Mass Effect 2 is the latest example of the Bioware RPG games that have been evolving ever since Knights of the Old Republic introduced us to Bioware's unique mix of story, moral choices, RPG elements and action. It also takes the concept decisively towards shooters, slimming down the RPG elements considerably. Still the main part of the concept is retained - a game with moral choices that actively change the outcome of the story - and what a story it is.
Continuing 221d where the first Mass Effect left off, Mass Effect 2 is a straight up sequel with the storyline building on the events of the first game. On patrol to hunt down any remaining geth, Normandy ends up running into something alien, something far more than it could chew. Cue explosions, epic space battle video clips consisting of Normandy getting shot to bits by the mysterious vessel. Normandy ends up as a wreck and while most of the crew manages to escape in time, Commander Shepard, failing to reach the escape pod in time, ends up missing and presumed killed.
Main character getting killed 15 minutes into the game usually complicates the story. Mass Effect 2 solves this by fast forwarding several years and we find out that the stories of the death of Commander Shepard were somewhat premature. A secret "Lazarus Project" by Cerberus, a shadowy pro-human organization, manages to reconstruct and revive our hero from what little of the body was recovered at the Normandy crash site. Turns out Cerberus has a job and for that they need Shepard and only Shepard. Illusive Man, the mysterious lead figure of the organization fills in some of the blanks and presents his case - humanity needs Shepard as a threat even more dangerous than the geth is looming. Human colonies are being attacked, inhabitants abducted by an unknown enemy and nobody is taking the threat seriously.
Well, if you are so irreplaceable that someone spends a small fortune painstakingly reconstructing and bringing you back to life, it is hard to say no. Illusive Man sweetens the deal by presenting Shepard with a brand new, upgraded Normandy SR-2 - a rebuilt and improved version of the ship seen in the original Mass Effect. Time for a new adventure around the galaxy.
As is customary in Bioware games, the main character can be played as either male or female, with the game adjusting to the gender as appropriate. My Shepard has always been a female, so this review has been adjusted as appropriate - ignore the trailer, the game box and most of the promotional images. All those male Shepard pictures are from some alternate universe - the real Shepard is a tough yet compassionate woman, ready to fight when it is needed. A true hero. Oh, and she is a redhead too.
Veterans of the first Mass Effect with a save on hand can import it into ME2. While your character loses all equipment and levels (getting your ship blown up and dying can do that to you), there is a minor starting bonus for importing a high level Shepard. Class and physical appearance can be adjusted during the transfer and nothing forces you to stick to the alignment you had in the first ME, but the alignment will show a tilt towards your choices in the first game.
The biggest benefit from an imported save is that many major story decisions you made in the first game will carry over, affecting the story in ME2 in subtle ways. There are also clear hints that you should hold onto your ME2 saves as the third game will include this feature as well. The save import is a nice touch but it is not mandatory by any means - you can start out fresh as well. All major plot points you need to know are covered early on and background detail can be found by browsing the codex. Should you wish to start with a specific set of plot decisions from ME1 and the idea of replaying the first game doesn't appeal to you, you can go for a save from an unofficial online repository of ME1 saves.
The story is has a clear structure that allows you to play large parts of the game in any order you want. After the dramatic opening and a bit of warm-up, you are back at the command of Normandy, free to roam the galaxy with the initial members of your team. The immediate objective is to gather up a team of people and win over their loyalty while preparing the ship for the fight ahead, but there are many twists and turns along the way.
As usual, just about everything can be done at least in two different ways - you can choose a noble, nonviolent (when possible) approach and gain Paragon points or go for the selfish, violent, "evil" choices for Renegade points. As a new feature, at times you can also choose to take Paragon or Renegade actions - usually either by saving someone or by skipping the pleasantries and solving the situation with a gun. While most of the choices are pretty black and white, conversations often offer some shades of gray, allowing you to take the middle road, ending up with both Paragon and Renegade points. It all depends on your exact approach. Choices are everywhere and while the main plot stays the same, decisions often have interesting consequences that influence things. It is safe to say that many decisions you make during the game will alter your experience in the upcoming third game as well.
Games: Mass Effect 2
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