If you really think about it, the whole sci-fi and fantasy thing is silly. I mean, we know there are no elves. We know there are no death stars or Jedis, yet we get sucked into worlds that are home to these imaginary beings with their impossible characters and ridiculous plots. Lemme see, the world is about to end, someone’s gotta save it… again. Yeah, didn’t see that one coming. The true triumph of any such world or the creators that craft them then, lies in this: you want to believe that they exist.

When my 30 hour campaign with Mass Effect 2 was over, I felt genuinely disappointed about coming back to reality. What fun is it living in a world where there aren’t any flying cars, pulse rifles or Krogans? If that isn’t a testament to how good Bioware’s latest offering is, I don’t know what is.

The sequel to Mass Effect 1 is a refinement and improvement in almost every department. To the ones that never played the prequel (and you really should), the story ended with the hero, Commander Shepard (that’s you) and his crew aboard the star ship “Normandy”, saving the galaxy from these nasty things called “Reapers” (I am deliberately being  vague here).  Though one of these Reapers was defeated, they still had remnants of an army scattered in space. Mass Effect 2 begins with Shepard and his crew looking for said remnants.

The screenshots and gameplay videos will probably have you believe this is more of an action game rather than a pure RPG like Bioware’s own Dragon Age. In a way this is true. The combat is hectic and plays more like a third person shooter a la Gears of War. But make no mistake; this is an RPG through and through. This is a beautifully realised world with interesting races, deep history and characters you can genuinely connect with. And explosions. Lots of explosions. Which brings me to a word that I will be using a lot throughout this review: cinematic. ME2 is very, very cinematic. No other game has employed digital actors as effectively as this has. Right from the spectacular opening sequence, the player knows he’s in for a treat.

That being said, I must make one thing very clear at the onset, this is not a game where the player goes around exploring the world per se. Not that you can’t do it, because you can… well, sort of (more on this later).  Just don’t expect an epic 100+ hour romp like Dragon Age. The onus here is on delivering a tight, story driven experience. And in this, ME2 excels beyond anything I have played in a very long time. As far as the game mechanics go, there’s the usual quests, dialogues and conversation options etc that one would expect from any standard RPG. What sets it apart is the sheer amount of detail. The voice acting is spectacular; every planet you go to has a different look and feel to it (unlike the prequel where every place looked the same), the story is darker, the characters develop beautifully and there are thankfully no vehicle missions to bring things down.

I’m still surprised at how such an action-centric game managed to come across as a genuine RPG. The focus on combat might make some believe that the role playing aspect must be toned down but thankfully this is not the case. Sure, the complete absence of inventory management may come as a shock to many (me included) but once you realize that it does not take anything away from the experience, you see the logic behind it. The player rarely picks up weapons or gear during missions. You do however, pick up cash, hack PDAs and security systems (via a couple of neat mini games shown in the pic below) and scan enemy weapons for “schematics” that can be used to research upgrades/prototypes onboard the Normandy. There’s is a catch however. Said upgrades or research can only happen if you have enough of certain “resources”. Resources that the player needs to gather by scanning various planets in the galaxy. This involves another mini game which is fine the first few times but quickly becomes tedious. Unfortunately, this is the weakest part of the whole ME2 experience. What makes it so lame is the amount of scanning a player will have to do to get all the good upgrades. Think hours. Yeah, like I said, lame. To be fair, you don’t HAVE to get all the upgrades provided, but, not doing so will have some pretty severe repercussions, the least of which will be to make combat harder.

Speaking of which, combat is where Bioware removed all stops. Once you look past the whole “inspired by Gears of War” thing, i.e., the cover system and automatic health regen etc., the tactical depth becomes apparent. Character animations are fluid and natural, deployment of party members is important and usage of powers is critical. Although you could technically shoot your way through most fights without really having to bother with biotic powers, at least on normal difficulty, the real fun begins when you let loose with everything you have. Those of us that like to take advantage of every tactical opportunity will use the “active pause” feature to devastating effect. Like anything else in the game, it looks wonderfully cinematic.  You can take a look at the sample video below to get an idea of how slick it all is (mind you, I deliberately slowed things down so that the viewer gets to see what power I’m going to fire up. Real time battles would be much quicker with hotkeys and not much pausing.)

One unique thing the developers did was to give players the option of carrying over their character from the first game.  The actions you took as Commander Shepard in ME1 will have consequences in ME2. For instance, if you treated a certain NPC badly in the first game, he will remember once you encounter him again. This is more than a mere gimmick as it adds to the atmosphere and persistence of not just your adventure but the world itself. Not to mention, it will decide how certain quests play out, or if you have access to them at all. The beauty of it is that even if you import a previous character, you do have the option of changing his/her looks and class. How this happens will not be discussed as it would be a HUGE spoiler. Let’s just say it’s something you haven’t seen before.

Creating a new character is no less fun. The customisation options are robust and can help you create a unique looking Shepard complete with personal background and history. One small complaint I did have was the limited skills you have access to (take a look at the last screenshot).  A deeper skill pool would have been welcome. Also, there is no option of customizing the gear of your teammates beyond choosing weapons and skills. This could well be a moot point as most of the time the camera is centred on you anyway.

Doing justice to the darker story (ME2 has already had its share of “The empire strikes back” comparisons) is the way dialogue options refrain from being purely a choice between “good” “bad” “neutral”. Strictly speaking there is no “evil” path here. Shepard is out to save the galaxy after all. The much talked about Paragon/Renegade options should really be labelled Lawful/Badass. Taking the supposed “evil” path and acting like a ruthless bastard has never been so much fun. Adding to the cinematic (there’s that word again) feel is how you can interrupt cut scenes to perform Paragon/Renegade actions. This is another first and one that is a whole lot of fun.

The game makes good use of the Unreal 3.5 engine. As mentioned earlier, there is a lot of variety in how different areas look. With regards to level design, the space you can “explore” is fairly limited. Although, I must say, it feels a lot larger than it is. Mass Effect has never been about exploration anyway. Getting lost in an alien wilderness looking for random loot would be a huge deviation from the whole cinematic thing. The only reason most people would shuttle between planets is to either continue the story or look for those damn resources. The game makes no apologies for being focused on what it’s out to deliver and is all the richer for it.

No review of ME2 would be complete without giving due attention to the awesome cast of NPCs that make up your squad. I’ve mentioned before how Bioware pretty much define the bar when it comes to infusing character into NPCs. This game is no exception. Every team mate you have is voiced to perfection; the time you spend getting to know them better will pay off via getting side quests specific to each member of your team. Hell, even the damn ship has a personality! It’s safe to say that by the end of the game, most people will know the Normandy and its crew inside out.

Minor complaints notwithstanding, the only reason I would ask people not to plunge right into ME 2 is if they missed the prequel. This is one title that is so much more than the sum of its parts. And when you consider just how good each individual part is, that’s saying something.

Mass Effect 2 is more than just a game. It is a statement of how far the medium has evolved and what it is capable of.