The first Mass Effect functioned along the same lines as the original Assassin's Creed; a fantastic design concept and outstanding presentation couldn't conceal overbearing repetition. Mass Effect wasn't close to being a bad game, but it was hard to walk away feeling Bioware had fully executed on Mass Effect’s (and their) potential. Thankfully, again like Assassin's Creed II, Bioware not only learned from the shortcomings of the first game, but tuned the dial to eleven and jammed an astounding amount of content into the sequel. Mass Effect 2 is a fantastic game and, after nearly forty hours in five days, I think it’s one of the finest RPGs, western or otherwise, ever created. It's safe to say that if you like games, you will like this game - but in order to talk about what I found so endearing, I will need to spoil minor aspects of the narrative. Nothing in the way of jaw dropping plot points, but a bit about the characters you meet and trace amounts of their corresponding interaction. If that's not your thing, feel free skip the text and stare at the score (or visit Metacritic and see similar scores).
So, after vanquishing Saren...
Shepard's dead. The good news is that the pro-human organization Cerberus, a rather nefarious bunch in their Mass Effect 1 cameo, has rebuilt Shepard from the ground up. From a gameplay perspective this serves as the perfect opportunity to adjust your imported Mass Effect 1 Shepard; anything from his class to his appearance can be readjusted in any way you see fit.
Integrating Shepard’s death and subsequent resurrection into the narrative could have been a hard sell, but Bioware handled it gracefully. The mysterious "Illusive Man" in charge of Cerberus also grants Shepard a brand new ship, and commissions him two of his own operatives, Jacob and Miranda, to Shepard’s command. He also explains that the process of brining Shepard back to life was practically the most expensive thing of all time, but rationalizes it by explaining Shepard is apparently the only one capable of stopping a mysterious race called the Collectors from wreaking havoc in the Terminus System. You'll need to assemble a team, mostly new and some old, from across the stars to assist you in combating the imminent threat. The main plot is somewhat basic, but it leaves plenty of room for suspense in regard to Shepard’s specific purpose, revelations about the nature of the Collectors, and the foreboding suspicion that Cerberus and the Illusive Man have a latent ulterior motive.
Mass Effect 2's mainline narrative arc is fine, but its story is ultimately supported by the dramatic tension between Shepard and his newly assembled crew. Bioware's modus operandi has always included fantastic characters and brilliant dialogue, but they're really at the top of their game here. Certain archetypes are impossible to avoid, but, for the most part, your team is composed of unique, multidimensional individuals with their own set of personal issues. Mordin is a fast talking, methodic Salarian doctor with a questionable allegiance to his Hippocratic Oath. Thane is a cold blooded, Jules-from-Pulp Fiction assassin who yearns to reconnect with the family he left behind. Jack, aka Subject Zero, seeks to take revenge upon the terrible people who forced her into a childhood of abuse. The back-story for each character usually paints them as outstanding individuals capable of either incredible atrocities or supernatural misanthropy, and assembling each of them into a viable member of your team is greatly rewarding. In fact, Mass Effect 2 is as much a game about your squad as it is about Shepard’s mission to eliminate the Collectors. Much of the game’s stellar content entails either acquiring new team members or loyalty-acquiring errands for their personal benefit.
You got Gears in my Jedi
While the last Mass Effect essentially used your targeting reticule as a target select and pumped skill points into weapon proficiencies, the sequel is more akin to a modern 3rd person shooter. Targeting foes is actually targets foes, and a generous ammunition system has replaced recharging weapons. Your weapon load out is still limited by class, though there are only a precious handful of different weapons through the game. Rather than constantly buy new weapons, you can find and buy (or trade minerals for) armor, ability, and weapon-specific upgrades. For example, upgrading your heavy pistol damage benefits anyone in your party who uses a heavy pistol. The same also goes for biotic or tech abilities, and are also spread party-wide. This also greatly simplifies the horrid item/weapon/ammo inventory system from the first game by rolling it all into one cohesive package. It's easy to say this takes some RPG out of the RPG, and it will undoubtedly upset a loot-loving minority, but Bioware's bold decision to alter the structure of genre-standard inventory systems feels more like natural evolution of a convoluted process and less like a detuned mechanic. It keeps you immersed in the fiction, and not the pointless minutia that often walks hand in hand with shuffling crap around in menus.
Another change rolled into the gameplay comes with a now-standard cover system. Replacing the antiquated "crouch and hope for the best" method of cover, Shepard will now stick to any of the well placed barriers in combat. The inability to change trigger fingers (perspective) sometimes results in a few obscured points of view, but on the whole in functions well. Aiming is precise, targeting is a cinch, and integrating your biotic powers couldn’t be easier. The gunplay isn't merely serviceable; it's damn good and confidently stands beside top tier shooters.
