Mass Effect 2 is a stunning achievement in gaming, much like the first one was before it.
For newcomers to the series, it's a great blend of RPG and third-person shooter, where you play the role of Commander Shepard in an attempt to save the galaxy. For those familiar with the Mass Effect universe, it's like coming back home after being away for a while. This is a very familiar galaxy and yet a very personal story, especially if you are bringing the choices you made from your original Mass Effect saved game with you. This is something fairly new for gaming, and means you will have a unique experience compared to everyone else who plays the game. It is the adventure of your Commander Shepard, and no one else’s.
Of course if you never played the first game, BioWare will give you a template story where some of the key decisions from the first game have been made for you. This still gives a great experience, however it means some moments (both big and small) will have less significance for you, or perhaps no significance at all.
Regardless of whether or not you play the first game, Mass Effect 2 is amazing. When it came to developing the sequel you can tell BioWare listened carefully to the fans about what they did and did not like from the first game. Due to this, they have done a wonderful job of improving almost everything that worked in the last game. Combat is a lot better, which makes it more enjoyable. Using your powers is easier, and while you can still pause the game and use a radial menu to select them, now you may also use most of your powers in real-time with the press of a button. This makes combat far more engaging, better paced and fun. The improved level designs also helps, and there are also two new hacking mini-games to replace the first one. Both are better and fit into the context of a Sci-fi premise more fluidly than the ones from the first game.
The dialogue system is retained, and still way ahead of the competition. It is easily the best conversation system in any RPG, and BioWare have even made it better to watch by using a variety of more interesting camera angles during conversations. Sometimes in the middle of a scene you will get an on-screen cue to pull the right or left trigger and have Shepard interact with the scene. This can be anything from pushing someone out a window or pulling someone out of the way of enemy fire. It keeps you on your toes and adds a great depth to the game.
Having one of the best openings for a game ever, Mass Effect 2 starts off with a bang. it truly feels like you are playing through an epic Sci-fi adventure. The story has a darker tone to the first game (this being the "Empire Strikes Back" of the trilogy). While I personally feel the playable parts of the end game were not as exiting as the first game, it still leaves you highly entertained and ready for Mass Effect 3. The pacing of the overall story is even improved over the excellence of the last game. The individual story missions seem to be shorter than the first time around, but there are more of them, so it balances out and gives you more variety.
While it felt to me as if there were less side missions in this game, they are structured much better. The first game had you visiting the same caves, space stations and bases; here each mission is unique both in story and environment. The exception being the hub worlds; while there is more than just the Citadel this time, they are a lot smaller in scale and less interesting. Even the Citadel itself is a fraction of what it was in the last game.
As for protagonists, BioWare have created one of the most interesting groups of characters I have ever seen in a game. They all have interesting personal quests that you will probably want to do in order to gain their loyalty - something that is key if you want to survive the final mission. The voice acting is excellent, with Martin Sheen in particular as The Illusive Man being a scene-stealing personality.
As far as visuals go, the first Mass Effect was gorgeous and the sequel looks even better. The environments are more detailed and interesting. The use of colour and lighting has also improved, making for a beautiful galaxy to explore.
Unfortunately, when it came to the things that did not work in the first game, it seems BioWare's solution was to remove them altogether. In some cases this was a good idea and in others, it seems a pity they could not find a way to make it work. Sadly Mass Effect 2 has a few original flaws of its own. Gone are the open worlds to drive around in (in fact there is no vehicle driving to be found in this game at all). Instead you will view planets from space and scan their surfaces for minerals or random missions that happen to be there (often found as distress calls). It is a shame they could not find a way to keep the planet exploration from the first game yet make it more interesting - instead they took away the wonder of exploring new worlds.
Scanning for minerals is just too much work. I honestly do not know why they kept this feature in the game as it is. It's the equivalent of walking up and down an empty field with a metal detector hoping to get lucky. Spending five minutes scanning over every inch of a planet for minerals is not fun; it's boring, repetitive and will push a lot of peoples patience. The real problem is that is a very important part of the game, as you need the minerals to research upgrades, which is what they have used to replace the inventory and loot system from the last game. You do not find new weapons or armour in this game (rarely anyway), instead you find or purchase upgrades, which require the aforementioned minerals to research. While this does get rid of the clumsy inventory system of the previous game (and means you will spend far less time in menus), it also takes away that cool "new loot" feeling you get from RPGs. It sucked not finding a new, more powerful weapon and immediately noticing the difference. Plus whenever you find an upgrade, you will have to get the resources you need and research it.
Exploring the galaxy is a little different as the Normandy represents your cursor as you guide it around the galaxy. You also have a fuel tank now, which you need to be aware of while travelling. I don't understand why this was put into the game. It's not needed and doesn't add any fun; it only serves as something else to worry about. In addition, while most of the technical issues from the first game are gone, I did notice texture pop-in once or twice and some noticeable framerate drops during the some of the more action packed cut-scenes.
Another point of concern is that BioWare's solution to the oft-mentioned long elevator rides in the first game is to replace them with long/dull loading screens... how is that any better? I thought they would keep the elevators but have some dialogue or news reports happen during them to keep it interesting. Instead we get a traditional loading screen with game hints. These are also excruciatingly long in some cases, so I would recommend you try to avoid dying.
In the end, much like the first Mass Effect, you can ignore everything that is wrong with Mass Effect 2, because it is just so good at everything that it does right. The faults are not as glaring as they were in the last game and you will be so enthralled with the amazing story, characters and combat that for the most part, you won't care anyway.
Mass Effect 2 is a significant improvement over the first game - no small feat considering the first game is arguably one of the greatest of this generation. The series has become the crown jewel of the modern RPG genre and is an experience that every gamer should have.
Stay tuned for our Mass Effect 2 PC review shortly.