Mass Effect 2
For: Xbox 360 and Windows PC
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, sexual content, strong language, violence)
“Mass Effect” marked a bold venture for Bioware, which took the underpinnings of its superlatively deep role-playing games and crammed them into a tactical third-person shooter with combat as real-time as in any other sci-fi action game. Surprisingly, it worked: The combat was highly imperfect but easily sufficient, and the branching storylines, deep character progression and ridiculous interplanetary scope made for one of 2007’s best games.
How impressive, then, that “Mass Effect 2” comes along and makes its predecessor look like a rough draft by comparison.
Principally, “ME2” doesn’t mess excessively with what worked previously. In particular, the storytelling — and the absolutely amazing branching conversation trees that allow the player to mold the personality of chief protagonist Commander Shepard and, by proxy, the story and galaxies around him — retains its considerable polish. “ME2” is as saturated with planets, alien races and mythology as “ME1,” but it also benefits from not having to introduce it all to the degree its predecessor did. The story takes a sharp turn straight away — a dramatic change of fortune and a pretty serious turning of some tables dictate the game’s first sequence — and while “ME2” has hours’ worth of optional side missions in tow, pretty much everything operates in the name of barreling the story forward.
(Side note for those who missed “ME1:” While “ME2” offers additional benefits to players who are already familiar with the characters and alliances, Bioware offers enough guidance to bring new players up to speed without boring those who need no introduction.)
Though “ME2” is large enough to span two discs on the Xbox 360, Bioware has done a commendable job of cutting fat where it needed cutting. A slick mining mechanic allows players to explore barren planets from the ship instead of via a pointless ride in the Mako buggy, which has been excised completely. The side missions, by extension, have more consequence in the overall ecology, and a cleaner set of menu interfaces makes it easier to (among other things) jump from one mission to another with little downtime in between.
Speaking of saving time, the famously long load times from “ME1” are considerably more tolerable (and more elegantly presented) this time around. Even more importantly, the wretched save system — which almost everyone learned, the hard way, didn’t autosave like it appeared to — has received a very user-friendly overhaul. (It works, in other words.)
But what truly is remarkable about “ME2” is how profoundly Bioware transforms the weakest ingredient of “ME1” into this game’s most jaw-dropping asset. The combat in “ME2” is more than just sufficient: It’s completely indistinguishable — in terms of speed, control fluidity, explosiveness, and enemy/squad A.I. — from the best cover-based third-person shooters available today. A stunning visual presentation, led by perhaps the best camerawork the genre has yet seen, arguably puts it at the top of the heap.
Best of all, Bioware sacrificed exactly none of the role-playing underpinnings that carried the combat in “ME1.” Those systems worked together well enough back then, but they sing in perfect harmony this time around, putting “ME2” in a class all its own when it comes to blending two traditionally disparate genres into one.
Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild language, mild suggestive themes, violence)
Fans of Capcom’s lighthearted “Vs.” fighting games have felt understandable pangs of jealousy since the distinctively beautiful, meticulously polished but decidedly more serious “Street Fighter IV” raised the bar for fighting games nearly a full year ago.
Fortunately, “Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars” doesn’t simply end the near-decade-long “Vs.” game drought; it also closes the gap almost completely between Capcom’s 2D fighting past and the arguably perfect mix of two and three dimensions that made “SFIV” such a staggering treat for the eyes and thumbs.
This being a Wii game, “TvC” understandably cannot match the level of visual detail “SFIV” pulled off on more powerful hardware. But in borrowing that game’s approach — characters animating in full, fluid 3D but fighting on a 2D plane — it reaps the same benefits: The fighters pull off spectacular moves with abandon, but the removal of unnecessary 3D space whittles the fight down to the same psychological science that made “Street Fighter” so special in the first place. (“TvC,” to its credit, closes the graphical gap by opting for a cel-shaded visual style that really makes its infectiously outlandish style pop.)
Though the fighting shines under the guidance of the new engine, “TvC” is unmistakably a “Vs.” game at heart. The two-on-two matches represent a paring back from “Marvel Vs. Capcom’s” three-on-three insanity, but the speed and accessibility of the fighting remain several notches beyond “SFIV’s” more methodical leanings. Per brand tradition, “TvC” provides a generous arsenal for button-mashers while reserving the really good stuff for players who hunker down and learn each fighter’s respective intricacies.
Whether the roster is a boon or burden will come down to individual tastes. The Tatsunoko half of “TvC” consists of anime characters who are big in Japan but significantly lesser known here, but while the relative obscurity robs “TvC” of the dream fights “Marvel” had, it’s an arguable benefit to players intrigued by the multitude of surprises 13 brand-new (and often wildly designed) characters will afford them. Capcom’s 13 offerings should prove a bit more familiar, but the wide diversity of the cast — Ryu and Chun-Li are here, but so is Mega Man, “Dead Rising’s” Frank West and characters from “Lost Planet,” “Viewtiful Joe” and “Rival Schools” — means a bounty of quirks and highly divergent (but reasonably well-balanced) styles awaits discovery on both sides.
“TvC” complements its polished gameplay by offering enough control styles (remote/nunchuck, Classic controller, Gamecube controller) to suit everyone, and it provides plenty of longevity with a 26-ending single-player component and online multiplayer (two players) that worked without incident in pre-release testing. (Whether that holds up under the stress of thousands of players remains to be seen, but so far, so good.)
Just for fun, Capcom tosses in a “Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Shooters” mode, which is a bizarre but surprisingly filling top-down shooter that features the game’s cast and supports up to four players. The mode has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in terms of gameplay. But neither the freebie “Geometry Wars” mode that snuck its way onto “Project Gotham Racing 2,” and look how that one turned out.
Dark Void Zero
For: Nintendo DSi via the Nintendo DSi Shop
From: Other Ocean Interactive/Capcom
ESRB Rating: Everyone (fantasy violence)
Capcom’s infatuation with making mock Nintendo Entertainment System games in the 21st century isn’t new (see “Mega Man 9” and the upcoming “Mega Man 10”), but “Dark Void Zero” takes the trick to a new level of imagination. Like the new Xbox 360/PS3 game “Dark Void,” “Zero” is a standard shooter that sets itself apart by strapping a jet pack to the player’s back. In the case of “Zero,” though, that translates into a sidescrolling action game that looks, sounds and acts like a game from 1988. In a vacuum, “Zero” is perfect for the price: The controls are polished and responsive in spite of the retro presentation, and with three difficulty settings and a tough-but-fair continue system, it’s challenging without resorting to “MM9’s” level of punishment. But “Zero” is especially cool when viewed in context. The nostalgically sparse story sets “Void’s” table surprisingly well, and it successfully manages to imbue a sense of history into a franchise that doesn’t actually have any. The developers really run with the joke, too: “Zero’s” digital manual includes a mock story detailing why it didn’t come out in 1987 as originally intended, and the composer responsible for “Void’s” score also orchestrated an 8-bit facsimile for “Zero.” Other clever and funny touches await — including one right when the game boots — but they’re best left unspoiled.