The sequel to the game that many deem as the best Xbox 360 game ever made has finally arrived - but does it live up to and possibly even surpass the first game in the series? The short answer is "absolutely". If you want to hear the long answer, then read on.
As an RPG fan, when I first heard about the release of the original 'Mass Effect', I couldn't have been more excited. As much as I love roaming around dungeons, caves and castles - which make up the environment of most RPGs, I was ready to take my RPG experience to space. It is no secret that I'm a huge geek - and the thought of playing a game that would allow me to be space hero (or villain) in the vein of 'Star Wars', 'Star Trek' or 'Battlestar Galactica' was making my brain explode. So, I of course rushed out and pre-ordered a copy and picked it up as soon as the store opened on release day. I even took the day off work to get as many hours in as possible.
As I played I was of course incredibly taken by the whole experience. The game had great characters, a great story, great graphics and sound, but it was lacking in some key areas. The biggest of which was the combat. Now if they had made combat turn based, in the vein of 'Knights of the Old Republic' it would have been fine, but they decided to allow us to pull out our twitchy trigger fingers and enter into combat with guns a blazing. I love shooters too, so I was hoping that two of my favourite genres would finally be combined. Unfortunately the combat was clunky and underwhelming. They also created an RPG system that was a bit too difficult to manage. Every character had separate gear, weapons, and abilities, which makes complete sense. However, the way in which you managed all of these things was just too convoluted. I'm happy to report that Mass Effect 2 improves on every one of these issues and takes everything that the game was already great at and makes it even better.
Getting into the Game
You once again find yourself playing as Commander Shepard, who at the beginning of the game is broken down like Humpty Dumpty. Fortunately, this time the kings horses and men (aka the shady organization known as Cerberus) figure out a way to put you back together again. It’s a great opening, and also a very crafty way to allow players to change up the Shepard they played in the first Mass Effect without fanboys pulling their own brains out and running over them with their car. The game even allows you to import your character from ME1, which is something I definitely suggest that you do - because any choices you made in the first game will carry over to the new one. You can still change your look, sex, and even your class if you want to - but seeing how the choices you made played out over time is an incredible experience. You'll also get some perks based on the level of your imported character.
Shoot 'Em, Kill 'Em, Make 'Em Fly Around in the Air like Idiots
For me, the hugest improvement in this game is the combat. I can't really put my finger on the exact issue with the combat in ME1, but it just never felt satisfying. I can assure you that the combat in this game is incredible. The guns actually feel like they're actually doing something and they've employed a shoot and cover mechanic that similar to that of Gears of War. Every gun is a blast to use - especially the Heavy Weapons. If you're not into shooting then you can make use of the Jedi-like biotic powers.
The biotic abilities have been streamlined so that you don't have so many to choose between like in the last game. Although this may upset some people, it makes it easier to focus the upgrade points you get from leveling up, into powers that actually matter. The more you upgrade them, the more powerful and fun they become. The same is true for guns. Rather than giving us thousands of weapons to choose from the game instead focuses on upgrades, which you can use by first finding the schematic and then by probing planets to find the needed minerals. This system just feels right - and the game gives you access to the upgrades at really appropriate times.
ME2 also does away with managing gear for your squad mates. The only thing you can select is the type of guns they'll use - which is done at the armory on the ship. There are also armories scattered throughout missions. They of course seem to always be there at opportune times, like when you've just found a new weapon. Controlling your squad mates is also very intuitive. You can use the D-Pad to make them attack, come to your position, or to take cover. Pressing and holding RB pauses gameplay so you can choose specific abilities for them to use. You can also assign your favourites to buttons so you can access them without pausing the game, which I found myself doing very quickly. After a few hours I stopped pausing altogether.
See ya Later Mako, Hello Probes!
One of my biggest pet peeves in the first game was the Mako. I didn't like anything about it. It wasn't fun to drive, and the missions that it was involved in were boring and devoid of any fun. Gone are the days of landing on unexplored planets and seeing the same exact cutscene over and over again, and finding yourself on a planet that is the exact same as all the other ones, but just tinted to a different colour.
Now each planet can be probed. Holding the left trigger allows you to scan the planet and a graph in the right hand side of the screen will let you know when there are minerals present. You can then send a probe down to collect them. If there is a mission you can take part in on the planet, you'll get notified that there are anomalies present as soon as you enter the planets orbit. The missions that you'll encounter are far from generic, and the planets are all quite different, from lush and beautiful environments, to harsh and cold technological facilities.
Good vs. Evil, or a little bit of both
One of the best features of Mass Effect is the conversation wheel. It allows you to quickly and precisely respond to people, without having to read through a long list of sentences. The choices you make in these moments have short and long-term effects that completely change the way characters feel about you, and even change the world around you. In ME2, the same great system is still there. I definitely suggest listening to and engaging in the dialog in this game. The team at Bioware has really outdone themselves. I never felt the desire to skip over a conversation. Through talking to characters after missions and helping each character complete a special task they needed help with, I became so attached to them, and it just immersed me even further into the story. ME2 also features quick time events where you can interrupt a character with either a Paragon or Renegade action. This might consist of hugging the character or shooting a bullet by their head. Once again, Bioware has made it very hard to not fully integrate yourself into this saga.
This bottom line is that this game is borderline perfect. The only issues I ran into were a few graphical glitches and a couple of times I walked off a ledge and it took me a while to find a spot where I could get back up. I never got stuck to the point of having to restart the game however. I also wish some of the load times were shortened a bit. Other than that - I have absolutely zero complaints about Mass Effect 2. It’s a brilliant game, and they've toned down the RPG elements that stop most people from playing RPGs enough that there should be no excuses for not getting this game.
For those RPG fans that think the game may have been toned them down too much, let me assure you that the lore in this game is extremely rich. There are tons of side quests and storylines to explore and there is also a codex, which allows you to dig even deeper into the back-story of the various races, technology, and factions in the ME2 universe. If you don't have this game already, run to the store right now and pick it up, and slap yourself in the face for not doing so earlier. In my humble opinion, this is the best game ever released for the Xbox 360.