*SPOILER ALERT - THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS PERTAINING TO BOTH MASS EFFECT 1 & 2*
Mass Effect was a revolution in gaming... at least for me. When I was first getting back into playing games, Mass Effect opened my eyes as to what this medium could achieve: a level of interactive story-telling that left me feeling in control... and not just in control of my aim, but rather the outcome of the conflict, the fate of the entire galaxy. The cinematic presentation provides a real feeling of direct participation as events unravel across a grander scale than any I have previously experienced. I played the game through three times: first as the good guy, then the biggest bastard in the universe, then as simply Simon, the "What would I do if it were me?" scenario. All three times I enjoyed an experience that, while following a similar arc, were unique in their own ways. I couldn't wait to see how those choices played out in the sequel! That was the big promise of the series: the choices you make have outcomes beyond what you can envision. And take it from me, Mass Effect 2 doesn't disappoint. It takes everything that was so compelling about the original and makes it better (for the most part), removes what didn't work (again, for the most part), makes it more streamlined and ultimately more fun.
This time out the narrative starts with a very literal bang... fair warning, *spoilers follow!* The Normandy gets attacked by a ship of unknown origin but possesses awesome power... and is subsequently destroyed and Shepherd is left floating dead in space. Well, game over then, I suppose. What a waste of sixty bucks! But wait! He's brought back to life by Cerberus, the organization of questionable methods referenced in the first game. Led by the mysterious Illusive Man, this pro-humanity conglomerate brings back our fallen hero to once again save the galaxy... this time from the Collectors. The Collectors are a race of aliens that show up on outlying colonies and literally collect (hence the name...) the inhabitants like over-enthusiastic nerds collecting butterflies. But to what point and purpose? And how does this phenomenon connect to the Reapers?
To face this threat, Shepherd must gather a team of the best and brightest (and cruelest and most vicious) in the galaxy to take on the Collectors. His search takes him to all corners of the galaxy meeting old friends and recruiting new members who are every bit as memorable as those who came before. This time around, each addition to the crew has their own unique side quests that directly determine their loyalty. Now, this is a minor spoiler alert... but if you don't do these quests, there is an increased chance that those compadres won't survive the end of the game. Considering you know Mass Effect 3 is an inevitable eventuality, if you're anything like me, you want everyone you can get on your side to face the Reapers.
You can import your created character from the first game, and although you don't have to, I absolutely recommend it. It's not just for the sake of continuity (you really should start the series from the beginning), but I've never felt such a sense of "owning" a created character like this. In the beginning of the game you are given a choice to go over all the key decisions from the last game: who lived in key situations, the situation involving the council, and a few other things. From there, you have a whole new slew of decisions to make... and this time around they are not always as cut and dry as you might think. Morally ambiguous "gray" areas are much more prevalent, and even seemingly obvious right-versus-wrong scenarios might have consequences beyond what you might expect.
The only problem with the Paragon/Renegade morality system is that following a more neutral path is plain boring. You need to be all one way or the other to be able to influence anyone with the possible "extreme" dialogue options, but those moments are so rare you wonder why they are included at all. On the plus side, Mass Effect 2 offers some QTE-esque choices that will come up during certain situations that, if you're paying attention and are quick enough, have some interesting results. It's worth keeping the controller in your hands during conversations just in case!
The core gameplay is pretty much the same as Mass Effect with a few notable, and welcome, improvements. First of all, ally AI is drastically improved. No, it's not as good as most modern FPS's on the market, but they do a far better job than the borderline useless comrades from the first game. I'd make a "Shepherd"ing joke here, but it'd be too easy. The gunplay is also much tighter and the cover system more refined. Combining these improvements with being able to map powers to face buttons for use on the fly makes combat a more organic affair (sorry for the insider pun... what, I thought it was pretty funny!).
It's always nice when a sequel comes along where the developers clearly listened to the complaints of their fanbase. Gotta love Bioware. Considering the Mass Effect universe is unabashedly sci-fi, you know that fanbase will be all the more rabid and particular. What impresses me is they took what didn't work and removed it entirely. Gone are the boring and poorly implemented vehicle sections from Mass Effect, as are the overly long elevator rides (although load screens can still be pretty long, fair warning).
Gone are many of the "RPG" elements that were both a strength and weakness of the first game. The original was all about collecting loot and outfitting your team. I love looting, but sadly it just didn't work very well. If you hadn't had to access each individual's locker it wouldn't have been so cumbersome, but as it was, the implementation fell short. Why we couldn't do it all from one menu I'll never know. Fortunately, this clumsy contrivance is gone in Mass Effect 2. Unfortunately, it's been stripped down to the point that you have virtually no options when it comes to outfitting your team. I appreciate their efforts, but they dumbed it down too far. I would have still liked to have had some choices, but just streamlined the process. As a result, it feels like an essential part of what makes an RPG has been removed. But in its place is even bigger irritant... planet scanning.
Ohhhh, the planet scanning. Seriously, if not for this crutch, Mass Effect 2 would be close to perfect. The idea is that you scan planets to collect resources that can ultimately be used to upgrade weapons, armor, and most importantly, the Normandy. Unfortunately, it's a tedious and boring process, made all the more unbearable by the fact that you really need to do it to ensure the best outcome from the final encounter. I'm trying to be as spoiler-free as possible, so I'll just leave it at that. But here's a quick addendum; Bioware did release a patch that made the process much quicker (although it is still a bit of a slog). Again, I'm glad to hear them listening to their fans. The other mini-games for opening locks and hacking computers have also undergone a make-over, but they are still more frustrating breaks in the action than anything.
From a technical standpoint, Mass Effect 2 is phenomenal. The graphics overall, but especially the lighting, are brilliant. The facial animations rank among some of the best out there, although the syncing isn't always perfect. For some reason I think the lip-syncing is more believable with the aliens than it is with the humans. What is even more impressive is the fact that, for me at least, the game ran with hardly a hiccup or glitch. Once again, the voice acting is phenomenal, even better than the original. Mordin Solus, your Salarian cohort, is one of the best voiced characters I've ever heard. The fact that Martin Sheen plays the Illusive Man is the icing on a very deep and tasty cake. Add in a brilliant soundtrack and you get the complete package. I can honestly not think of any series that can compare.
As a card-carrying sci-fi nerd, this series really scratches me where I itch, filling an aching void left by disappointing Star Wars prequels. I've read the comics and novels, I can't get enough Mass Effect! Mass Effect 2 is a rare sequel indeed: one that takes the fundamentals and fantastic premise of the original and improves upon them in just about every way (except for that blasted planet scanning...). This series is incredibly deep, one where you get out of the game what you put in. What I love is the fact that appeals to so many different genres: the shooting mechanics are pretty darn good, the RPG elements, while stripped down, are still intriguing enough to require forethought, and the story is an incredibly rich and detailed narrative that has more twists than an M. Night Shyamalan film. I can't recommend this series enough. Mass Effect isn't just for sci-fi fans or particular type of gamer... it's an experience, one that should be had by everyone. And the sequel sets up the inevitable finale in such a way that the wait is virtually unbearable....
Score = 9.7 / 10