There’s a scene in the beginning of Mass Effect 2 when a Cerberus operative walks into the room and shoots someone in the head without missing a beat. It’s about as dramatic as an entrance can get, but it sets the tone for the game beautifully. Mass Effect 2 grabs your attention with its jaw-dropping intro and refuses to let go, dropping you directly in the line of fire. Want to save the universe? Hope you’re ready to get your hands dirty. There’s no such thing as good guys or bad guys anymore, just the ones who live and the ones who don’t.

Normally, I’d begin my review by giving you a brief overview of the game’s plot, but I’m not going to do that here. The story of Mass Effect 2 is, I think, best experienced completely fresh, and I don’t want to ruin it by telling you too much about what to expect. I will say that once again, you’re in command of the Normandy, and you need to assemble a team of specialists to help you on a mission to save humanity. Things have changed since you last saw Shepard; new crew members take the place of old friends, and the universe isn’t quite how you left it. Hard days lie ahead of you and your team.

You don’t need to have played the first Mass Effect in order to pick up the second, but you’re probably going to have a better experience if you have. Mass Effect 2 does its best to catch you up on the major events of its predecessor, but there are many small references sprinkled throughout your adventures that will be meaningless if you’re coming in brand news. You can also carry your character from a completed game over into the new Mass Effect, in an extremely easy process that sets you up with varying bonuses depending on your Shepard’s level. You’re also given the option to change your saved character’s appearance and class if you want to branch out and try something new.

Conversation and relationship building, a major component of Mass Effect is an even more important part of the sequel. Your team members unlock new abilities once their Loyalty is high enough, so taking the time to chat them up isn’t just entertaining busywork. The innovative dialogue system, which made conversation feel more organic and less like choosing from a menu, remains intact but comes with an intriguing upgrade. At certain key points, an icon will flash on screen allowing you to select a Paragon or Renegade action, such as offering medicine to a plague sufferer or letting him die. These opportunities only last a moment before they’re gone, so you’ll have to pay attention during conversations if you hope to catch them. It’s not terribly frequent, but it does create an undercurrent of spontaneity that doesn’t normally exist in videogame conversation.

While much of Mass Effect 2 remains virtually identical to its predecessor, its combat got a major overhaul to make it more in line with contemporary shooters. You can either use a radial wheel or the D-pad and shoulder buttons to issue basic commands to your squadmates as well as tap your own special abilities and ammo. Weapons all now require thermal clips that act like ammo – the more powerful the weapon, the fewer shots you get from a clip. It’s smooth and intuitive, if a bit simplistic. Choosing companions with the right mix of biotic, tech, and gun powers to bring with you into a fight can be crucial; there’s nothing more annoying than getting slaughtered because you brought too many gun jockeys and not enough techs (or the other way around).

Mass Effect‘s cumbersome inventory system has also thankfully been simplified. Now, rather than carrying around countless bits of guns, ammo, and armor just in case, you simply choose your loadout gear before a mission. Any upgrades you make – say, an increase to shotgun damage – are automatically instituted across the board. Upgrades that are specific to a particular character or species are very clearly indicated, as are each weapon’s abilities. It’s a simple, clean system that works quite well.

Not all of Mass Effect 2‘s changes are improvements, however. You’ll discover research for upgrades to your ship and crew during your adventures, but you’ll need to collect raw materials to construct them. In the previous game, you’d find the minerals you needed by scanning planets, landing on the surface driving around for a bit, and pushing a button. It wasn’t exactly exhilarating, but driving the Mako was somewhat interesting. Now, instead of driving around the planet, you’re scanning from orbit, which consists of running your cursor around a map of the planet and shooting out a probe every time the meter spikes. It’s quite tedious, but the caches of raw material you find make it well worth being thorough. You can eventually buy upgrades that speed the process, but it never feels like anything other than busywork.

Mass Effect 2 manages to straddle the line between RPG and shooter with surprisingly satisfying dexterity, maintaining a fast pace without ever sacrificing its dedication to characters or story. It stumbles at times, but the brilliance of the overall experience isn’t diminished by its flaws. BioWare has done an impressive job of making the threat not just to your crew, but to humanity itself feel very real – you can thank the top notch writing and outstanding voice acting for that. The decisions you make have real consequences and weight. This is not a game you blow through in an afternoon, but one you savor, ponder, and carefully consider. The fact that you get to do those things while shooting the crap out of aliens is just a delicious bonus.

Bottom Line: Mass Effect 2 gets everything almost exactly right. It’s smart enough to not change what worked best in the first game while polishing the bits that didn’t. A few things are still creaky, but you won’t care.

Recommendation: Play the first one, if you haven’t already, then buy this one and play it too. Then tap your foot impatiently waiting for the final chapter.

Score: [rating=5]

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Susan Arendt hopes BioWare includes a space pony in upcoming downloadable content.

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