, so Shepard’s had a creepy pro-human terrorist splinter group reconstructing her corpse for the last two years. Not the kind of thing you want to learn 10 minutes after waking up. She hasn’t even had her corn flakes yet.

Still, at least Jacob here seems like an honest type and he's the first person I've met who's willing to put up with one of my dialogue ring interrogations. Mass Effect gave me the option of learning a ridiculous amount of info before I even got to fire a gun, but this is pacing things way better. It's letting me get into the story first without dumping too much lore on me or asking me to make a lot of decisions.


A COUPLE OF LINEAR CORRIDORS LATER.


Huh, there’s a second kind of hacking minigame? This time I just have to watch these boxes scrolling up the screen and catch the one that matches the target code segment shown above. If I get three right in time, I get my 900 credits.

The trick is having the patience to wait for the final one to scroll on screen.


SOME MORE ROOMS OF COVER-SHOOTING GAMEPLAY LATER.


Hey it’s Miranda in the creepy doll-like flesh, and… she just gunned down Steve Blum. Already I’m starting to see how Cerberus are a trustworthy and reasonable bunch of folks when you get to know them.

You can see here how the dialogue ring works when I’ve got some actual questions to ask, though there’s still no paragon choice there weirdly. The choices only give an idea of what Shepard will say, they’re not her actual response, which is smart because who’d want to hear the voice actor continually parroting lines they’ve already read?

Miranda had a shuttle ready so we were able to get off that space station and head to an entirely different space station with less homicidal robots on it. Before we arrive though Shepard has to answer a few weird questions to test her memory. They're weird because Jacob is phrasing them all like “So a few years back your entire team was wiped out by an alien monster. How do you feel about that?”

The final question makes more sense though, as it's basically "Which character did you put on the Citadel Council?" That's the final choice you get to make in Mass Effect 1, but it comes after your final chance to save, so it can't be imported.

By the way, if you start a new Mass Effect 2 game from scratch, you play with the default selection of Mass Effect 1 choices, and a lot of them are terrible. One of the best squad-mates is dead for one thing, which has a huge effect on things down the line.

Hey, this is a new feature. Now I’m at the other space station I get to customise my armour’s colour and swap in new arms, legs, shoulders etc. for slight stat changes. It’s a shame that I can’t change the shape of a part without also changing my stats, but it’s RPG armour so I shouldn’t have expected otherwise. I can also choose from a few other complete hardsuits with their own looks, but I only get to mod this modular N7 outfit.

Being able to respray one suit is better than none, it's just a shame that the colour selector is a slider (with the colours in the wrong order) and the patterns are limited to one kind of camo or one kind of stripes. It's also a bit of a shame that only Shepard herself can get a makeover.

The original Mass Effect had boxes of new armour with their own colour schemes all over the place, but the only thing that really added to gameplay was the occasional choice between suffering a penalty to defence by keeping my weaker gear, or suffering to penalty to my self-respect for doing missions in the bright pink and white spacesuit I just found. ME2 might be much less generous with new gear, but I'll take style over substance in this case.

With nothing else better to do, I stepped into a holocommunication projector on the second station and found myself chatting with the space-cigarette smoking man from the intro. He's known as the Illusive Man and as the head of Cerberus he's responsible for all kinds of nasty shit. But he's also played by Martin Sheen, so I'm feeling compelled to hear him out.

The Illusive Man lays out the facts: human colonies are being attacked, people are being abducted, and it’s almost certainly something to do with the dastardly Reapers. The Citadel Council don’t give a damn about it, and they definitely don’t believe that the Reapers are involved (or exist at all), so if Shepard wants to resolve this issue she has no choice but to work with Cerberus. For now.

It’s always awkward when the bad guys are the only ones who have your back.

And then I get a mission complete screen, with a report on all the stuff I got done during my escape from the station. I levelled up, found a grenade launcher and got some money!

Considering I found exactly two weapons on that entire level I’m thinking that we’re done with collecting boxes full of new gear this time around. I’m not going to miss the old inventory much, it was a mess, but it seems a bit of drastic to scrap it altogether.

What’s interesting about this screen though, is that the reports on it are written by the Illusive Man for himself pretty much. Shepard herself never gets to read any of this, so the player gets to see the darker shades of grey that Cerberus are hiding from her.


2 HOURS INTO THE GAME - THE SHINIEST SHADES OF GREY.


To Illusive Man’s credit he waited for Shepard to see his point and commit to the team before revealing what he’s got for her in his garage: Cerberus has built themselves their own Normandy!

