The first Mass Effect-game was a milestone in terms of cinematic video gaming. Unlike other so-called cinematic games, Mass Effect actually managed to turn the cinematic part into gameplay. No passive cutscenes, no flashy over-the-top action only to return to ingame-gameplay that is a lot more toned down. Mass Effect throws you into an original world (actually, universe, haha) and leaves any further decision to you, the player. Of course, the realm of choices isn´t as open as some fans sometimes make it sound, but that´s maybe why Mass Effect works that well: You´re given a linear path that you have to follow. But what you experience on that way is totally up to yourself.
Mass Effect 2 took that concept and improved upon it. The moment you start Mass Effect 2 is like beginning to watch some epic scifi-movie. Only seconds later, you´re given control over your character. The whole entrance scene, which I am not going to spoil, is brilliant. The mood, the visuals, the sound, the plot contents of just the very first minutes grab your brain and won´t let you go for hours. It´s one masterful cinematic game experience. You never feel as if control is taken away from you. Yet, every single moment could be from a movie. Where Mass Effect 1 was a great start of a new franchise, Mass Effect 2 simply feels so much more massive, polished. The way your character moves, the way you fire your weapon, the way you talk to people. The basic mechanics are all there, but they´ve been improved upon tenfolds.
Mass Effect 2 is the second act of a trilogy. That means that the game functions as a preparation for the grand finale that will be Mass Effect 3. While Mass Effect 2 is very well capable of existing by itself, the man plot is this game´s weak point. Mass Effect 1 gave you a clear enemy, Saren. Each and every mission in that game built up to a final confrontation with the corrupted Turian. Such an arc nemesis is missing in Mass Effect 2. There is a main plot, but it isn´t until the end part of the game that you get a feeling for that story. But Mass Effect 2´s strength is somewhere else.
The first game within the franchise introduced some characters to the player, but neither of them was worth more than an optional sidequest that didn´t feature much story in itself. In Mass Effect 2, your crew is the star of the game. Instead of the five long main missions in ME1, now you have a vast variety of shorter missions awaiting you. Each of these new missions won´t take you much longer than thirty minutes each. That comes with both positives and negatives. On the one hand, many missions lack the variety of decisions that you had in ME1. Just think of all the different possible outcomes on Noveria. Everyone that finished ME1 several times will know about that. Mass Effect 2 still features important story within these missions, but they´re more to the point. You´re fighting your way through enemy-contaminated areas, then you reach a check point where a cutscene (again, “cutscene” within the ME-franchise means that some talk is going on) starts and where you might be presented with making one of several decisions. That´s due to the linear structure of these missions. Mass Effect 2 is less about exploration than ME1, and more about decision-making. The whole way the game is made really invites you to replay it many more times. You still have your Paragon- and Renegade-options, your “gray“-options, and sometimes a newly introduced action-option, where Shepard will do something, like pushing an enemy through a windows as one early trailer-video showed.
What greatly helps to make the more linear missions fun is the completely new combat-system. It is also where Mass Effect 2 decided to become a real role-playing game. Instead of relying on skill points, combat now feels more like that of a real shooter-title. You´re aiming by yourself, no skill points for higher accuracy. Duck and cover-mechanics have changed. It´s a bit disappointing that you cannot crouch at will anymore, but the new cover-system couldn´t be that much better. Hiding behind objects to avoid enemy fire works very well, as does jumping over these objects by double-clicking the A-button. The quick-button inclusion for biotic-attacks also comes in handy. Using “Burn” on an enemy feels great, especially if you have it leveled up that much that it one-hit-ko´s him. What really makes the difference, though, are the weapons. Instead of four weapons that only differ in terms of dealt damage, Mass Effect 2 features a relatively enormous arsenal of guns, rifles and other awesome stuff. My favorite item is the fast-firing sniper rifle. To give an example of how full of love for detail the game is, if developing it far enough, you gain the passive ability of getting a short slowmo while aiming with the sniper rifle. And not only is the slowmo-effect nice visually, it also takes effect on sound effects. Which at times is annoying if you wanted to listen to your crew members.But it really emphasizes the feeling of being a badass sniper that enters his own world where there´s nothing but himself and his target.
Mass Effect 2 let´s you visit the home planets of some of the alien races. Where the game still fails is to finally show us how female Krogans, Turians and Volus look like. And that´s not the biggest tease, without giving any more hints. Yes, Mass Effect 2 feels a bit too humanoid just about everywhere. The crazy alien worlds are missing. Still, the locations you get to visit are built with a high level for detail. Omega alone is such a varied place, stuff going on at every corner. Then you have the old citadel, that is a lot smaller than the original citadel, but still features nice scenes. And then there are more planets. A lot more. There are no more open planets like the ones in ME1. This doesn´t give monotony a chance, but surely it takes away from the fascination of space and the unknown. To find new, optional planets to land on, you have to use the new scanning-feature. Using it, you can mine different minerals that you´ll need for upgrading your equipments. Mass Effect 2 doesn´t have loot in the sense of its predecessor. You don´t pick up new weapons and suits all the time. Instead, you collect minerals and money and buy add-ons later on. These add-ons have to be attached manually. Again, stuff like that is what makes Mass Effect 2 feel more massive. you´re really adding this new stuff by yourself. And you can see the differences.
The best way to describe Mass Effect 2 is in saying that it is what it is: The dark, second act. Unlike Mass Effect 1, where you had to explore space in search of evidence for the danger that the Reapers are, you already know about that danger in Mass Effect 2. It´s all about preparing for facing off this known danger. By doing that, the game will introduce one of the greatest casts of characters and propose you to some of the most spine-chilling decisions you ever made in a video game. And so much more than the first game, or any video game at all, Mass Effect 2 makes you permanently think:
And that is probably what makes Mass Effect 2 the greatest of modern gaming: With all its cinematic presentation, it induces the player´s curiosity to play over and over again. Where all the usual big, hyped “blockbuster games” are lacking in the end, Mass Effect 2 proves that lacking in content and interactivity is not the medium´s fault. And to think that a thirty-hour game features such a level of replayability is remarkable – and embarrassing for most other developers.
And that´s just the start. A new crew-member is announced for the near future, as well as the so-called Hammerhead-DLC, the successor of ME1´s Mako, including a set of missions designed for this vehicle. And besides all the new content upcoming, don´t forget about the sheer variety the game features as is. Not only can you decide within cinematic talks, the game also heavily changes depending on what class you chose. Each class has special abilities. My favorite, the Infiltrator, can turn himself invisible for a short period of time. And that´s really just one class you can choose.
To conclude: Even if the main plot is weaker than its predecessor´s, Mass Effect 2 is the single popular video game that puts emphasis on the medium´s strength: Interactivity. A piece of advise: Do never reload a previous save just because of a seemingly wrong decision. When the credits start rolling, it´ll have been your own adventure. With all the personal decisions you made. In that respect, Mass Effect 2 has become a real role-playing game.