Your attitude and response toward combat is entirely dependent upon your class and particular play style. Playing Vanguard (biotic + soldier), most of my battles involved frequent shockwaves and my submachine gun, but I could see a pure Biotic relying on a fast recharge and distribution of Force-like insanity, or an Infiltrator working behind the scenes to subvert your foes. Either way you also have control over your allies' abilities, each of which is unique enough to provide them a specific identity and purpose in battle. Enemies, along with being organic or a mech, also may feature armor, barriers, or shield (and sometimes all three), which require a different mixture of skills and weapons. It's a fun, rock-paper-scissors system, and it's supported greatly by the seemingly random effects of biotic powers; I couldn't tell you how many times pull or shockwave ended up flinging a guy off a cliff or into the ceiling.
The experience system has also received a bit of an overhall. You no longer gain exp from defeating individual enemies, but rather from completing an entire mission. Every 1000 exp results in a level up, which coincidently is the same amount of exp gained from completely a character or storyline mission. I've seen sidequests grant anywhere from 40 to 150 exp, as well. Leveling up merely entails a couple of points you can pump into your characters abilities. Though fewer in number (especially since you no longer have to level up individual weapons), maxing out a particular ability grants you the option to fragment it into one of two specializations. My shockwave, for example, could be transformed into a straight line, pin-point launching explosion, or a wide-spread blast with its range. On top of that, maxing out ability also comes with a few bonus points for some other stats.
While combat satisfies the more traditional videogame portions of Mass Effect 2, the brilliant dialogue system helps it transcend the medium. The Paragon / Renegade way of dealing with conflict returns, and is augmented by frequent twitch-reaction instances. While you're still given time to decide what you want to say in normal conversation, these brief interludes add a much needed sense of desperation and immediate consequence to a conversation. An icon will appear, and if it's on the left for Paragon you might prevent an ally from acting irrationally or, on the right for Renegade, you might deal with someone by pushing him or her off a high rise, lying to them, or some other hilariously violent action.
Those aspects work well in transition and are quite adept at effortlessly making Mass Effect 2 feel like a game that's as much about conversation as it is about combat, but the real beauty of the process almost lies dormant behind the scenes. Character animation is top notch, and is quite visible in something as basic as the volume of Shepard’s subtle interaction. Shifting his weight to one side, folding his arms, and minute inflections in his tone of voice transforms the conventional mundane talking head text relay into instances of entertaining interactive cinema. The voice acting, from everyone to the NPCs to your allies, is equally enthralling. The delivery is top notch, but the sheer amount of spoken dialogue may be the most I've seen in a modern RPG (25,000 lines of spoken dialogue, according to Bioware). Furthermore, it's arranged in a way that maintains your interest. The camera zooms and shifts around quite a bit, mimicking presentation often found in a feature film. You almost get used to it, at least until you look back at, for example, Fallout 3 and see the static, emotionless void of face to face character interaction.
Along the way...
A universally acknowledged failing of the original Mass Effect lied with the way it handled side quests; you'd survey a planet, land and explore with your cumbersome Mako vehicle, find a stronghold, and then kill everyone/thing inside - twenty times with minor variation. It did well to grant a sense of isolation and deep space exploration, but it was incredibly monotonous. In Mass Effect 2, sidequests can be initialed by finding random, quest-giving NPC or checking your in-game inbox, but the vast majority will arrive via the reprised planet scanning system.
Reworked for Mass Effect 2, scanning a planet for minerals, a kind of hot/cold minigame that can be done to any planet, can also be used to instantly detect “anomalies.” This grants you the option to land, at which point you'll begin a side mission. Sometimes this still involves wiping everyone out with swift violence, but, more often than not, it's something else entirely. One time I had to arrange lasers against mirrors to open a door, and for another I had to comb through a derelict space ship looking for precious cargo. One particularly impressive mission tasked me with investigating a downed spaceship that was teetering off the edge of a cliff. The sense of vertigo was a welcomed change to the typical perception of danger, and it was made all the more real by the haunting screeches parts of the ship made as they broke off and fell into the abyss. What you typically won't find on sidequests are the signature conversations and effects toward the Renegade/Paragon system, which is only a complaint because I couldn't think of any other caveat.
In fact, nearly every issue I took with the original Mass Effect has vanished. Atrocious loading times are gone (though I did install both of my discs), the weird shadows and pop-in typically omnipresent in the Unreal 3 engine were completely absent, the lines between good and good-bad are a bit more blurry, and the diversity and breadth of the locals you visit are greatly expanded. If I had to nitpick and come up with some issues (and believe me, I had to), the "mission complete" screens break immersion with their abruptness, the more traditional RPG elements have taken a backseat to pure combat, cover can be too sticky, Shepard sucks at running, and scanning planets can get old really fast, but those complaints are so irrelevant to the experience that they’re essentially rendered inconsequential.
