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The second entry in the Mass Effect trilogy has finally arrived.

Note:  No plot spoilers ahead, although game mechanics and certain nuances are discussed which some might consider spoilers.  This review covers the Xbox 360 version.

Mass Effect 2 has been compared to The Empire Strikes Back, in that it’s a darker and more intense experience than its predecessor.  I would say that everything about Mass Effect 2 fits this description; the fighting is more intense, the story more dramatic, and the game universe more fleshed out.  If nothing else, Mass Effect 2 is going to increase your hunger for all things related to the storyline.  In the spirit of trying to avoid potential spoilers, I’m not going to talk about the plot or the new classes at all.  If you want info on the classes, check out Game Trailers or IGN.  If you want info on the story, play the game!

Playing ME2 feels very different than playing ME1, but you still know you are playing a Mass Effect game.  Even though I hadn’t played the first Mass Effect since early 2008, I was instantly transported back into its world from the moment the first loading screen came up.  Getting used to the more intense fighting sequences and accepting that this isn’t as deep of an RPG as Mass Effect 1 will take some time, but that’ll come on its own.  By the time I was three hours in, I found myself approving of and enjoying the many nuanced changes.  I haven’t quite finished my first run yet, but from what I read it should take anywhere between 20-40 hours per play through, depending on how much you see and do.

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The most noticeable difference is the aforementioned lack of traditional RPG elements.  There is no loot anymore, at least not in the way you would typically describe loot.  I personally love spending forever and a day tooling around my inventory, but a lot of people don’t, so I can understand why they went this route. Instead of having an inventory of various weapons, armors, and upgrades, there is a research system in place.  You can find or buy schematics, and then using materials obtained by scanning planets you can build upgrades (more on scanning planets later).  These upgrades are automatically applied to all similar items (weapon, armor, etc.) that you and all of your teammates have.  While this does reduce the RPG element, it streamlines things quite nicely.  The change to the armor system is also welcome; now, you can quickly mix and match different pieces of armor for a completely custom look.  The use of MediGel has been completely changed as well; Shepard auto-heals, as has become the custom in many games nowadays.  The MediGel is used strictly for healing your teammates (which does not require line of sight to work.)  At first, I was upset to see the game go from being an RPG/Action game to being an Action/RPG game, but now that I’ve gotten used to the new system, I think it was the right move; YMMV, of course.

Weapons are very different now as well.  You don’t have to worry about overheating anymore, but all weapons have limited ammo by way of “heat-sink clips”.  The way this is explained in the story is that they act as depleatable heatsinks.  Once too many shots have been fired and the heatsink is overloaded, you drop it out and replace it (i.e. ammo magazine.)  You will sometimes find yourself running low on ammo, but I haven’t run completely dry before.  As with most of the differences between ME1 and ME2, I didn’t really dig this at first…but the changes it made to combat tactics has me convinced it was the right move.  Heavy Weapons appear now as well, from rocket launchers to grenade launchers.  Ammo is fairly limited, but the new heavy weapons will save your hide more than once.  Unfortunately, mines (and their associated upgrades) are nowhere to be found.  They were presumably removed to help keep things balanced due to the inclusion of heavy weapons.  Still, it’s a shame they are no longer a part of the Mass Effect universe.

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Despite these shifts towards a more actiony experience, there is still plenty to see and do in ME2.  The “run around a location talking to everyone and doing favors for them” type of gameplay is back, but the little mini-quests tend to be much more creative this time around.  Nearly every NPC has a full set of questions you can ask, all of which provide interesting information that help the world come alive.  There are a TON of nods to the first game within these conversations; you will run into people you helped or talked to all over the place, and many folks from the first game will remember you.  It will be interesting to go back through ME2 again with my other saved character (a Renegade) to see how these small interactions are different.  Speaking of old save files, if you have a ME1 save, import it and use it.  The level of your character in that save file determines your starting money, and if that character was rich your new ME2 save file will start with even more money.   It also directly impacts countless NPC interactions as well as numerous major and minor plot points.  I imported my level 44 Paragon character and started with 44,000 credits based on his level and an additional 100,000 credits because he was rich.

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Discovering uncharted planets is also a very different experience now.  Instead of landing in your hard-to-control Mako and traversing a potentially empty landscape, you scan the surface of a planet looking for four different materials.  When you come across one, the waves on your scanner will spike.  Fire off a probe aimed at the spike, and you will mine materials.  (This makes a lot more sense watching it in motion, so don’t fret if the image above makes this seem weird.)  Hacking/bypassing is also completely different now, with two mini-games.  The first, hacking, involves matching up nodes on a PCB.  It’s simple and a little repetitive, but far more enjoyable than the “light-up button” system in the first game.  The bypass mini-game involves matching similar looking paragraphs of various colored words with unique layouts.  This is NOT something I would want to attempt on a regular TV.

Oh yeah, something you should definitely be aware of: if you don’t have an HDTV you should skip Mass Effect 2.  While the first one was quite playable on a standard def television, ME2 is difficult in some parts and downright impossible in others on a standard television.  The subtitles are nigh impossible to read, the menus look kind of scrunched, and the whole experience is generally poor.

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Just as in ME1, sound design is exquisite.  The various locations you will visit feel alive with the noises of others, weapons sound punchy, and the new music is great.  Worry not, ME1 music lovers!  While there is a lot of new music (most of it awesome), there are numerous parts of ME2 where music from ME1 is heard.  I’m very glad they decided to include some tracks from the first game…even though I know they need to evolve and present new music, having the old music intact and sprinkled throughout the game really helped to remind you that you were in the Mass Effect universe.

Graphics this time around are, for the most part, improved.  The biggest improvement is that the texture pop-in issues which plagued Mass Effect 1 have been eradicated.  Animations are much more fluid, and there aren’t nearly as many “snapping” bugs while traveling around.  The small motions in your armor as you lock or release various weapons look great, and all of the character models have had detail added to them.  The environments receive the biggest graphic booster shot, however; all of the environmental textures look MUCH better, and the lighting/shadow system has seen significant changes as well.  Oddly, some of the clothing and environment textures look obscenely blurry (similar to an issue laid out in our review of another Bioware game, Dragon Age) but this is a rare occurrence.

On a personal note, it’s a good thing the new loading screens are so interesting and well done, because you are going to be staring at them a LOT; there are some truly epic load times in ME2 when played on the Xbox 360.  I would just like to take this opportunity to say a sarcastic “thanks” to the idiots that complained about the long elevator rides.  At least with the elevators we got back and forth banter between our team members…now we just get repeating wireframe schematics.  GG for reducing side discussions, complainers.  I appreciate it.

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Mass Effect 2 is very different from its predecessor.  Combat, presentation, layout…it’s going to take some time to get used to it all.  Make no mistake though; this is still very much a Mass Effect game.  The conversation system is intact (it “feels” more fluid, actually), there is still amazing music, there are some awesome new alien species, and there is far more than you could possibly do in a single play through.  Mass Effect 2 expands on Mass Effect’s universe, making the player thirst for even more knowledge about this amazing storyline.  Bioware has delivered an instant classic once again; don’t miss it.