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Mass Effect 2 is the sequel to 2007-2008's Mass Effect (Mass Effect was released in 2007 for the Xbox, and 2008 for the PC). Mass Effect 2 is roughly the same sort of game as Mass Effect, but developer BioWare didn't simply slap a new campaign on top of their existing engine. They studied the reviews and user comments, and they made changes for what they thought would make players happier. Unfortunately, while perhaps hoping to encourage more mass appeal, BioWare managed to dumb down just about every aspect of the game, to the point where not only is Mass Effect 2 barely a role-playing game any more, it's not even as compelling an action game as the original.
Mass Effect 2 takes place almost immediately after the events of Mass Effect. In the opening sequence, you're once again controlling Commander Shepard on board the Normandy, but then a mysterious cruiser appears out of nowhere and blows your ship apart, and you're jettisoned into space, where you die. Two years later, you awaken in a medical facility for (Project Lazarus,) and you learn that an extremist group called Cerberus has spent billions of credits to put you back together.
That's sort of a disturbing way to begin a game (especially when you notice the glowing orange scars on your face), but you at least get some good news when you awaken -- the Reapers haven't been active during your absence, and so the universe is still much as you left it. The only troubling news is that humans have been disappearing from some of the outer colonies in the Terminus System, without any signs of struggle or violence, and nobody knows where they've gone. The Alliance has downplayed these abductions as the work of slavers or bandits, but Cerberus fears some darker motives, and of course Cerberus is right.
Since you (die) at the beginning of the campaign, your character has to start anew. If you still have your saved games from Mass Effect, then you can import your character, and the game will remember your appearance and the decisions you made (both major and minor), and you'll start out level 5. If you have to create a new character, then the game will choose a past for you, and you'll start out level 1.
Sort of surprisingly, when you create a new character in Mass Effect 2, you're not given a chance to specify anything that happened in Mass Effect. I think it would have been pretty easy to determine some of the major decisions through dialogue (there's even a sequence where scientists check your memory), but for some reason BioWare chose not to pursue this option. Luckily, there are some web sites out there that store Mass Effect saves, and so chances are that you can find one that closely matches the way you played.
Otherwise, character development in Mass Effect 2 is roughly the same as it was in Mass Effect. There are still six classes to choose between, and you still gain levels and earn points to spend on powers, but there are even fewer ways to build your character now than there were before, and that's saying something. For example, Mass Effect had several non-combat talents like Charm and Electronics, and you had to strike a balance between those talents and your combat talents. Now in Mass Effect 2, all of the non-combat talents have been removed, and about half of your new powers involve things like choosing different types of ammunition for your weapons.
Mass Effect 2 also uses morality in about the same way as in Mass Effect, except that in this case BioWare actually added something. You still earn paragon (selfless) points and renegade (selfish) points through your actions and your dialogue choices, but now there are also special interrupts. In certain situations you're allowed to take an action during a conversation (such as knocking a gun out of someone's hand or punching someone in the face), and these actions always earn you paragon or renegade points, and they also make some of the cut scenes a little more interactive.
The campaign in Mass Effect 2 is comprised of about 25 missions, each of which takes about an hour to complete. There are also some cities to explore (including a return to the Citadel), numerous electronic locks and datapads to hack (featuring all new hacking mini-games), and lots of optional planets to visit and mine, and so the entire campaign takes somewhere around 40 hours to complete.
The missions in the game are almost exclusively combat-oriented. While in Mass Effect you had to talk to people and solve puzzles and make weighty decisions, in Mass Effect 2 you mostly just kill stuff, and sometimes the missions don't feel like anything more than extended shooting galleries. In most cases, you enter a large room with lots of objects to take cover behind, you kill about ten guys, you scrounge around for bullets and resources, and then you move on to the next big room and repeat the process. There are some role-playing elements here and there, but BioWare abandoned puzzles completely, and I'm guessing that Mass Effect 2 only has about half the dialogue as Mass Effect. The emphasis is clearly on combat.
BioWare even streamlined the equipment. Mass Effect had way too much useless equipment, and you'd find it way too often, but in Mass Effect 2 BioWare did a complete 180 and almost removed equipment entirely. For example, in Mass Effect there were over 250 weapons, and you could pick and choose which upgrades to put into them, giving you all sorts of options for how you wanted to kill people. In Mass Effect 2, despite BioWare adding in two new classes of weapons (submachine guns and heavy weapons), there are only 21 weapons total, and the upgrades are much more generalized (they mostly just increase the damage or accuracy of a class of weapons). That means your inventory is a non-factor in the game, and there isn't even an inventory page. You just have to visit a weapons or armor locker at the rare moments when you want to change what you're using.
