Mass Effect 2 is easily one of the most anticipated sequels this generation, which is no surprise given how fantastic and deep the original was. When developers BioWare promised improvements in all areas, gameplay that could compete with any straight shooter and of the scale that requires two discs - you sure need to pay attention.
Personally, having been brought up on BioWares typical breed of RPG gaming, I have longed to step back in the shoes of Commander Shepherd and face the Reapers once more, and a lot has certainly changed whilst I've been waiting. Fans of the original will be surprised to see the game be taken in a new direction, as whilst all the core aspects remain, the game has certainly evolved from the initial departure.
Gone is your typical loot and inventory management, skills have been greatly reduced and levels are few. As I began my adventure I often checked the interfaces in order to outfit my squad and wondered where all the guns and armour was; "they are introducing the game bit by bit" I told myself, expecting a tutorial to help non-RPG gamers get a grip of the deep and plethora of customisation.
Both initially and at the close I am still undecided if this departure is one that leaves a sour taste as whilst I love the streamlined approach that allows a stronger emphasis on the action, I often felt I was playing Gears of War In Space; and not the space shooter RPG I came to love. This is the main criticism a fan of the series will give, something that any returning should be weary of.
As for new comers of the series, welcome! As Mass Effect is very much a console game (even though it is readily available on PC) it would seem BioWare have aimed to cater for you as prior problem areas for the general console gamer has been rectified, such as the citiadel is now of a small size in comparison to the mammoth spacestation it was in the original, dialogue is more streamlined, missions simpler to follow, gear management less convoluted and obviously the change to statistics management as mentioned above. Like the recent Assassins Creed 2, it looks like the developers have taken on the full list of criticism and put to work resolving them.
Instead of trawling through tons of inventory items with different statistics you will mostly be rewarded with a handful of research plans that can be viewed when on the Normandy, this means that in the heat of battle you are never interrupted. Once on the Normandy you can research in several fields, be it improving your own weaponry, level of protection or even the ships defences - using resources you have mined from the games many empty planets (using a mini-game that actually broke the left trigger on my pad). This lets you focus on the part of the game BioWare wants you to focus on - the storyline...
It's difficult to delve into the storyline without flooding the review with spoilers, as Mass Effect 2 has more twists and turns than a slinky. Rest assured that the story is a grand improvement on the original and far less convoluted in order to avoid confusion on the road to saving the galaxy. Key characters and events from the original are often present in the game, all of which fit in surprisingly well and never feel like a quick attempt at association. Any fans of BioWare's classic Baldur's Gate will also find novelty in a pet rodent that can be found if you look carefully enough (with no signs of a Minsc to follow). It's this level of design excellence that makes Mass Effect 2 shine, as the smallest quip from Joker, the constant sly sexual advances from your personal secretary or even the background arguments between fellow squad members - all examples of tiny forgettable moments that add so much depth to the world, the attention to detail that astounds.
The basis of the storyline following the proven RPG formula of getting together a team in order to take on a great threat. Half of the game is recruiting and building up this dream team, whilst the other half is putting them into action to solve their own personal dilemmas and the overarching one. No matter what though this generally involves you needing to kill waves and waves of enemies in numerous varied and unique environments, and no empty canyons this time around (and no Mako!). Thankfully the controls have been heavily tweaked letting you navigate around obstacles and take down foes just as well as you would in any other third-person shooter - and no longer clumsily as the first would suggest. The game also tries to spice things up a little from time to time, from having you escort, play the bait or perform small mini-games. By the time any of these are over, you are refreshed and ready to start shooting again.
Thankfully this fantastic gameplay goes on and on as you will easily clock up over 30 hours completing everything the game has to offer, which explains why the game had to be split onto two discs. It's a wonder how they managed to fit such quality in graphics and audio into the space allowed, even with two discs, when you consider the endless possible directions for a single conversation or fight to go. Graphical issues with pop-up have been eradicated, so the tech is even more impressive now with no slow down and improved particle flair.
With more characters and a stronger sense of right and wrong, Mass Effect 2 houses more choice than the original. This goes hand in hand with one of the best new features in the game, sudden decisions. At any moment during a scene you could be promoted with either a good or evil option (left and right trigger respectively) which will then perform a sudden action that will change the progression of the scene. A mission to convince someone to let slip some information, for example, could prompt for an evil action that when pressed would have Shepherd shoot them in the leg, jumping the scene to a prompt conclusion.
Due to all of these reasons and more Mass Effect 2 is a worthy successor to the original, and whilst it's a surprise to see the legends of hardcore RPG developers BioWare take a step away from the RPG and into the third-person shooter; it's one that will appeal to a far larger audience and when it's at this level of brilliance - everyone should be lucky enough to enjoy it. Game of the year 2010 already? Perhaps.