Mass Effect was a flawed masterpiece. BioWare, obviously tired of dealing with the restrictions of the Star Wars franchise, launched their own space opera, complete with a universe as well thought-out as Lucas' own. The attempt at truly uniting a third-person shooter system with a deep RPG story was, for the most part, a success, though some issues bleed through. Running on the Unreal Engine in 2007 meant awkwardly long loading times and some of the most obnoxious texture pops ever seen in gaming, and the combat, while ambitious, fell short, leaving gamers looking for a polished shooter experience high and dry. These problems didn't get in the way of Mass Effect's brilliance, and the promise of a sequel that would not only fix the issues, but carry over players' characters from the first game was an alluring proposition, and helped justify seeing the journey through to an end. Now, starting off 2010 in a big way, BioWare has released the second chapter of their series, hoping to live up the potential they fell just short of two years earlier.
After being given the option of importing their character from the first game, transferring over their choices and physical appearance, players jump back into the shoes of Commander Shepard, ready to continue defending the galaxy from the Reaper threat. Before players have a chance to even assume control, the stakes are raised tremendously, and it becomes obvious that the only way to face the enemy is in a head-on attack. It's made very clear early on that attempting such an assault is a suicide mission, but that's never stopped Shepard before.
This time around, Shepard isn't working directly with the Citadel. Frightened of what it might mean for the galaxy, the Council refuses to admit the Reaper threat is a reality, meaning the Commander's talents are wasted waiting for diplomacy and bureaucracy. Instead, he finds an uneasy ally in Cerberus, a pro-human activist group that is considered a terrorist organization by a majority of the galaxy. The leader of the organization, The Illusive Man, is fantastically voiced by Martin Sheen, giving even more character to the shady group, and showing how far gaming has grown over the past few years. Other big names, like Tricia Helfer and Adam Baldwin, fill the game's cast with Hollywood-caliber talent, while returning cast member Seth Green expands the Joker character to the levels he deserves. It's all part of the overwhelmingly epic story and scale that is Mass Effect 2, which proves to be better than its predecessor in just about every way.
Whether or not Cerberus or The Illusive Man can be trusted isn't important. What is important is Shepard's mission, which involves recruiting a crew from around the galaxy to go through a mysterious portal and, most likely, die while trying to destroy whatever they find. Luckily, Shepard is a leader, and is more than capable of the task of recruiting both old and new allies. Each character adds not only another gun to the team, but a massive amount of personality, driving forward the story and unlocking additional missions in order to gain the loyalty of each new recruit. This improves the team, as a whole, and gives them a better chance of surviving the upcoming troubles. Interacting with the different personalities that find their way onto the Normandy is, as expected, thoroughly entertaining, proving BioWare's mastery of interactions, and creating real, emotional attachments to characters.
Improvements over the first game are abundant, and nearly too numerous to list. Just about every complaint has been addressed, from the unnecessary elevator loading times and texture pops to more substantial issues, like the lackluster combat engine and poor difficulty curve. While the original was a shooter, that element was arguably one of the weakest parts of the first game. Thankfully, the engine has been overhauled, seeing drastic improvements. It's actually fun to fight through a mission, meaning the core of the game, which is spent shooting from behind cover, is much more entertaining. It lost a lot of RPG along the way, ditching EXP gained for kills and adding clips to weapons (which allows for more balanced shooting), but it's better for it, playing out like a more traditional third-person shooter when the guns are taken out of their holsters, and leaving the RPG elements to the story. The issues that made the original's combat troublesome were resolved, making it easier to control Shepard and his squad in combat to the point where it's better, as a shooter, than a majority of games on the market in that aspect alone.