The Normandy SR2 is bigger, faster, tougher, stealthier and shinier than the Alliance vessel Shepard wrecked, and it’s even got fins on the back! Who even knows how a covert human organisation managed to secretly design and construct a more advanced ship than the most advanced ship humanity ever made, but I don’t care because it’s all mine now.

Seriously, if the Illusive Man thinks he’s ever getting this thing back, then he’s forgotten that I’m actually a secret agent for an alien council. Unless the Council fired Shepard when she went missing for two years... I should really go check about that. It might be a bit awkward though trying to explain to people why her frigate is covered in the logo of an amoral human supremacist group. And why it’s all over her clothes as well.

Shepard's been given back everything she lost in the intro: a starship, a crew, a mission, a body; but it all came back warped and tainted, and better than ever! This looks almost exactly the same as the last Normandy’s CIC, except in lit in Cerberus orange instead of Alliance blue. Plus it has a roof.

It also has an AI computer on board called EDI, which is strictly forbidden by every civilized race in the galaxy due to fears that they'll trap us all in The Matrix. But she seems benevolent enough, despite being voiced by cylon infiltrator Tricia Helfer. Everyone here's being suspiciously friendly to me in fact, even my cranky pilot Joker who quit the Alliance to join Cerberus during my 2 year nap. They're not even running horrific experiments in the basement!

Somehow the Illusive Man found me a crew of human supremacists who don't amuse themselves with space-racist jokes about aliens, which is good because I'll be recruiting a half-dozen alien warriors soon. In fact my yeoman Kelly Chambers seems a little too into aliens. I feel like I’ll have to break it to her at some point that my team is going to be shooting a lot more people than we hug. Not that hugging is off the table, I need to get those Paragon points after all.

They’ve taken out the ramps so now I have to use a lift to get between decks, but compared to the elevator rides I had to take in Mass Effect 1, this is nothing. I get in, watch a 2 second clip, I’m there. In fact I can’t even remember any other elevator rides in the game up to this point.

Though this loading screen does make it really easy to notice how the my new ship's interior still doesn't match its exterior! I mean compare the green area above with this actual map of the deck:

Mass Effect 2 Normandy Deck 2 Combat Infomation Center Map
They had to stretch it out three times as long to make it work!

I guess I should be grateful this place at least has a map. Most areas in Mass Effect 2 are entirely mapless now, which is a shame after Mass Effect included one for everywhere. I suppose there’s not much need for them on the average level though as they’re incredible linear and obvious. Whenever the guns come out I can be sure I'm in no danger of getting lost.

Still, if they had to cheat the dimensions of the ship a little to give me this huge bedroom in the attic, then I can't complain too much... even if it is going to drive me mad that you can't see this window from the outside. I can tell because there's a model of the Normandy in the glass case over there on the right!

Yep I can collect model ships now, and fish! I’ve also got the galaxy’s only known working mirror in my bathroom, and a bed more than big enough for any of the optional romances. Incidentally, none of the possible romances from Mass Effect 1 can join the crew in this, which seems cruel to the people who were into that side of the game. It's like BioWare were deliberately setting players up to cheat on their love interests.

Oh right, I forgot to mention what my important mission is in this game. I’ll be going around space recruiting the most badass fighters and the smartest rogue scientists so we can find the people who are abducting human colonists and kick their ass. Then at the end we'll fly to their base and blow the shit out of it. This final job is called the ‘Suicide Mission’ so our odds aren’t great, but I can dramatically increase them by doing optional loyalty missions to resolve my team’s issues and help them focus on not dying.

My future character select screen.
I’ll end up recruiting a ridiculous number of characters by the end (it'd be a full dirty dozen if I’d bought Kasumi Goto the DLC thief). It was hard enough picking two sidekicks every mission in the first game when I only had six to pick from and one of them was Wrex!

So there’s eight recruitment missions and eleven loyalty missions I have to do, with one of them being part of the free 'Zaeed, the Prince of Revenge' DLC that everyone with an internet connection should have. Okay technically the pack is called 'The Price of Revenge' but I after I read it wrong the first time around all those years ago he'll always be a prince to me. Getting a character’s loyalty lets me switch them to an alternate colour scheme, which almost makes up for the fact that I can’t choose their armour any more... but not quite.

These guys and their problems are basically the core of the game, with the Reaper stuff pushed way way into the background, and that works just fine to me. Mass Effect’s greatest strength is its characters, and though the unfathomable Lovecraftian Darkbads of Darkspace are a fine motivator for extreme Jack Bauer-style ‘ends justify the means’ drama, they’re not all that interesting on their own. In my opinion.


Hit the link to jump to the second half, where I return to the Citadel, explore how the game handles space exploration, and whine about the surprise invisible countdown to doom: Part two

Semi-Random Game Box