When Mass Effect 1 was released in November 2007, the expectations were high as they always are when Bioware releases a game. Nevertheless, ME1 surpassed all expectations and cemented Mass Effect as a new entry in epic sci-fi RPGs. With Mass Effect 2, expectations are even higher for Bioware to improve on an already great game.
Mass Effect 2 picks up not long after the events of ME1. Commander Shepard, our hero from the first game, has been declared a hero after he saved the universe. In spite of this, Shepard's ship is attacked by an unidentified ship. Shepard attempts to save his crew, but during the mayhem, Shepard is shot into space and dies in the process. His body is recovered and over the course of two years, Shepard is revived by a pro-human organization known as Cerberus. Lead by the Illusive Man, Cerberus revived Shepard as he is humanity's greatest champion. Humanity has been suffering as late due to various human colonies being abducted by an unknown alien race. What follows is a saga that goes much deeper than just saving a few colonies.
Surprisingly, there are two aspects to the gameplay in Mass Effect 2. The obvious one is the combat. Now if this was simply a shooter game, I would say how routine the formula is and not special in any way. However, the fact that this is a RPG makes it quite fantastic. Combat in most RPGs is dull and boring, but in Mass Effect 2 it's exciting, full of options, and intense.
Combat is done via a 3rd person over the shoulder perspective with a cover system that's similar to countless of other games out on the market. You and your teammate have an array of weapons to choose including the common mainstays of pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, and of course, some sci-fi weapons. You can take cover pretty much anywhere, and with automatic health recovery, you'll need to spend some time behind cover to replenish both health and shields or else you'll be dying a lot.
Each character also has access to various �ammo powers�. These powers vary from character to character as they're tied into the characters background and skills. Some of the powers do direct damage to enemies while others can weaken the enemy's defense being that enemy's have access to shields and armor. There are also powers that can move and propel enemy's in a Jedi Force Push type of way in order to get them out of cover and make them defenseless. While you can defeat most enemies without using any powers, that's hardly any fun as the powers give you various ways to handle particular situations.
Mass Effect 2 uses an experience system that's similar to those in other �Western� RPGs. You get experience points defeating enemies and completing quests. Once you or your characters level up, you'll have points to disperse in the various powers and stat improvements. When you max out one of these bars for powers or stats, you'll have a choice in the end to select a class that your character will be. At its core, the choice is more about whether going offensive or defensive with the character, but there are some other subtle stat changes making each class different.
The other aspect to the gameplay comes from dialogue. Dialogue trees are nothing new - especially in �Western� RPGs - yet in Mass Effect 2 these dialogue choices have more ramifications than simply being a good or bad guy. Through the choices you make, Commander Shepard can be a straight up Boy Scout, a heartless scoundrel, or a mix of both. That element isn't much different from how it was in ME1; what's changed is that in certain parts in the conversation, there will be an on screen signal indicating that you can take a Paragon (good guy) action or a Renegade (bad guy) action. This makes the discussions even more important than they were in the first game since you have these instances that can change the game in various ways. Bioware has finally fixed the lamest part of any RPG - talking to every NPC - and made it less boring, showing that they are always striving to improve every single point of the game.
With Mass Effect 1 being so visually impressive, you would think there's no room for improvement for the sequel. Well there was some room, but only a little. Everything looks great from the backgrounds to the cinematic moments of visiting a planet or space station. What changed are the subtle facial adjustments that make for a stunning and realistic skin on the characters. In some cases, you won't notice, but at just the right time, the light hits the skin and it's mesmerizing to look at. Sometimes I think graphics can't get any better, yet this game changed my mind.
Music is always important to every Bioware game so it's no surprise that Mass Effect 2's score is simply remarkable. From the battle music to dialogue or even the background music while walking around, the music is fits flawlessly with whatever you're doing in the game. It'll make your pulse pound when the action heightens as it will generate a vast amount of emotions with the various twists in the game.
Another Bioware custom is the fabulous voice acting. Lead by the original voice actors of Mass Effect 1, Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale who reprise their role of the male and female Commander Shepard, it's clear to see that Bioware was sure there would be no shortcomings in this game. Both Meer and Hale (who we interviewed here) make sure that every line of dialogue is full of charm and personality that coincides perfectly with the Commander Shepard you choose to play. Put it simply, if you choose to be a nice guy, their performance fits that mold. On the other hand, when you choose to be more of an anti-hero, their performance changes accordingly. There is also an ensemble cast that even the biggest budget movie would be envious of including an incredible performance by Martin Sheen and Carrie-Anne Moss. Other actors are a literal who's who of sci-fi including Tricia Helfer and Michael Hogan from Battlestar Galactica, Adam Baldwin from Firefly, Michael Dorn from Star Trek Generations, Keith David who's known for his voice acting roles as much as his regular acting roles, and one of the mighty kings of geekdom, Seth Green.
Mass Effect 2, unlike most RPGs, has a high replay value as not only will it have you want to play through it again, it will even have you replaying Mass Effect 1. To reward those who are faithful to the series, Bioware has allowed players to use their saves characters from ME1. So not only can you keep the same character setup as in the original, but the game caters to the choices that you made with your character's personality. If you don't have a ME1 save, the game still offers an immense amount of choices that can change the game making each playthrough different from the last. Not only that, current and future downloadable content will enhance the game's replayability even more with additional missions and recruitable companions
So did Bioware succeed in surpassing Mass Effect 1 with its sequel? Without any doubt. Outdoing the previous installment of a game series in its technical aspects is an easy task with newer technologies. It's the non-technical parts that are difficult to overcome. Mass Effect 2 has the kind of story that could outshine any big-budget movie, but unlike many games that have well-made plots, ME2 also has a cast that makes everything come together. When playing this game, I am sure that some players will think that Bioware cannot get it any better than this. If future games continue this level of excellencefor the Mass Effect series, it will be remembered as one of the series that are considered the best that videogames have to offer