While combat plays a major role in most of the conflict, maybe 20% of the gameplay strives off in a different direction. Most of these particularly divergent missions manifest in each of your team's "loyalty missions." Each mission’s context is the draw and I'm really not trying to spoil it, but these segments for Thane, Samara, and Miranda are particularly great because favor other methods of interaction than straight combat. They're also highly consequential, with failure possible in ways other than losing a battle. A particularly intense experience lied with a good cop/bad cop sequence. Along with Thane, I was to interrogate a suspect, but I chose to play bad cop, which conflicted with my Paragon character. Shepard was given the option for a Renegade interruption to punch the suspect in order to, you know, play bad cop, so I complied. The prompt happened again, and I hit him enough times for Thane to bring me aside and tell me to cool off, but the guy still wasn't talking. The Renegade instance popped up once more, focusing on Shepard’s clenched, shaking fist, and it took every ounce of personal self control not to deliver a potential deathblow to the suspect. That sufficed as an odd break in character for not only my Dudley Do-Right Shepard, but also my personal behavior. It created a self-conscious moment in real life; a feeling rarely generated by a videogame, to say the least.
Also quite surprising, at least in terms of how it affected me on a personal level, were the segments where Shepard attempts to forge an intimate relationship with a member of his squad. In Mass Effect 1 my Shepard was a perverted deviant who shamelessly tried to sleep with everyone on board, but it was a much different experience with the sequel. I had a particular affinity for Tali's character, both in terms of her plight and her moral standing (basically she was the only person on my crew who wasn't objectively an asshole). I gracefully pursued the conversation options that allowed for Shepard to express appreciation, and Tali responded accordingly. Tali, being a Quarian, can't leave her suit without facing supreme risk for disease, but her yearning for my Shepard turned out to be enough for her to work toward a solution. Her frequent loss for words and her softly spoken, "I'll let you know, I promise" displayed a vulnerability not seen on her public face. It made the relationship feel unique and personal, even to the point where I outright denied offers from Miranda and Jack. It's easy to cast aside this portion of the game into a trivial romance or a slut hunt, but it's far more rewarding if you indulge yourself in the fiction and play along.
Little of the content previous two paragraphs would have manifested if not for the quality of the writing and the voice acting. The plot in general moves along well, but the consistency of the characters and the plausibility of their situations were constructed with the utmost care and precision. Characters are often pushed to or past their breaking point, and forcing them into situations where they're outside of their comfort zone crafts a believable sense of identity for each and every member of your crew (save for Jack, who was a hard pill to swallow). Furthermore, I rarely saw a fail line reading or a delivery that didn't fit the time and place of the situation.
Though easily overlooked, the character import feature of Mass Effect 2 is also one of its greatest strengths. Whether or not your Mass Effect 1 character chose to excise certain party members is an obvious example, but the intangibles (i.e. how you treated seemingly random NPCs or who you had a relationship with) shine a light as well. Interactive entertainment thrives on providing a unique experience to each individual player, and granting dozens of unique instances that are then further augmented by who is in your party, what you choose to say, and whether you play it Renegade or a Paragon undoubtedly results in a highly personalized experience over the course of Mass Effect 2. Though it was probably a programming nightmare, Bioware succeeded in crafting personal narrative that's as much about character and interaction as it is about plot and pacing, and weaving all of those threads together over the course of a 30+ hour game is a marvelous achievement, to say that least.
Bioware has done an incredible job of creating a living, breathing universe with the Terminus system. Influence from Star Wars, Star Trek, or [insert your favorite science fiction] is impossible to escape, but the lengths to which the development team has gone to create their own brand of science fiction is simple astounding. The codex, most of which is voiced, goes out of its way to explain every last detail about everything from alien race biology to interstellar politics, and in the process skips the unnecessary mid-dialogue exposition usually required to fill in plot holes. They've also done an impressive job creating otherworldly vistas. Illium is a purple/blue hued interpretation of affluent, modern intergalactic society; the Quarian's migrant fleet reeks of lived-in space not unlike Alien. The star of the show is easily the Afterlife club (on the otherwise shady Omega spaceport), which functions as sort of a high energy, dance version of the shady bar in A New Hope. The planet-hopping sidequests are also blessed with impressive locals (and their aesthetic rarely overlaps), which also provides a unique sense of identity for some otherwise straight forward missions.