It's the 22nd century, and humanity has travelled to the stars, finding an entire galaxy of wonders. Alien races, beautiful planets, incredible space stations...and, of course, terrible danger. Two years ago, Commander Shepard, humanity's brightest light, defeated an extra-galactic invasion by the Reapers, a race of biomechanicals who feed off organic life. Now there is a new threat to humanity, and Shepard must gather the best of the best for a suicidal mission to unexplored stars. Will he save the day once again? Will he survive?
Well, that rather depends on the player. But more of that later.
First of all, I should acknowledge the fact that I am a massive geek. Things that I may pass over or lap up eagerly may send you running and screaming for the hills. With that in mind, you may want to approach Mass Effect 2 with a little caution. Additionally, if you haven't played Mass Effect 1, you should probably give this a miss. Not because you won't be able to follow the plot - a quick browse of wikipedia will bring you up to speed, and there are several occasions in-game that summarise the plot so far - but because the way you played ME1 will affect what happens in ME2. Primarily in the background, certainly, but I imagine it would be a far lesser experience without that previous knowledge. So be warned.
I loved ME1. It's one of the finest games I've ever played, and the universe behind it is incredible. I have quite literally spent weeks playing it. And I can give you an exclusive sneak peek of the review's conclusion by telling you that I will be replaying ME2 again and again as well. Sadly, I can't go into as much detail about the games as I would like: much of the pleasure is to be had in the story, and you really need to be as unspoiled as you can.
Essentially, both games are action RPG's. You wander round the galaxy, taking part in quests and shooting things. A lot. In ME1 you could drive around the planets you found as well, a mechanic that has been removed for the sequel. I haven't quite decided whether that's a good thing or not. It was undoubtedly the worst part of the first game, due to it being tricky to drive over the largely mountainous terrain you found yourself on, but it allowed you to feel like a real deep-space explorer: you flew into a star system, went into orbit around a planet, and dropped your tank down onto it (no, seriously). You then drove around finding valuable resources, occasionally blowing up a mercenary camp, or chasing a pack of space monkeys, or fighting for your life against horrific subterranian worm creatures. It wasn't perfect, but it was fun. In ME2, this has been replaced by flying to a system, orbiting a planet, and then 'fishing' for resources with your on ship scanners. This boils down to moving a cursor over a globe until the pad vibrates, at which point you fire off a probe which collects everything you need. It's...a little dull, shall we say. But - and it's a big but - because there are no longer any vast planetary expanses for you to explore, Bioware have been able to lavish more love and attention on the interiors you'll be wandering around. Aside from the main missions, ME1 had two levels - the mines and the bunker - that were repeated ad nauseam. While personally I was having too much fun with whatever mission I happened to be playing to pay much attention to the background, ME2 is a massive improvement in this area. Every level you go through is different, and hugely impressive.
In fact, the game looks much better overall. The graphics have been given an overhaul, and it all looks very sleek. Take a look at the city world of Ilium, and try not to injure your jaw when it hits the floor. For more subtle things, look at the screen in conversations with your team-mates, particularly the assassin, Thane. Each character is beautifully detailed and rendered, even the ones you only meet when picking up mission details. When the game shifts to cutscene mode, it gets even more impressive. It's positively sleek.
Sleek is ME2's watch word. Bioware clearly paid close attention to the criticism of ME1: every element that was critiqued has either been removed completely - the driving - or tinkered with. Take the combat, for instance. A common complaint about ME1 was that the shooting was dull, or simply just bad in some cases. ME2 feels like a game of Gears of War at times. The cover system has been improved, making it far smoother to get into cover, and enemies don't just stand there and soak up the bullets now. As a result, even someone like myself, who had no real problem with the combat previously, would have to admit that it's a much better experience. Given that about 80% of the game involves shooting, this is clearly a good thing.