The same improvements have been made to the RPG side, distancing the game further from tradition, while making it feel more unique. It's seen in simple ways, such as the improved morality system, and more complex ways, with the ability to interrupt conversations with quick decisions. Instead of working on a slider, Mass Effect 2's morality system allows players to build up their character with both Renegade and Paragon points. It's not a one or the other situation, and while consistently making choices in one direction will unlock additional dialogue choices, it's not tied to any skills, so players are free to make the calls they want. The two directions, too, are different than they are in other games, with Renegade not really being "evil," and Paragon not necessarily "good." Instead, it's about what attitude Shepard takes, and there are times when it's perfectly reasonable to choose either option, without fear of the Commander unloading his gun on a room full of innocents.
In order to spice up typical interactions (which have been given more life, feeling like interactive cinematics this time around) the ability to interrupt cut scenes with an action is now available, and will flash up on the screen when Shepard can either make a Renegade or Paragon choice. A Paragon choice might be as simple as hugging a crying character or convincing someone to keep his head down during a fight, while Renegade decisions can end with Shepard throwing someone out a window, or punching a character in the face during an argument. It works well with the dialogue wheel from the first game, and makes watching lengthy videos more entertaining without resorting to surprise quick-time events. The actions taken feel completely plausible, and effect the story in ways that not only make sense, but connect the player further to the narrative. It quickly becomes a personal tale, since Shepard's actions in the game influence everything in important ways, even more than they did in the original.
Even the act of exploring the galaxy is better. In the original, most planets were empty, and those that weren't had unimportant and uninteresting quests attached to them. These, too, relied on the Mako, which was the antithesis of entertainment. This time around, there are a larger number of different missions that can be completed by going off the beaten path, each being a short, sweet, bite-sized chunk of story. Completing them will reward the player with new weapons, experience, and a number of other enhancements. If it weren't for the combat improvements these missions wouldn't really be all that interesting, but it's so genuinely fun, as a shooter, that additional rooms to blow up bad guys are incentive enough to explore. There's also the added bonus of knowing that every mission completed is important in the long run, as it all builds towards the end. And what an end it is.
When the grand finale takes place, which is after at least twenty hours of play, players should expect one of the most brutal, exhilarating conclusions to ever end a game. Depending on the strength of the team, there are a number of different ways the story can unfold, with several possible outcomes that all feel completely plausible and, in a way, earned. There's a chance that the suicide mission will be just that, and it's up to players to know when their team is ready, or else face the consequences of poor planning. Failing to keep everyone alive isn't answered with a "Game Over" screen, it's just the end of the game, and the repercussions will be faced when Mass Effect 3 hits store shelves in another two years.
It's apparent that BioWare has been busy for the past two years. In the time between games, they've fixed all of the issues, focused their gameplay, and made a number of large improvements that speed up any unnecessary elements wherever possible, without really making any sacrifices. They've blended together every element of the game to assure that it all feels cohesive, while also pushing aspects of the game into different genres, a task which, in its own right, should be appreciated. Oh, and they've done so while giving gamers double the content of the original.
That said, it isn't perfect, and players will likely run into a few glitches before the end of the story. They aren't usually too large, and infrequently get in the way of the gameplay, but they're numerous enough that they're worth mentioning. Besides that, there are issues when it comes to the way the story is told at times. To say that Mass Effect 2 is better for players with an intimate knowledge of the events from the first game is an understatement. It's almost mandatory to have played the first, and even then, there will likely be references or plot points that really don't make sense without a refresher. There are instances where large plot twists fall flat, as they rely on information from the original that might have been forgotten since 2007. It's not a deal breaker, and it's nothing that a ten minute refresher can't cure, but it's clear that BioWare wasn't going to cater to those who skipped out on the first game. It's a sequel, and carrying over the choices made in the predecessor is a large part of the experience.
Mass Effect 2 is easily one of the best games of the generation, blowing away its predecessor in just about every way, and removing the "flawed" attachment to the "masterpiece" title. It is, at its core, an RPG experience, though the changes to the combat engine definitely make it play more like a traditional third-person shooter at times, and that isn't at all a bad thing. The universe created in the original Mass Effect has been nearly perfected this time around, further propelling the series ahead of the pack, and setting a bar for interactive storytelling that will likely not be matched for years to come.