Outside of the campaign missions, your main activity in the game is exploring random planets and mining them for resources. However, instead of using the Mako for this, which was the case in Mass Effect, you have to sit on board the Normandy and scan the planets manually. On the PC, this involves holding down the right mouse button and moving the cursor over the surface of the planet, looking for resource (hot spots.) If you find one, then you send out a probe, and it gathers the resources for you.
Suffice it to say, scanning planets isn't a lot of fun. I wasn't a huge fan of the Mako (I didn't think it was a bad concept, just overused), but at least it involved playing the game and driving around and shooting stuff. Scanning planets is just pixel hunting at its worst, and it gets boring after the first planet, let alone after the dozens you have to mine to gather enough resources to pay for your ship and weapon upgrades. Even BioWare must have realized that scanning planets isn't enjoyable, because after beating Mass Effect 2 once, any subsequent characters that you create start out with a huge surplus of resources, so not as much mining is required. But that begs the question. If BioWare knew that scanning planets isn't any fun, why did they make it such a major component of the campaign?
Large parts of the Mass Effect 2 engine have the same look and feel as the Mass Effect engine. For example, the game still uses an over-the-shoulder camera, and you still use the WASD keys to move around (at least on the PC), but other things have changed, some subtly and some not so much.
First and foremost, weapons now use thermal clips, which prevent them from overheating. That sounds like a major positive, but to make up for it, weapons now require bullets. You're only allowed to hold a certain amount of ammunition on your character -- basically enough to get you through one major battle -- and that means you have to scrounge for bullets after every fight. Ammunition clips are reasonably plentiful (I rarely ran out of bullets for my preferred weapon), but I didn't especially like looking around for them every few minutes. If your goal is to make the missions action-packed, why would you force an intermission after every battle? Of the two options, I actually prefer overheating weapons.
Another change involves regeneration. In Mass Effect, only certain classes, races, and upgrades allowed you to regenerate your health, and so medi-gel was important. In Mass Effect 2, if you crouch behind cover for about 5 seconds, you completely regenerate your shields and health, and so you only need medi-gel for emergencies (which rarely happen). Moreover, since regeneration is so friendly, that makes the battles much easier, and you'll probably die far less often in Mass Effect 2 than in Mass Effect.
Finally, while Mass Effect only had six companions, Mass Effect 2 has no less than 11, with possibly more on the way in future DLCs. Having more companions sounds like a good thing, but there is just so little dialogue in the game that most of your companions are nothing more than battle bots for the missions, and having more or less doesn't make any difference. Of course, once again BioWare added in romance options with the companions, and this is one of the reasons why people accuse them of following a formula. You don't build any sort of relationship with any of your companions (I spent way more time talking to my administrative assistant than to anyone else), but then right before the big final mission I was suddenly able to get a couple of my companions into bed.
The tone of this review is mostly negative, but that's not because Mass Effect 2 is a thoroughly bad game. It's just a slimmed-down action game, which is disappointing to me -- and, I'm assuming, to anybody else who was hoping for an actual role-playing game. If BioWare is going to spend two years to create a game, I just wish they'd set their sights higher than what they produced in Mass Effect 2.
But the production values are once again excellent (and all of the voice actors from the original game returned to reprise their roles), the engine looks better and runs much more smoothly than it did before (saves and loads are almost instantaneous, and all of the interminably long elevator rides disappeared), BioWare did a fantastic job of incorporating characters and events from the original game into the new one (even the guy looking for a refund on the Citadel is back), and while the PC version didn't receive quite the same amount of love that it did last time, everything still works pretty well, and the game didn't crash on me once.
It's just that the dialogue, equipment, character choices, game decisions, puzzles, and depth all took a big hit, and BioWare chose to focus on somewhat repetitive combat over everything else. Plus, the storyline isn't great. Mass Effect 2 seems much more like a set-up for Mass Effect 3 than as a game that was meant to stand on its own.
And so this is going to be a mixed review. If you're one of those people who doesn't particularly like wading through dialogue, or sorting through equipment, or figuring out which character build makes you the most powerful, then Mass Effect 2 might be a good game for you. But if you're more on the Dragon Age: Origins side of the role-playing game spectrum, then there might not be much for you in Mass Effect 2, unless you're just looking for a change of pace.