September 9, 2010

Review – Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadowbroker

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , — Brad Johnson @ 8:00 pm

When the original Mass Effect was on its way to shelves, there was talk of expanding the galaxy map with a supply of downloadable content—an idea that never quite took flight. With Mass Effect 2, Bioware has produced content on a consistent monthly basis, finally delivering on the promise of an expanding galaxy—and what’s more, DLC has been employed to expand and refine the gameplay experience, meaning that Bioware doesn’t just give you more to play, they give you new ways to play. Today we’ll be covering the two most recent releases; the Lair of the Shadowbroker mission pack, and the Firepower weapon pack.

Lair of the Shadowbroker contains three missions, reintroduces Liara Tsoni as a squad member (though only for the DLC missions), adds Stasis to the arsenal of player powers, and allows the player to finally learn the secrets of the mysterious Shadowbroker, who has been a significant figure in the series since the original Mass Effect. There are also a number of additions geared towards allowing players to improve their playthroughs; Shadowbroker contains a number of opportunities to earn credits for those players who perhaps did not spend wisely and missed out on potential upgrades. It also introduces the ability to re-distribute the talent points of your squadmates if you aren’t satisfied with which powers you ultimately levelled up. These are small details, but for hardcore players and completionists the ability to optimize a playthrough for its inevitable carry-over to ME3 is welcome.

Shadowbroker is the first DLC which dialogue indicates takes place after the main storyline (though the missions can be played at any time during a playthrough), and represents both a continuation of lingering plot threads from the main game, and an obvious set-up for elements of Mass Effect 3. Dedicated to their full-fledged approach to downloadable content, Broker feels like one of the main story missions, with new music, new dialogue, new gameplay, and stunning new art—including a new breed of alien with one of the coolest designs in the game. The pack also offers the opportunity to reunite with Liara, depending on the player’s relationship with the character from the first game. Story and dialogue maintain the strong Mass Effect standard, with some dark moments, interesting revelations, and some great banter between Shepard and Liara.

Get a better look at Illium as you scream through traffic in this skycar sequence.

As the apparent mandate of these releases has been to bring unique gameplay experiences to the table, Shadowbroker includes a vehicle chase sequence—a first for the series. You take control of one of the Illium skycars and pursue an escaping enemy through a maze of oncoming traffic and buildings. Though a brief sequence, the vehicle is fun to drive and the threat of perpetually in-your-face traffic (including some cool scripted events) makes the ordeal an exciting one. However, the most satisfying aspect is certainly the ability to go out and be a part of the Illium cityscape in a game where, more often than not, you are merely looking out at these impressive locales from a ledge somewhere.

Later missions place you on the hull of the Shadowbroker’s secret base. Between the design of the ship itself, the weather battering the hull, and the rolling storm in the distance, this is one of the most visually impressive sequences in the game. When you’re not tossing enemies off the hull, you’re going to want to take a moment to absorb the incredible detail that went into designing this environment. This is why Mass Effect 2 represents the best science-fiction experience available in video games today.

No corners have been cut here, this add-on maintains the same level of quality as the main game.

With previous releases demonstrating the desire to use DLC as a vehicle for experimentation and mad science, Broker sees some tinkering with boss battles. The Mass Effect games to date have not featured especially strong or prominent boss battles; generally the games have relied on increasingly difficult combat scenarios as opposed to distinct boss characters. Those few bosses the player has encountered have played out in largely similar fashion:

1. Take Cover.
2. Apply ammunition liberally.
3. Repeat until victorious.

As formulas go, it’s fairly reliable, if not particularly engaging. The original game generally involved firing on Saren until he fell down, and little else. Mass Effect 2 fortified the process considerably by increasing the scale and scope of these encounters, even if only superficially: as you battled the titanic thresher maw, with music blaring and the violent terrain of the krogan homeworld all around you, it was easy to forget that you were fighting this monster the same way you fought Saren—take cover, apply weapons fire, repeat. Lost in the incredible visuals and epic atmosphere, one could hardly complain.

