Having beaten Mass Effect 2 about a week ago, it's time to dish out some reflections...
The original Mass Effect was given to me as a gift for Christmas '08 (represent, P-Shade) and it ended up being my favorite game! I never would have purchased it on my own because it's all about aliens, and spaceships, and lasers, and stuff I never really care to get involved with. However, when someone gives me something for free, I'm at least a little inclined to try it out, and then I got hooked.... and I played through six times in a year's time.
Mass Effect 2 (hereafter referred to as ME2) changes a lot of the things that I found gave Mass Effect 1 its identity. Not to mislead, they're not all complaints, but observations about profound changes in gameplay and mechanics.
First, the story is splendid. The story that absolutely hooked me and drew me in is done justice. The fact that the game permits you to do so many things in your own taste (via conversation wheel) and still has such depth just makes me giddy! There are probably 25 major choices that you make throughout the game, and they all have some kind of effect on the story and characters.
Destroying the Normandy in the first 10 minutes of the game?? Awesome. Resurrecting Shepard, and putting him at the whim of a radical, pro-humanity, xenophobic terrorist organization?? Also awesome. Collector invasion of the Normandy?? Yeah, it just happened. Being put under Cerberus for the length of the game puts ME2 in such a different tone than the first one. In the first one, you're a Spectre; basically a private investigator who doesn't answer to the law. Although you can choose to be a "paragon" or a "renegade" depending on how you make your choices, you always get the feeling you're doing things for the best interest of the galaxy, for all species. ME2 ditches the "good guy" feeling, and the whole game, with respect to the moral choices, is played in shades of gray. For every choice, there are winners and losers. Although characters can understand the importance of your mission, they view you with a suspicious light because you're an agent for Cerberus, instead of an Alliance captain, or a Spectre. I love movies and stories where good people are put in bad situations, and ME2 is just that kind of plot.
The revelations toward the end of the game, and the tie-ins with the novels are insane. On the Collectors' ship I almost went nuts with the magnitude of the plot twist. However, it should be noted that ME2 does plot twists with class, which I appreciate. It surprises, but never really jumps over the fence entirely. Some games (especially RPG's) treat plot twists like recycled boss fights, as in they're just thrown in to keep the player around longer. ME2 includes some truly stunning revelations, with some Hollywood-quality production behind them, but they aren't happening at every turn of the script, and they aren't used as an excuse to make the player backtrack.
Oh, and your squad. I love the new squadmates. There are like eleven of them, and they're all unique with respect to both function and story. The squad from ME1 was great, and they are all memorable characters (except Kaiden). However, ME2 takes the squad mechanic and makes it AWESOME because they all have their own recruiting missions to acquire them, and they all have their own missions to complete to gain their loyalty. Also, these missions expand upon all their stories, and are all-around memorable. Garrus is still the most badass, though.
Game-play wise, everything feels smoother. Yes, it feels like Gears of War... but Gears of War feels better than the original Mass Effect. Taking cover happens quicker and cleaner, popping out to shoot baddies and own them with tech/biotics is lickity-split! I like how there are a TON of abilities, and a TON of characters to use them. Unlike ME1, a specialist in one field will not be able to use all the talents of that field. This helps keep squad-selection dynamic and fun, because there are always people with different abilities to use.
If I have one complaint with the game, it is the dumbing-down of the level-up system. While I understand that it streamlines the RPG elements, it takes away some of the specialization that the first one boasted. For example, in ME1 skills for each weapon class could be upgraded, resulting in better accuracy and higher damage counts. At the same time, each talent (biotic/tech abilities) could be upgraded in the same manner. This allowed for a lot more specialization, especially early on.
In ME2, all weapon-related upgrades are filtered under one upgradeable attribute, and talents each have their own upgrades. This isn't a bad system, it's just a little generic after having played the first one so thoroughly.
One hot point of debate on which I can't really make up my mind is the lack of Mako missions, and addition of planet-scanning. For me, this is a trade-off. I favor the new system, but I can't really justify the tedious nature of planet-scanning for minerals. While I enjoyed side-questing and driving the Mako of the first one, it did get repetitive and predictable. There were only minor variations of the same mercenary base for the side-missions. ME2 completely renovates the planets, and every side-mission looks unique and has a distinct layout, which is AWESOME! However, planet-scanning for minerals.... I just can't see why it was necessary to kill the pace of the game with such a tedious way of obtaining materials with which to upgrade your squad and your ship.
Mass Effect 2 is amazing, and you, the reader of this blog, should play it for yourself. Mass Effect 2 gets an A lettergrade!!