Unlike most of the Joystiq staff, I wasn't in love with the first entry in the series. Oh, I could see the promise, but I had a hard time getting past the clunky combat, the terrible vehicle sequences and a damnably irksome inventory system. But in a weird way, I was the very best person to review the sequel, because BioWare has gutted the original framework, doing away with everything that didn't work and replacing it with something vibrant, something engaging. All the while, the developers have expanded on the sweeping yet personal scope of the first game that made such an impression on so many.
The resulting concoction is the best game BioWare has ever made and the best action RPG in history.
The reinvention of Mass Effect's combat alone may have been enough to win me over, but I need to be clear about it: If you were in love with the mechanics of the first Mass Effect, you need to steel yourself to the fact that its sequel is, at its core, an action game. This game is moving at a much faster clip, your aim matters a lot more and you're going to be spending much more time shooting from behind cover.
In Mass Effect 2, you'll still have indirect command of two squad members of your choosing, and your most common interaction will be ordering them to use powers. Holding the bumper to choose the desired power pauses time, but it never feels like the flow of battle is interrupted. The result is having a squad whose abilities feel like an extension of your own character, rather than three separate entities. Structurally it may not be much different than its predecessor, but Mass Effect 2 just feels better. Best of all, every character's life quickly regenerates, relegating Medi-gel to reviving fallen teammates mid-battle.
This is a role-playing game in the purest sense of the phrase, but it may not immediately feel that way to those familiar with the genre. Most notably, there's a reduced focus on gear collection -- in fact, I'm pretty sure you could make it to the end of the game with the gear you start with. Most weapon and armor options are a question of play style. For instance: Wearing a visor makes your headshots more damaging, but wearing a full mask improves your health. There are no more armor classes or types to deal with, no more Omni-gel. There's ammo, but it's universal. Everything is streamlined, and Mass Effect 2 is so much better for it.
You will have to do a significant amount of upgrading, but it's all conducted through a research mechanic that (unless specifically noted otherwise) benefits every weapon of a specific type -- all shotguns, for instance -- or every shield.
Speaking of streamlining, the atrocious Mako space car is completely gone. Your planetary exploration will consist of flying from planet to planet and scanning them, occasionally finding an anomaly like a base that needs to be destroyed or an antennae that needs to be repaired. If you choose to act, you'll be instantly sent to the mission. If not, you can relax and comb the planet for minerals that you'll use to upgrade your ship and crew. While some might find the process of scanning a planet's surface for mineral deposits dull, I thought it was curiously soothing, a relaxing respite from the overarching drama. Though there may not be whole planets to run through, the environments that are here are gorgeously rendered and all presented with a steady framerate (another Mass Effect upgrade).
There's a very distinct line between the combat and the adventuring and exploration that makes up the rest of the game, with action sequences broken up into missions that are typically bookended by a return to a safe city or your ship. Heck, you can't even talk to party members unless you're on your craft, save for a few specific situations. It may seem counter-intuitive, but, the less the two mingle, the more the action and the role-playing benefit. That's not to say that the talkier sections of the game are dull, far from it.
Most of the credit goes to the amazing voice actors and writers that have managed to create the most layered and endearing cast of characters I can remember appearing in a game. The purely logical yet surprisingly tender Salarian Mordin Solus was my personal favorite, but I'm sure you'll have your own. (P.S. Joker's actually funny this time.)
Paragon or Renegade points are still awarded for noble or unscrupulous acts and dialog, and being strong in either will allow you to interrupt conversations occasionally by pulling the left or right trigger when prompted, usually with an especially kind or vicious action. These opportunities not only force you to be engaged with dialog, they also test how committed you are to your chosen alignment when you're given the chance to do something totally out of character in the heat of the moment.
Lemme give you an early example: At one point, I was confronted with a shell-shocked Quarian who was too obsessed with the monitors in front of him to help me. During our conversation a flashing Paragon icon popped up in the bottom left hand corner of the screen. Pulling the left trigger allowed me to turn off the monitors with my omni-tool and gradually bring him back to reality. When the situation was reversed, and I had made mostly evil choices, I got a flashing red icon, so I pulled the right trigger and shot out the monitors.
As these decisions accumulate, Mass Effect 2 feels indelibly like your world, especially if you imported your Mass Effect data from the first game. You'll experience the overwhelming sensation of being in control of a galaxy's destiny, which converts the task of saving it and the characters within it from reactionary to absolutely vital. This achievement, probably BioWare's greatest, is nothing short of staggering.
Mass Effect 2 is a work of calculated contradictions. It's an action game, but it's imbued with all the best parts of the RPG genre. It's simple to understand, but incredibly deep. It is -- and this is crucial -- a story, a universe that spans light years and millenia, but is intensely personal. To the casual observer, the parts may not all seem to fit together, but -- as I've discovered after laughing, cheering, screaming and even crying (a bit) with Shepard and crew through their suicide mission -- their sum is nothing short of one of the single best games I've ever played.
Editors' note: This review is based on the Xbox 360 retail version of the game provided by EA.