Two years has passed since Commander Shepard saved the Citadel and the galaxy from an ancient threat in the shape of Sovereign. He's a hero, but depending on how you played the first game he will be more of a hero to some than to others. The wonderful science fiction universe of Mass Effect, with all its races, colourful characters, fantastic technology is still here, as we get to explore new races and characters along with some familiar faces.
Mass Effect 2 is the second chapter of the trilogy and Bioware have often compared it to The Empire Strikes Back. It's a challenge to create an engaging story, when the threat is known from the start and everyone knows you won't see a final resolution at the end credits. I was also sceptical about the layout of the story where you gather a team of experts and killers to go on a suicide mission towards the end of the game. How will a rigid story structure like that provide me with enough plot twists and excitement to last me over 25 or 30 hours? Let me reassure any doubters out there. There is enough drama in Mass Effect 2 to last you a lifetime.
In order to set the stage for Mass Effect 2 I'm going to spoil the first five minutes of gameplay you get to experience. The Normandy gets destroy in an attack and Shepard is sucked out into the vacuum of space. Missing in action, presumed dead. But he is salvaged, and reassembled by Cerberus, the shady pro-human organisation you spent time dismantling during the original game. A perfect set up for the sequel as you get a chance to reinvent your character if you wish to do so, and players who don't have a save file to continue playing get a fresh starting point. You are soon introduced to the head of the organisation, the Illusive Man (voiced by Martin Sheen), and he will be the man you will answer to through the adventure. As with most things in Mass Effect you are going to get a slightly revised image of Cerberus. Are they really as bad as you thought or do they just fight the same good fight, but with slightly different methods? You team up with two Cerberus operatives, Miranda and Jacob, and then you go about building the rest of your team.
You are going to recruit some old friends, who are suspicious of your new loyalties, but most of your team will be made up of fresh faces and I particularly took a liking to the Salarian Doctor and the Drell assassin. But all characters are interesting in there own way and what they say and how they react to different situations is something that will force a second playthrough. Well, I need to play it a second time with my renegade Jane Shepard from the first game anyway.
If Mass Effect was an RPG with shooter mechanics, then Mass Effect 2 is more of a shooter with some RPG elements. These have been trimmed down to a minimum and things like weapons inventory, statistics, and experience points are almost taken out of the equation all together. The main RPG elements are the way in which you shape your character through actions and words, and the abilities you deploy in combat. Most of the combat is a mixture between the shield mechanics of Halo and the cover mechanics of Gears of War, add a layer of tech and biotic powers and you have the combat of Mass Effect 2. Its surprisingly fun, and the intense pace that is kept throughout the main story missions are on the level of what you experienced towards the end of the first game when you were fighting your way through the citadel. The fact that enemies now have different barriers and armour makes the combat somewhat more tactical, but not overly so. Use the right biotic or tech abilities and most enemies are quickly taken care of.
The narrative structure of the story where you are supposed to assemble and equip your team to best deal with an incredibly strong foe actually means that doing side missions while attempting to save the galaxy makes sense for once. Scanning for minerals and picking up distress calls serve a purpose and all the side missions are unique in terms of layout and setting, unlike the original where the same mines and modular space stations appeared in every side mission. The new Cerberus built Normandy is somewhat familiar, but the way the Star Map works has been changed and you will know have to consider fuel consumption as you traverse the galaxy. The elimination of the Mako is also a welcome change. Bioware has simply done away with the annoyances of a game that in my opinion ranked among the best released in the last three years. The incredible dialogue system is still here, the story is wonderful even if it follows along a predictable path, and the gameplay is as involving as I've experienced in a game labelled as a role-playing game.
I must say that I miss some of the RPG elements that have been trimmed down. I feel a bit cheated out of playing around with my equipment and searching for loot. The experience points only get distributed upon completing missions as opposed to the original where you basically got points for every little task and every enemy you shot down. I fully understand why. Bioware aims for a broader appeal and I must say they have nailed the action RPG hybrid. This game will make action fans understand what they miss out on when they shun RPG's and RPG fans might be inclined to pick up the next Gears of War (as long as they ignore the story).
The mission design in Mass Effect 2 has also been streamlined. For the most part you are going to play the missions as you would play a level in any action game. The need for backtracking and adventuring has been toned down to a minimum, although you are free to explore environments and do some adventuring in between missions.
Mass Effect 2 is the kind of game that will have you ignore the outside world for a week or so. It is absolutely captivating. The more I learn about the Mass Effect universe, the more I feel the need to delve deeper. The sound design is amazing through out and even though some of the voice actors aren't spot on, most do a great job with their characters. While the graphics aren't outstanding from a technical perspective, although it's a definite step up from the original, it is the design that truly stands out. You will mostly play in indoor or city environments, but it won't be your typical dull corridors. One mission inside a prison ship stands out, but there are many other such moments to be experienced in Mass Effect 2.
The integration of your experiences from the first game is what really sets Mass Effect 2 apart. Sure a lot of RPG elements have been taken out, but Mass Effect 2 is one of the few games out there where your choices truly affect your experience and the way it has been carried through from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2 is pure genius. The only shame is that since I played it two years ago some of the nuances are lost, but to truly experience the full Mass Effect 2 I would recommend that you play through Mass Effect right before you start the second game.
My only question at this time is: When do we get Mass Effect 3? This is one adventure I cannot wait to finish, one journey I need to see through to the end. Bioware have done it again, and if Dragon Age: Origins was a refinement of an old school RPG experience, then Mass Effect 2 points towards a future where genres merge to create an experience that transcends old genre boundaries. And as a fan of both the shooter and RPG genres I must say Bioware delivers in both areas.