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A Stellar Effort
The original Mass Effect was a flawed masterpiece. It brought the concept of the cinematic game to a new level, providing stunning graphics and a story which ranks among the best sci-fi epics. It also provided a unique combination of shooter and RPG mechanics, it stumbled slightly in this regards. There were too many redundant equipment options cluttering up the player's inventory, which had an inefficient UI to begin with. The shooter mechanics also felt a bit sloppy.
Despite these flaws, the original Mass Effect was one of my favorite games of all time. Mass Effect 2 claims to clean up these mechanics (see this Mass Effect 2 Dev interview with Bioware's Dorian Kieken, providing an epic story without the clutter and fuss. Has Bioware succeeded in their quest for perfection?
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There are a lot of reasons why, from the game's massive backstory to the memorable characters. But the largest reason is the stark, utter inhumanity of the Reapers, the game's primary antagonist. Shades of gray are great in some stories, but as any Star Wars or Lord of the Rings fan will tell you a clear black-and-white epic isn't a bad thing. Tales like this reaffirm what we stand for and help give us hope that even the greatest evils can be defeated.
Mass Effect 2 continues building on the threat of the Reapers, but their direct presence is far more subdued in the sequel than in the original. Rather than fighting a Reaper directly, the main threat is the Collectors, an organic race which has been abducting humans by the thousands. While the Reapers only show themselves briefly, their absence from the front line makes them all the more formidable.
Much was spoken in the first game about how the Reapers manipulate and harvest organic life. Mass Effect 2 shows exactly what that would mean for humanity, and trust me - it's pretty damn grim.
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While the characters of Mass Effect were amazing, the story was the primary focus. Characters were added as the story progressed. This worked well enough, but not all of the characters were memorable. Some, like Ashley and Tali, felt a bit under-developed.
In Mass Effect 2, the characters are much more tightly woven into the story. Much of the game revolves around Shepard's mission to assemble a team capable of undertaking a risky final mission. The characters themselves are wonderfully written, but more striking is how unique each character's backstory is.
In the original Mass Effect, I picked my two favorite characters and stuck with them because I didn't feel attached enough to the others to swap them in. In Mass Effect 2, however, I constantly feel the need to swap out characters. Despite having a much larger cast than the original game, no one in Mass Effect 2 seemsredundant or forgotten. Their stories are important, and they climax alongside the main plot.
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Bioware listens, and Mass Effect 2 is proof. Nearly every common complaint about Mass Effect, from the half-hearted shooter mechanics to the messy closet of an inventory system to the tiresome Mako missions, has been addressed.
Mass Effect 2's shooter side plays something like Gears of War "light" so to speak. This isn't a bad thing. The weapons no longer respond to hidden die rolls of any sort. Each weapon has certain characteristics, and those are not modified by Sherpard's level or the weapon's level. The result is a game which feels more connected to the player's controls than the original Mass Effect. Bioware could make a straight-up shooter with these mechanics if they wanted.
Exploration has also been streamlined. The universe of Mass Effect 2 is still huge, with many planets to visit, but extracting resources does not require a personal visit. Instead, players can extract resources from planets using probes. See this Exploration and Mining Guide. Should there be something of interest on a planet, the game indicates that there is an anomaly detected. Shepard then can land and explore. These mini-missions are not common, but they are far more unique than the dime-a-dozen quests of the original Mass Effect.
While much of the game has been streamlined, there is a new research mechanic which allows players to obtain upgrades to weapons, armor, and abilities, and inventory is handled through a pre-mission Load Out system highly reminiscent of shooters. These mechanics take the place of the typical role-playing approach to inventory which was featured in the first Mass Effect. It does its job well, but I do sometimes miss the excitement of finding a new piece of armor or a cool new weapon, which is now a very rare occurrence. The randomness of finding loot on a mission is always exciting, and the research system in Mass Effect 2 can't replicate it.
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Graphics and Sound
Mass Effect 2 can be an assault on the senses, but in a good way. Take the time to immerse yourself in it - a large monitor, a good pair of headphones - and the intense polish of the game's production quality becomes jaw-dropping. Unlike the original game, which was considered rather slow in its pacing, Mass Effect 2 begins with a literal bang. Within the first ten minutes of the game everything which the player might take for granted is changed. I have always thought that Mass Effect seemed a prime candidate for being made into a movie, given its epic and well-written story. Now I'm not so sure. The cinematic quality of Mass Effect 2 is so well composed, and so well integrated into the gameplay, that it is hard to imagine a movie creating the same buffet of visual and sonic wonder.
The only issue, one which is strangely unchanged from the original game, is the quality of body animations. Bioware seems to have problems with this in the recent Dragon Age as well - perhaps they should look into some new way of animating body movement. Which is odd: Jade Empires was a martial arts game with great looking motion.
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Mass Effect 2 is a masterpiece. It solves the problems of the original game without introducing any new ones and expands upon the original's story by delving deeper into the consequences of a Reaper invasion and by adding a huge variety of new and interesting characters.
My only piece of advice is that if you haven't played the original, do so before picking up Mass Effect 2. The choices made in the first game do show themselves in the second, so you'll be missing out somewhat if you've never played the first. The universe of Mass Effect is epic, and it rewards full immersion.
A deep look at Mass Effect 2 in this collection of reviews and previews.