Disclaimer: This user review may contain spoilers of the first Mass Effect. While Mass Effect 2 is available on X-Box 360 and PS3, this user review is based off the PC version.
If you read my user review on the first Mass Effect, then it won't come to you as any surprise that I loved it. I played and finished the first Mass Effect in early 2010 and for some silly reason I didn't pick up Mass Effect 2 until early 2011, but it is better late than never after all, especially with a game like this.
Before playing Mass Effect 2, I highly suggest you play and complete the first one and import your character data into Mass Effect 2, to carry over your choices from the first game. Should you not do that, you can either start Mass Effect 2 from the 'default' or you can read the interactive graphic novel DLC based off the first game, to essentially make your dialogue choices. I wouldn't suggest this option, but it's there if you need it.
Mass Effect 2 picks up where the first game left off. The Citadel was saved from the Reaper Sovereign. Commander Shepard and the crew of the Normandy are searching the galaxy for remains of the Geth, before they are suddenly attacked by an unknown but powerful vessel. Shepard insures the majority of his crew escapes via the escape pods, leaving him to go down with the hip. Shepard is killed. At the beginning of the game.
Two years later, Shepard awakes on an operating table to find that yes, he/she was dead and he/she was pretty much a burned up corpse, but somehow with the power of technology and a lot of money, the human-pro group known as Cerberus were able to do the impossible and bring Shepard back from the dead through what they call “Project Lazarus”. The mysterious leader of Cerberus known only as “The Illusive Man” reveals that he bought back Shepard from the dead because he needs the best to combat a new threat. Human colonies have been going missing and are being captured by the Collectors, an unknown group of aliens who live beyond the outer reaches of the galaxy.
To combat this threat, Shepard is forced to work with the Illusive Man and is no longer considered part of the Alliance Navy. Shepard is giving a new, rebuilt Normandy and is then tasked to locate specific individuals, individuals whom are considered the galaxy's best and most dangerous, from scientists, to soldiers and assassins, to assemble a team to take on the most dangerous mission.
The overall plot of Mass Effect 2 is much darker than that of Mass Effect 1. While Mass Effect 1 was essentially a wild goose chase of a rogue Spectre, Mass Effect 2 feels much more personal and more is at stake. Once again the plot is vast and deep and once again, there is a lot of talking. Again this may sit well with others and some it may not, but since it's so well written and so well performed, I quite like it and is one of the reasons I love the series so much.
Should you import your character and his/her accomplishments from the first Mass Effect, character creation won't be a problem and you'll even start the game with bonus credits, levels and skill points, pretty much kicking Shepard off with an advantage. Should you be new to the franchise though, you'll be going through the character creation process of choosing a male or female Shepard, along with a character class (Soldier, Engineer, Sentinel, Vanguard, Adept or Infiltrator) and a background, whether it's Sole Survivor, War Hero or Ruthless Soldier, as well as an origins background being Earth-Born, Spacer or Colonist.
The overall game play remains similar to the first game however a lot has changed. The cover system is more stream lined, playing similar to other third person shooters. Shepard is a bit more mobile now, being able to jump over cover objects and other obstacles. Weapons now need ammunition, instead of essentially having unlimited ammo with a cool down period, Shepard will now need to pick up ammo to reload his weapons. Thankfully, ammo is universal and when collected, restores ammo to all of your weapons.
Skills are a bit simpler now too. The skill list has been reduced and the amount of ranks per skill have shrunk a little too. Players criticised the simplification and said that the game was becoming more shooter and less RPG, but I actually appreciate the simplification. To me it makes things flow a bit better and it just feels less cluttered. New skills have been introduced to each class, such as the soldier's Adrenaline Rush (being able to slow down time in combat).
As with the previous game, Shepard is on the battlefield with two other characters acting as party members, or squad mates. Each squad member is a class of their own with their own skills and their own weapons of choice. As with the previous game, players can essentially pause combat and freely look around, ordering their companions who to attack and with what skill, or move to a certain location.
To some criticism, the game not only has regenerative shields but also regenerative health. Health packs are still in the game but are only used to revive fallen squad members. The regenerative health doesn't bother me too much, considering the game is quite challenging and more difficult than the previous game.
Like the simpler skills, the inventory has become a bit simpler as well, which in my opinion is a good thing considering the first game had me spending so much time cleaning out my inventory. This time you'll only find unique weapons per weapon category, and your armour and default look will remain the same, unless you choose to customise it. You can acquire new pieces of armour if you want to, but the differences are only minor. Some pieces of armour might give you more shields, but less health etc.
The amount of squad members has greatly increased from the first game. Some characters will make a return from the first game to be in your squad, while some characters will make a return as a cameo only. There are a lot of new characters though and all of them are very deep, well thought and well written. Upon the recruit of a new character, it's up to you to get to know them and to obtain their trust and loyalty, which can unlock a 'loyalty mission' that's unique to the character.
As mentioned before, there's a lot of talking and a lot of choice through either physical action or by dialogue alone. Your overall choices affect the overall course of the game and can award you either Paragon or Renegade points, which now instead of having charm/intimidate skills, your dialogue will depend on your Paragon or Renegade points. One new feature is the in-game Paragon/Renegade action, which usually takes place in a cut scene. For example, someone might be yelling at Shepard and as Shepard is taking the abuse, the red Paragon icon may appear on screen accompanied by a subtle noise. Hit the right mouse button, and Shepard will head butt the guy in the face. Do nothing, and Shepeard will do nothing. The same goes with Paragon actions.
The Normandy itself, like Shepard can also acquire upgrades of its own. These upgrades are mostly cosmetic, however without revealing too much, are essential to the end of the game. A tip without spoiling? Upgrade the Normandy as best you can.
Speaking of upgrading the Normandy and your characters' weapons and items, you can now find resources and minerals to fund these upgrades. These resources are found by scanning planets across the galaxy using the Normandy's scanning systems, which in all honesty is actually a bit of a boring, but essential task.
Mass Effect 2's environments are large, beautiful and very well detailed. Luckily there are no annoying vehicle sections, all missions begin on foot. Most of the environments are large with a lot to see and explore, however similar to the first game, a lot of the smaller side missions will have smaller, recycled areas that may be seem repetitive.
Mass Effect 2 is a brilliantly beautiful game, the graphics have certainly improved from the last title. That being said, some things do still look a little annoying, like females' hair and a lot of the more bare male faces. The cut scenes have improved, having more movement and are less static than before. The voice acting remains very well done, going hand in hand with the well written script.
There isn't much to complain about here, other than the boring mining and resource collecting segments and some seriously bad hairdos. Mass Effect 2 is simply a bigger and better game than Mass Effect 1, although to get the full and true experience of this game, it really is best to import your story from Mass Effect 1, into Mass Effect 2.
Mass Effect 2 is available on X-Box 360, PS3 and PC.