Released in 2007, Mass Effect was a science fiction story like no other. Sure it had aliens, space ships, the looming threat of an ancient race manifested to wipe out all life in the universe, but it was so much more than that. It let players actually become a part of the world, provided some very intense consequences for each action taken and above all else offered the opportunity to be drawn into a very vibrant and detailed world. So naturally it is no surprise that Bioware made Mass Effect 2 to build upon the strong foundation that its predecessor left, while at the same time smoothing over the rougher edges for a little more refinement. How well does it do?
Picking up right where the last game left off, Mass Effect 2 wastes no time in delivering the action. Players are given the chance to select either a character from the previous game's save date, or creating a brand new character - and the impressive part is how much of a difference this makes in the games experience. From cutscenes to in-game options, to dialogue, Mass Effect 2 is a game heavily affected by choice. While a completely new character submits to a default storyline, not being able to see the culminated effects of Shepard's work is like missing an experience in itself.
This is where the game really shines, as two different playthroughs can yield some extremely different results. Not simply in the choices a player makes, (the game maintains the same action/consequence wheel from the first game) but in the NPCs that are encountered or will even be seen. Areas cleared through with a default Shepard will offer a wide variety of encounters, but characters who've been transferred from a previous save file will meet a whole new host of people. Friends from past adventures will treat Shepard differently (based on how they were treated in the last game), allies will approach and comment on the times and how they've changed, even going far enough to offer additional quests. It's these subtle nuances to Mass Effect 2 that shift it from a great game, to a great experience.
Controls are similar to the first games, with a few changes that compliment the more cinematic feel that Mass Effect 2 has. Players can now hotkey moves and weapon swaps in addition to the Squad Command Interface, which makes for an overall smoother combat. A new cover system is also in effect, allowing players to shift much more easily around corners, or behind various parts of the environment. When this is combined with the more intuitive biotic powers that will snake around walls or through objects, players should find a surprising amount of depth. Knowing what abilities to use against what opponents is pivotal to fights, and while it's completely possible to power through most encounters, this is far slower and more treacherous then instead shifting tactics to accommodate each enemy.
Character classes remain mostly intact, however, moves have been decreased significantly in order to define each class to a better role. These more defined classes not only operate better then the last game, but add another element of strategy - selecting what characters best compliment Shepard is a lot easier when each can only do a limited amount of things. It's also possible to unlock more abilities for team members by gaining the loyalty of individual members, which in-turn grants Shepard new unique abilities to choose from. All abilities in game are upgradable to four tiers, the fourth allowing players to further upgrade their moves into one of two selections (such as a larger explosion, or a more concentrated one).
For all its variety in gameplay, the driving force behind Mass Effect 2 is the story, and it does not disappoint. Those new to the game will find themselves put in the middle of an extremely epic adventure, but fans of the previous will find a lot more depth and many more surprises from beginning to end. The only downside would be the sheer amount of freedom Bioware has let their players have this time around, it can be a little daunting (and sometimes a little boring).
While main planets that contain direct plot oriented characters are highlighted for the player's ease, there are a host of worlds unexplored and undiscovered that sit tauntingly on the map. Each world has its own story, profile, and scanning worlds for minerals is necessary to upgrade items. Now, while it's nice to see a little more detail involved in scanning a planet than 'push the Y button', it seems unnecessary to require an extremely slow moving rectitude around an entire planet to find very vague points of data. If it wasn't for the fact that scanning for materials is necessary to upgrade various parts of the ship and weapon this would no doubt be the most skipped sequence ever created in an RPG. However, scanning aside, planetary exploration does yield some surprises. Treasure troves, abandoned ships, and distress beacons await those who're patient enough to find each planet - and star charts can be purchased to find new star systems.
Graphically Mass Effect 2 qualifies as the best looking game the Xbox 360 has to offer. All of the new alien races have a fantastic amount of detail placed upon them, and with most of the cutscenes using in-game graphics, it's hard not to be impressed. Loading times range from frequent to nonexistent depending on what's happening. Any encounters on worlds, or missions on planets barely have any, while travel to different levels of Shepard's ship requires a moment or two to launch. The largest complaint of the last game, elevators, has been removed as well. Loading screens are much more interesting to look at then three people in an elevator staring at the wall, which is a plus for anyone who particularly hates elevators (or elevator music).
There's a lot to appreciate in a replay of Mass Effect 2 as each of the class and teammate combinations really offer a new experience. In addition to selecting new Paragon or Renegade routes, it's possible to experience a different side of the storyline, or see various aspects of characters in a different light. Though most will consider a run-through of any RPG more then enough entertainment, Mass Effect 2 does have a few tricks up its sleeve for those who're willing to give it another go.
An improvement from the first game in every single way, Mass Effect 2 continues to seamlessly blend action, drama, and intrigue in one of the most anticipated titles of 2010. Though inter-planetary travel can get a little monotonous, the overall storyline and improved combat system make the game well worth it. Fans of the first will have quite a few surprises in store for them while newcomers should feel right at home taking advantage of all the game's improvements.