Mass Effect 2 is a sequel. While this may seem like a statement of the obvious it is vital to understanding what makes this game great. Bioware isn’t just cashing in on a successful intellectual property, they’re writing the next chapter in an epic story.
As such anyone trying to break into the series with this game will find themselves well out of their depth. Events from the first game are referenced constantly and it would be difficult for a newcomer to understand or care what’s going on.
For returning players however this is the most enticing feature. The game allows you to import your completed Mass Effect save file so that your choices and actions from the first game can influence your experience in the new one. This sense of continuity strengthens the roleplaying experience and while in many areas this is superficial it is still more than most other games offer.
The gameplay has been streamlined eliminating the mako driving sections from the first game, cutting much of the character customisation, equipment and loot systems as well as drastically reducing the number of minor sidequests. Bioware’s focus is squarely upon combat and dialogue in this outing.
Fights are a lot more entertaining than they were in the previous game with each class now having a unique skill which often drastically alters the way you approach encounters. Individual powers also feel more potent and using them tactically appears to have a greater importance in keeping Shepard alive than before.
New to the series is a system that will give you the option to perform actions whilst another character is talking or doing something. Appropriate icons will flash up for either paragon or renegade but you have no idea what your character will actually do. Even those most devoted to one particular alignment will find themselves tempted again and again by the siren call of the flashing icon and the possibility of seeing Shepard do something awesome.
A particularly interesting example of this is when an enemy is in the middle of shouting a rant in your direction before the camera pans down to an explosive gas tank below him and then slowly panning back up with the renegade icon flashing. You’ll find your finger moving of its own accord.
The previous game focused heavily on setting up the facts and figures of the game; a strong plot drove you from start to finish. Mass Effect 2 appears to be more about characters, relationships and a general sense of getting to know the people of the universe. This can be seen in the wide array of celebrity voice talent, chief among them Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now and The West Wing) as the Illusive Man, and the much more detailed romance options. These romance subplots are incredibly well handled and you’ll find yourself getting more attached than you expected to your team-mates. This is especially troubling with the nature of consequence in the game.
The emphasis on hard choices in the game has returned with moral quandaries which will have you tearing yourself apart inside each time you choose, especially since they’ll presumably affect Mass Effect 3. These choices don’t even fall easily into the paragon and renegade system. All this culminates the final suicide mission in which any and all members of your team, including Shepard himself, could die depending on your actions.
Overall Mass Effect 2 marks an excellent midpoint for the series and if you’ve played the first game you should definitely pick this up. If you haven’t then consider picking that up before trying this gem.