Let's get the rampant adoration out of the way right now - Mass Effect 2 is quite possible the Game of the Year. Yes, we have many months to go, and there's a lot of great titles coming down the pike. But we simply can't imagine any other game delivering the same smooth, slick, and immensely satisfying blend of action and storytelling that ME2 does. What's more, it's that rarest of rare eggs, the sequel that both honours the original, and in many ways surpasses it.
Truly, it is the Empire Strikes Back of games. Also, we lied - expect a lot more adoration ahead.
In Media Res
In a game that's all about story and plot twists, it would be poor form to be too spoilery, so we'll do our best to keep things concise without giving away any major plot points, especially some of the early eye openers. But rest assured, ME 2 starts with a hell of a bang, and throws you straight into the deep end of an ongoing investigation into a mysterious series of attacks on human colonies.
In between recruiting your new team (and there are some old faces amongst them), and making these initial inquiries, you also get a generous re-introduction to the Mass Effect milieu - and we'll say it now: you really owe it to yourself to make sure you've completed the first game, as the integration of the new title with your old completed save is nothing short of stunning.
Any allies who died in the first will stay dead; decisions made (or not made), will have a lasting effect on the shape of the game, and as you travel the stars you'll be reminded more than once of your past deeds. More than any other second game in a series, this feels fundamentally fluid. And yet, because of the... interesting circumstances of the game's opening plotting, you can bring back your old character, while still getting a chance to mess around with their looks and class. Played a Soldier first time around, but feel like messing about with Biotics this time? Not a problem, and it's elegantly written into the story.
Your old character level is brought into play, as well, though only providing a one level boost at the game's start, though it must be said that the drop from high-level arse kicker down to first level noob is actually not at all jarring, thanks to the radically re-tooled character mechanics.
Elegant in its simplicity
A lot of early reviews are saying that BioWare has stripped out a lot of the RPG elements in ME2, and in terms of straight up western PC RPGs, there's an element of truth to that. One of the big complaints about the original was the clunky inventory system, which quickly got clogged with useless weapon upgrades and underpowered weapons and armour. The subsequent PC release did a lot to fix that, but it was still something best left ignored, and woe betide anyone actually trying to sell something, or convert stuff to Omnigel.
In ME2, though, that's all gone, almost literally.
There is no inventory. Instead, as you find new weapons, they become available to everyone who can use them - this is a post scarcity economy after all! Similarly, upgrades are a simple matter of finding enough raw materials (scattered throughout each area, and in unexplored star systems), then committing to the research - and again, all upgrades propagate through all relevant weapons and characters.
Armour in particular is a huge departure - characters now retain their signature armours, and only odd bits of gear will be added, like helmets or special targeting visors.
It seems like an odd move to take out what is usually one of the best elements of an RPG - the mixing and matching of better gear - but BioWare makes it work.
Another thing that is vastly simplified are character skills. Each character now only has about a half dozen skills, each with only four levels of specialisation. Weapon and healing skills are gone, leaving behind only the most interesting and flavoursome of talents, like the ever so shiny Warp and other Biotic skills. Again, it might seem that taking stuff away runs counter to the idea of making a better sequel, but the simply approach to the game's mechanics allows you focus on what Mass Effect is all about.
Blowing stuff up, and an amazing story populated with memorable characters.
When Mass Effect finally came out on PC, the game really did feel as though it had found it's true home, and that's even more the case now. With a revamped cover system, more aggressive squadmate AI, and locational damage (BOOM! Headshot!), ME2's action is more tactical than ever. The addition of limited ammunition, and more weapon types (like range of awesome heavy weapons you can unlock), also makes for a more thoughtful approach to taking on the enemy, where it be the insectoid Collectors or the savage Vorcha, or any number of foes old and new.
The squad command system is much more streamlined now, too, thanks to the restriction in powers - and that tighter AI will also use those powers much more cleverly, and quicker cooldowns means more powers at your disposal at any one time should you still feel the need to pause the action and give out orders.
Finally, you can easily order your two squadmates about the map using the Q and E keys - setting up ambushes and crossfires has never been simpler, or, with some of the beastly new powers (like being able to trigger a string of up to a dozen singularities in a straight line - ouch!), nastier.
But the true shining heart of ME2 is its story, replete with heroes and villains (who are sometimes neither, and often both), romance, drama, and some of the best Sci Fi writing outside of an Alastair Reynolds novel. It ties so deeply into the first game that at many times you'll really be thinking that this is, rather than a sequel, simply the most complete pack of extra content ever released. And with the mechanics so carefully pared back, the story - and the role you play in it - can really come to the fore.
In fact, it's easy to forget that this is a game at all. If ever a western game deserved the often sniggered at title of 'interactive entertainment', it's Mass Effect 2. Game of the Year, though? Well, BioWare's set the bar pretty damn high.