The other big overhaul is the RPG elements. You start the game by...well, telling you how the game starts would be a bit of a spoiler. The second thing you do in the game is choose Shepard's background and appearance (and gender). For the record, it's tricky to give him a decent appearance, so I just stuck with the default. If you've played ME1, you can import your old save, of which more later. As you progress through the game you earn experience, which allows you to increase Shepard's skills. A key aspect of this is the Paragon/Renegade system. You'll always be a hero; your actions decide whether you'll be a virtuous, heroic knight in shining armour, or a cynical, shoot-first-ask-questions-maybe anti-hero figure. You can also earn upgrades for your weapons, armour and ship, which are extremely important. If you don't upgrade your weapons and armour, you'll have a tough time of it in the field. If you don't upgrade your ship...well, it is perfectly possible to finish the game with none of your characters surviving. You'd have to have literally just followed the story missions and seen none of the extras, but it's possible. This is obviously not a good thing.
Some bits of the RPG system have been given a boost: the character interaction is improved dramatically. This is partly due to several brilliant characters - I defy you not to love the scientist Moridin. Get him to sing if you can. There's also the insanely powerful Jack/Subject Zero, a convict with a penchant for tattoos, swearing, and intense violence. She's a much more intricately drawn character than she appears, if you take the time to get to know her. It's also to do with the new 'interrupt system'. Essentially, every now and again Paragon and Renegade symbols will flash up on screen during conversation. Press the corresponding button, and an appropriate action will follow. This ranges from hugging a grieving friend to pushing a man out of a skyscraper window. It makes it feel much more dynamic and spontaneous, and the Renegade ones in particular are great fun - although playing mainly as a Paragon, as I was, it did sometimes seem a little strange to go from politely reasoning with someone to beating information out of them. Presumably the same would be said for a Renegade doing the Paragon options.
The stats tweaking has been almost entirely removed though. Most RPG's deluge you with weapon, armour and other associated kit, which you could then fiddle with to your hearts content. This was certainly true of ME1. In ME2, you get a pistol, a submachine gun/assault rifle, a shotgun, sniper rifle and a heavy weapon, and one bit of armour. These can all be upgraded, but it's less intricate and involving. Instead of spending time finding the perfect set-up, you stumble across or buy an upgrade, and apply it. There's none of the joy of uncovering a new upgrade and unleashing it; I played through as a soldier, and used two different settings for pretty much the entire game. The upgrades you can find seem a little pointless, for everything bar the biotic powers (magic, essentially). I found it very disappointing.
In fact, this is basically my main complaint about ME2. In streamlining the game's content, Bioware have produced a shooter with RPG elements, where ME1 was - to me - an excellent balance between the two. In expanding the variety of locations, to great effect, the game world seems to have shrunk. There definitely seems to be less to do. And many of the big missions would have been side missions in ME1. It's justifiable, because the whole point is that the game is building up to the suicide mission at the end - and when you get there, it's incredible. I was quite literally on the edge of my seat in the opening cut-scene for the mission, and the intense atmosphere was brilliant. Working your way through an alien ship only to find a truly monstrous experiment taking place was the high point of the game, and definitely worth the wait. But the wait just felt more...compact.
Essentially, it's down to it being part two of a trilogy. Once the third game comes out, ME2 will undoubtedly seem even better than it already is - and make no mistake, it is an excellent game. You may note that all of my criticism is essentially nitpicking over what type of game it is. But the whole game is essentially buildup for the finale. Similar problems affected The Two Towers, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, to name just two popular examples. It feels odd to criticise something for leaving you wanting more, but that's what I felt. Massive enjoyed, but my appetite was only wheted for part 3, out next year. In the end, a firm 9/10, and highly recommended, but not quite perfect.
Oh, and I said earlier that you shouldn't play ME2 without previously playing ME1. If you import your save, then all the decisions you took in the last game carry over. The cast carryover is minimal; most of the cast from ME1 are reduced to cameos, assuming they survived at all, and it would be fair to say that the impact on the main plot of ME2 is minimal. But there is an undeniable glee in heading to, say, the Krogan homeworld and finding that your old team-mate is now a clan-leader and is working towards a clan unification. Or finding that your old stalker has now followed your example, and is wandering the galaxy righting wrongs whereever he goes. Or so he says, anyway. It's little touches like this that push ME2 above the norm, the icing on an already special cake.