It's taken almost a year for Mass Effect 2 to reach the PS3. Now that it's finally here, however, there are only two questions worth asking: "Does the game live up to its reputation?" and "Does this version surpass the original?" The first enquiry can be answered with near-effortless ease; the second, less so.
Let's get the simple stuff out of the way: Mass Effect 2 is worth anyone's time and money, regardless of how you may feel about RPGs, or indeed aliens, spaceships, and metallic doors that go "shwooop" when you open them. If you can play this game, then you should play this game; it really is that straightforward. If you want a single word to sum up the whole shebang, "fantastic" "superb" or "phwoooaar!" will suffice - although personally I might deliberate over "masterpiece", for reasons I'll make clear later.
That's the one-word version. If you'd like a few more - 2164 of the blighters, to be precise - then it's not a bad idea to check out our original review. There's a huge amount to talk about, and while I could happily sit here and rattle out another two thousand words of breathless enthusiasm, I suspect it'll be more useful if I concentrate on the things that will matter to PS3-owning newcomers. For the record, I largely share the sentiments of the article we ran last year. I tend to be less evangelical than Wez when it comes to discussing ME2's many successes, but only marginally so - and the few things that do annoy me should be fairly clear by the end of this review.
Assuming that you've not yet sampled Commander Shepard's Shooty Space Romp 2 (the unofficial title) on another platform, your first few minutes of play will feel like an uncharitable swimming lesson - the kind where the teacher chucks you in at the deep end and then lobs black bricks at your spluttering bonce. You start a new game, skip through a boring settings menu, and then suddenly you're watching a slinky lady in a catsuit as she chats up a chain-smoking old codger. Their conversation won't make much sense - was that something about the local council? - but before long the scene ends, only to be replaced by a slice of text-based explanation. This sheds some light on the situation, but the words disappear before you've had a chance to fully digest them. Seconds later you're in control of Commander Shepard, standing in the middle of a great big flaming mess. Who's attacking me? Who was that woman whose face just exploded? Why is my ship in the hands of a limping wiseguy with a silly baseball cap? Do they still have baseball in the future? Wait, did I just die? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?
I know these feelings all too well, because when I first dived into Mass Effect 2, I did so without having played its predecessor. It's rarely easy to stroll into the second part of a trilogy, and in this case there's an awful lot of exposition that you'll ultimately need to swallow. There are the events of the first game, of course, but you'll also have to learn the intricacies of BioWare's immaculately-crafted universe(s): the various species, political collectives, and long-established racial grudges. While this all might seem a bit intimidating, there's a thorough and expertly-presented codex available for you to wade through at any time you wish.
While that might currently sound as appealing as a four hour lecture on the development of nail clippers, there's every chance that you'll read the whole thing. The richness of Mass Effect's world, its subtlety and sheer detail, is ultimately the glue that holds the whole experience together. It's what you'll fall in love with, inch by inch. At some point, a few hours into your initial playthrough, something will give you reason to pause and reflect. "This really is a great place," you'll say to yourself, before returning to the task at hand. And by the time you reach the later chapters of Shepard's Homeric tale, the galaxy will be your home away from home.
But while Mass Effect's epic backdrops - its intergalactic slums, pristine malls and alien nightclubs - will swiftly claim you as their own, the back story may take a bit longer. As you probably know by now, BioWare has included an interactive Dark Horse comic that summarises the events of the first game, allowing players to make the important plot decisions (who to save, who to shag) that will then affect your subsequent adventure. The whole thing is handled rather well, but there's one small problem: as a Mass Effect debutant, none of these choices will really mean anything to you. A choice that might have carried considerable weight in its original context - the decision of whether or not to spare Wrex, for example - is here reduced to a simple either/or snap reaction. Hell, you won't really know who Wrex is until you get to a specific mission, a good way into the story - and only then if you chose not to waste his scaly ass.
