A sequel that fixes what was broke and what wasn't broke
Mass Effect 2 was a game that I very much anticipated playing. The first Mass Effect had such great potential, but it was stymied by horrible combat. Its problems were fixable though, and that is why I was eager to see how this game turned out. To my pleasant surprise, Bioware did a good job of addressing the big problems from Mass Effect. Unfortunately though, they also addressed some nonexistent problems, losing a lot of what was good in the process. Given the current trends in gaming, it probably won't surprise you that the bad changes for Mass Effect 2 were made to make the game more, *ahem*, "accessible". This makes the game a mediocre squad-based shooter, instead of a promising but seriously flawed RPG like the first game.
Let's start with the good. Combat has improved. It is way better. The AI of your squad mates actually functions now. They can take your orders without getting lost, and they can use Biotics effectively on their own. Cover actually works. In addition, guns have ammo clips now. Okay, so they are called "thermal clips", and theoretically, you are still using them just to keep the weapons from overheating. This mechanic still works better than the overheating mechanic in the first game, which would penalize you for shooting too much (whereas it seemed like that never happened with your enemy). One of the new additions is a biotic power that allows you sprint across the map and crash into an enemy like a freight train. This ability provides you with a new style of playing the game – as a close range, melee and shotgun-focused tank.
Another bugaboo from the first game, the repetitive side missions, has been fixed for this one. In Mass Effect 2, the side missions are mostly unique and fun. No longer do you land on generic planet #53, drive to a generic building in your Mako, and shoot ten generic space pirates. Most of them have some kind of mini story associated with them. A lot of them revolve around your squad mates.
I mentioned the Mako in the previous paragraph. It was probably the most hated feature of the first Mass Effect (I didn't like it, but I thought it was at least tolerable). You will probably be happy to know that it is gone. When you land on a planet, you land right where you need to be. In its place, sort of, are some new interstellar scavenging elements. To upgrade your ship, armor, and weapons, you can scan planets for various ores and send probes to the surface to mine deposits. You can also occasionally stumble onto a hidden side mission. These new pieces are not poorly done, but mining feels like a bit of a grind. It takes maybe a few minutes to completely scan a planet slowly enough so that you don't miss anything. In order to buy all of the upgrades that you want, you'll have to scan 40+ planets. The interplanetary mining is generally an asset to the game, but it's not outstanding. With a little more focus and fewer, denser planets to scan, it would have worked really well.
Unfortunately, Mass Effect 2 also strips away a lot of what made the first game work. For starters, the role playing system has been completely dumbed down and simplified. The game hardly feels like a role playing game anymore at times. The most glaring omission is the removal of the Charm and Intimidate skills. Your Paragon and Renegade meters now substitute for those. It's an unwelcome change, as the first game allowed you to put extra points into one (or both) persuasion categories, regardless of your disposition. Now, you can only charm if you are a paragon, and intimidate if you are a Renegade. Besides taking away from the choice you had in the first game, it's a dumb oversimplification.
Even worse is what Bioware did with the inventory system. Clunky inventory management was a common complaint about the first game. Instead of fixing the problem though, Bioware simply eliminated inventory.
No longer can you swap armor and weapons out in between party members. It is a prime example of what has been going wrong with Bioware game design for some time now. Between the dumbed down role playing system and the lack of an inventory system to add depth, this game barely feels like an RPG anymore. It feels more like a dialog-heavy, squad based shooter now with some special abilities and light RPG elements sprinkled in. When you look at it as a shooter, Mass Effect 2 is better than Mass Effect, but when you compare it to other shooters, it's somewhat mediocre.
I mentioned before that the sidequests are better than they used to be, and they are. There is a problem though. The party doesn't feel like a party. It feels like a spreadsheet. Every party member has his or her own sidequest, and they all follow a tight formula. They all alert you somehow that they want to have a chat with you. Then you talk to them, and they tell you to visit , to help them resolve some kind of problem. You visit that planet, shoot some dudes, and then make some kind of moral choice at the end. Then, you unlock that character's "cool" black outfit. The best RPGs weave your companions' back stories and side quests elegantly into the game so that they feel natural. Kotor, for example, did a good job with this. Mass Effect 2, however, does it very clumsily, as if every NPC was designed while checking off boxes on a list. The party side quests are the perfect example of how Mass Effect 2 is missing that special "it" factor that made the first game playable despite its infuriating flaws. The first game was full of extreme highs and lows. Mass Effect 2 is flatter, more polished, safer, and more by the numbers.
The second Mass Effect looks as amazing as the first game, but there is one area of the presentation that is a big disappointment – the music. The early 80s sci-fi inspired soundtrack in the first game was fantastic. Mass Effect 2, for some reason, sounds much more generic. Remember the feeling that you got the first time that you heard that wonderful galaxy map music, or wandered through The Citadel in Mass Effect? It was such a perfect match for the setting. You won't get that feeling in Mass Effect 2. The galaxy map music returns, but everything else is pretty unremarkable. I can remember at least five distinct tracks from the first game, but I can't remember any from this one.
I had enough fun to make this game worth playing through and finishing, but it didn't leave me hungering for more. The Mass Effect series is at a crossroads now, and how it ends up will depend upon the attitude with which Bioware approaches the next game. If Bioware continues to strip away gameplay elements in the name of accessibility (like they did with Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2), then their games will continue to slide into mediocrity until they become just another name that nobody gets excited about anymore. If, however, they realize that people still want character development and other role playing elements in their RPGs, then Mass Effect 3 could be a very special game. Unfortunately, the direction of games like Dragon Age 2 hasn't given me a lot of confidence that we'll ever see the old Bioware again.