“Lair of the Shadow Broker,” however, attempts to revisit the smaller scale boss battles from the original game, with a couple of refinements. If you recall your final battle with the ridiculously mobile Saren, prepare for a redux as you’re thrown up against a biotic vanguard that will use the previously player-exclusive charge ability to blast across the map—and occasionally right into your face. Of the two boss offerings the pack delivers, this is undoubtedly the weaker: it plays very much the same as the aforementioned battle from ME1, and while it doesn’t do anything obviously wrong, there’s little here to get excited about. The ability to temporarily stall the hyperactive enemy with Liara’s stasis power adds a level of strategy, but it’s not strictly necessary.

The second encounter is decidedly more promising. Here, you face an enemy that will charge at you and destroy your cover if you linger too long, also boasting a large, impenetrable handheld shield—requiring the player to reposition to find viable angles for return fire. Whereas one could take cover and battle the final boss of the game’s main quest at their leisure, the dwindling cover and nigh-relentless approach of this boss adds a sense of urgency that serves the battle well. Finally, requiring the player to occasionally charge in for a melee attack—triggering brief cutscenes—seems trivial from a gameplay perspective, but serves to add an element of variety, so that players feel less as if they are merely holding down the trigger.

Lair of the Shadowbroker offers a wealth of interesting (and frequently hilarious) information on your squadmates and other characters.

Though likely to be overlooked by many players, Lair of the Shadowbroker also includes a significant amount of supplementary material, in the form of the Shadowbroker’s own data network. Mass Effect thrives on detail; for the interested player, the codex offers a treasure-trove of information poised to expand and enhance one’s understanding and enjoyment of the gameworld. The material included here serves a similar purpose, ranging from video surveillance, revealing letters or message logs, and even the hilarious search histories of your squadmates. While a selection of text entries may not seem like much of a selling point, these are undoubtedly one of the highlights of this DLC, developing the characters of the game, expanding on plot threads or events that you may have only touched on in conversation, and offering a number of good laughs, to boot. I mean, really: who wouldn’t want a look at Legion’s gameprofile?

Though I find it difficult to conceive that every player is as dedicated to reading every single entry and gleaning every last detail about the science behind this world as I am, for those players who loved reading through the codex and uncovering the secrets of the Mass Effect universe, Lair of the Shadow broker is poised to supply you. If you ever wanted to know what sort of family life Garrus has, or what Grunt looks for on the net (Hint: it’s dinosaurs), well, your quality of life is about to significantly improve.

Bigger, better guns in the Firepower pack might take the edge off your Insanity playthrough.

As mentioned, I also took this opportunity to deploy Bioware’s most recent item pack, the Firepower pack. The pack offers three unique weapons: a high powered pistol with a laser sight replacing the standard crosshairs, a geth plasma shotgun with the ability to hold the trigger down for a charged shot, and finally a semi-automatic assault rifle that will fire as quickly as the player is able to fan the trigger. The addition of unique weapons was one of the major improvements of Mass Effect 2 (in contrast to the unlimited supply of statistically distinct but identically handling assault rifles from the first game), though it’s fair to say the retail product offered few choices. Bioware has rectified this problem through the DLC releases, offering a growing selection of increasingly specialized weaponry to cater to player tastes. The Firepower Pack is easily the strongest outing to date, offering something for every player, regardless of their class. The laser-sighted pistol offers increased accuracy for the important head shot, while the charge ability of the geth shotgun will decimate enemy shields and barriers. The semi-automatic assault rifle provides relief from the spray-and-pray sensibilities of most of the games other rifles for more precision-minded players. These weapons look great, and more importantly, they sound great—making them a blast to fire, and their distinct handling makes them a worthy addition to the existing arsenal for players craving more options.

Lair of the Shadowbroker is going to set you back 800 points, which stings a little if you’ve become accustomed to the 560 point price of the previous add-ons. Around three hours of gameplay, Shadowbroker is longer than previous outings, and this combined with the selection of supplementary material explains the price increase. It’s difficult to complain when Shadowbroker contains, undoubtedly, the most satisfying and robust experience of the existing missions packs. The Firepower Pack runs 160 points, which is the standard for Bioware’s item packs, and provides perhaps the best value to date in that area.

Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadowbroker
System – Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows (Xbox 360 Reviewed)
Release Date – September 7, 2010

*A copy of this title was purchased by Gamesugar for review

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