While I also think the timing of this add-on is slightly jarring - you scrabble through the explosive opening sequence, reach a critical plot beat, and then pause to sit through a 13 minute slideshow - it's the lack of immediate relevance that poses the bigger issue. It's only after you've completed the story that you'll have a full appreciation for what the comic offers. It's just as well, then, that Mass Effect 2 is the kind of game that rewards - or even demands - repeat visits.
Indeed, this evergreen nature is another of BioWare's significant achievements. I'm not sure that I've ever played an RPG where it seems perfectly viable (and enticing) to run through the entire thing on multiple occasions. In fairness to the rest of the genre, this is partly due to the fact that ME2 is less of a pure RPG, and more of a shooter-RPG hybrid. There are quests and NPCs by the truckload, but there's no inventory to deal with - in fact there's barely any micro-management at all, just a simplified levelling mechanic and a deceptively deep class system that allows for numerous character builds. The much-discussed Paragon/Renegade scale presents an obvious motive for a second helping - it's far more interesting than the usual Good/Evil karma motif - but it's the various combat styles that really grant the game its longevity. The six classes on offer are remarkably different, given that there's quite a bit of overlap with the individual weapons and abilities. Playing as an Infiltrator - a sneaky, sniper type - is nothing like the life of an Adept, the rough equivalent to a mage. And beyond this, it's only at the higher difficulty settings that you'll fully experience the game's strategic demands.
I should add here that I don't subscribe to the idea that ME2's gunplay is analogous to what you might find in a common or garden shooter. It's damn good, certainly - headshots are especially satisfying - but there's a slight clunkiness to Shepard's movements, particularly when getting in and out of cover. From time to time you might also find your surrounding to be a little too convenient in their arena-like qualities, with an abundance of cover at just the perfect height. These are mild complaints, however, and to be honest I'm not entirely sure I'd even want a Mass Effect that played like a standard shooter. For all its streamlined efficiency, ME2 still feels like an RPG - and that's a good thing.
Despite my best efforts I've strayed dangerously close to gush territory, so I suppose I should finally address the harder of the two questions I mentioned earlier. Is this the definitive version of Mass Effect 2? If pushed, perhaps under the threat of impatient violence, I'd have to say that it probably is - but only by a very small degree. As pleasant as the comic is, I feel that it's more of a minor bonus than a significant addition; it's hardly a substitute for a port of the first game, but its presence here is still worthwhile. The more significant perk with this PS3 edition is that it comes bundled with almost all of the DLC BioWare has trickled out over the past 12 months. Some of it is great, some of it is merely alright, but it all helps to swell a world that's already tumescent with top-notch content. Put simply, more is more.
As far as appearances go, I genuinely can't find much of a difference between the two console versions. The cutscenes look gorgeous, but then they always did. I dare say that the new engine has made a difference in some form or another, but I'd be lying if I said that I noticed a clear improvement. The only genuine contrast I did spot is that the frame rate seems marginally less stable in the PS3 game - but before you rush off to grab your pitchforks, let me add that I only experienced turbulence once or twice, and to a minor extent. We're not talking about a shuddering drop in smoothness, rather a tiny ripple on the surface of a still pond - or perhaps a teeny tiny lump in a mountain of sublime mashed potato.
And to continue that (rather inappropriate) metaphor, the point shouldn't be, "Who got the best mashed potato?" or "Who got the bigger helping first?" Instead, let us just celebrate the mash that we're all eating, together - the Mash Effect, if you will. Comic aside, this really is the same game we played and loved last year. The smattering of design hiccups are still present - the odd linear mission, and the chore-like but unavoidable mining mini-game - but so are all of the wonderful things - the fantastic dialogue, the thoughtful intelligence of it all, and that bit where Mordin starts singing. It's been said before, but it's worth repeating: Western RPGs will never be the same again, such is the impact of BioWare's work here. In short, Mass Effect 2 is bloody brilliant. Grab a fork, and tuck in.