HIGH: Agonizing over choices during the endgame.
LOW: Planet scanning.
WTF: ...I've studied species turian, asari, and batarian.
Mass Effect 2 is not Mass Effect 1. This much should be obvious from a mathematical standpoint. Mass Effect 2 is the sequel to Mass Effect 1. Again, math shows us the way. So the question at hand, as it is with all sequels spiritual or otherwise, is this—what does the new iteration bring to the table that its predecessor didn't? Despite my enthusiasm for the original, it had numerous flaws that I hoped would be addressed in Mass Effect 2. And while it did deliver in some areas, it stumbled in others, and led me to believe that the first game is indeed superior. Still, I can safely say that my overall satisfaction with the result of BioWare's experimentation was a bit greater that Brad's. Indeed, most of my dissatisfaction had less to do with what they actually did and more with what they chose to punt on.
First, the positives. Combat in Mass Effect 1, while acceptable, was just that—acceptable. While there was an occasional firefight I got some real enjoyment out of (such as the final boss or the encounter with Benezia), the battles were largely a clusterfucky mishmash of my teammates jumping right out into enemy fire and me constantly thinking "please don't let there be a hidden sniper back there." Weaponry and powers were also a little unbalanced, with pistols and sniper rifles ruling the roost against pretty much everything, and the tech abilities being near useless. While none of this caused me to throw my mouse down in frustration, I still felt like I was slogging through each fight to get to the next bit of plot advancement.
Fast forward to Mass Effect 2, and gone are virtually all my battle-related qualms. The frenzied fights have been replaced by a Gears of War-like system of moving in short bursts from cover spot to cover spot. Tech abilities have been enhanced to where they are just as helpful as the biotic powers. My teammates now will actually take cover when it is prudent to do so, and I found myself using the squad commands much more than in the first game. Setting my squad up at the front lines and running around the side with my trusty charge+shotgun combo never quite got old, and was much more enjoyable than the confusion that abounded in Mass Effect 1. So while fighting is hardly the focus of the game (nor should it be), it was very much appreciated that a lot of the slack was picked up in this area.
Characterization. In this aspect lies Mass Effect 2's greatest strength, but also the source of its greatest weakness, which I'll get to later. Mass Effect 1's cast was anchored by some great personalities, but drawn back by some others. The also-rans on my ship were a bit of a drag, as taking them with me or interacting with them felt like more of a chore than anything else. I was hoping that Mass Effect 2 would take a cue from Dragon Age: Origins and make an effort to give everyone some time to shine, and in this regard my prayers were answered.
Every character (not counting the über-lame DLC-only character) was a treat to talk to and interact with. Each of them is unique and charming in their own way, and the loyalty missions, the specialized missions concerning a specific character, allowed the spotlight to shine on them all. The dynamics of each character were extremely well done, and it made decisions about who to take with me all the more difficult. Speaking of choices, the level of characterization makes Mass Effect 2's endgame all the more agonizing. I won't spoil anything, but the suspense at the end is palpable, as the fate of the team and the entire crew of the Normandy rests on your decisions. While it did hurt the game in other areas, the focus on the buildup to the endgame was certainly successful.
Now for the bad news. As I said before, Mass Effect 2's characterization is both a blessing and a curse, since while the individual characters are portrayed wonderfully, it is done so at the expense of the overall plot that was so exquisite in Mass Effect 1. The lack of focus in the story can feel very awkward at times, as I often lost sight of the overall goal of Shepard and his shipmates in the face of so much "side" content. And when the game ends, very little has occurred in regards to the plot, leaving a somewhat dissatisfied feeling in its wake.
On top of that, the game fails to take some needed steps forward with its characters as well. One of the things I felt was really missing from Mass Effect 1 was some more interaction among the team I took so much time to build. It was a little disappointing to have all these interesting personalities and only be able to see them in one-on-one interactions with Shepard. Dragon Age handled this superbly, with lots and lots of banter between the team that was almost always wonderful. Unfortunately, this kind of interaction is sorely lacking in Mass Effect 2, and its absence is felt even more due the increased number of party members. There are some very bad instances of this on the loyalty missions, when I would expect a certain team member to chime in with some sort of insight on the situation only to be given dumbfounded silence.
As I said, my disappointment with Mass Effect 2 stems more from what they didn't do rather than what they did. As much as I liked it, the game is awash with missed opportunities to surpass the original and certainly has its share of "wha?" moments. The lack of focus on the main storyline also hurts. Still, once I got over the initial shell-shock of all the changes, I really enjoyed most of my time with the game. The characterization is top-notch and it comes along with a number of welcome technical improvements. The core of what made Mass Effect 1 so good is still there, even if it is going through a bit of a mid-life crisis.
Disclosures: The game was obtained via Steam download and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 31 hours was spent completing the game once on normal difficulty.