Mass Effect was a triumph on so many levels that it's almost churlish to point at the few areas where it fell short. Bioware took a major risk in trying to fuse its classic RPG style with a more action-oriented experience, yet for the most part the gamble paid off. The storyline was huge, epic and incredibly involving. The gleaming space-opera visuals are still unmatched by an RPG on any platform, and it's only when you go back to, well, just about any other game in the genre that you realise how groundbreaking its simple, intuitive conversation system and detailed close-up animation were.
Yet Mass Effect wasn't perfect. Bioware did an excellent job of making RPG-style party mechanics work hand-in-hand with cover-based, third-person shooter combat, but the actual fighting was - if we're honest - only adequate. Vehicle-based exploration was a mess. Whole chunks of the galaxy felt underdeveloped, and nobody can forget the elevators, or the slightly tedious wandering around The Citadel. Mass Effect's rich cast, its narrative strengths and its streamlined RPG character progression compensated for these minor weaknesses and turned a decent game into a great one, but even those of us who loved it will have a handful of reservations looking back.
With the sequel, those reservations are gone. Mass Effect 2 is an awesome achievement, and arguably the best RPG of this generation.
Discovering the plot for yourself is part of the appeal, so all we'll say for now is that Commander Shepherd is back with a new boss, a new enemy and a new mission - to investigate and put a stop to whatever alien threat is liquidating human colonies on the fringes of the Milky Way. Parted from old allies, his initial objective is to recruit a new team capable of dealing with the threat, scouring the galaxy for a motley crew of warriors, scientists, assassins and feral psychic nutcases.
Cleverly, it's possible to import characters from the first game, but while it makes sense to have played Mass Effect before touching Mass Effect 2, the game doesn't penalise newcomers. While the sequel plays upon familiarity with its predecessor, introducing old faces and returning to a few old locations, it never alienates new players by expecting an encyclopaedic knowledge of the universe or the story so far. It also makes enough basic, sensible assumptions about your past actions and behaviour to make you feel that your Shepherd has a history, even if he/she doesn't.
All that was good about the first game remains good here, if not better. The conversation system, whereby you pick brief opening gambits and responses using the analogue stick and the game translates these into fleshed-out dialogue, still works brilliantly. The superb facial animation system gives you an instant, intuitive idea of how your words are going down, and there's a real sense that what you say matters, and that the choices you make will mean the difference between life and death for some of those involved, and push Shepherd further towards the path of hero or anti-hero as time goes on.
The camera is now more mobile, as are the characters themselves, giving chats a less static, more cinematic feel. We even get new opportunities where, with a click of the left or right trigger, you can interrupt cutscenes and boost your Paragon or Renegade status. The surprising thing is the subtlety. Rarely do you feel like you're being funnelled in a "white hat" or "black hat" direction. With the survival of galactic civilization at stake, it's all about the grey areas - about doing what needs to be done, but fighting to preserve whatever morality you adopt as you do it. It's sophisticated stuff.
There's still a surprising amount of depth and choice when it comes to character progression, plus a full weapons research and upgrade tree, but Mass Effect 2 brings a more flexible approach to skills, weapons and armour. And while the plotline initially feels a bit low-key after the big climaxes of Mass Effect, it grows and blooms into something that's every bit as dark and scary.
We now know that Mass Effect will be a trilogy, and the danger of any middle section is that it concentrates on extending the first part and setting up the third at the expense of providing anything satisfying in-between. Mass Effect 2 mostly avoids this trap, but in its references to the last game (where the game will recognise past choices if you use an old character) it leaves you in no doubt that you are taking part in a truly epic tale.
Most importantly, the sequel radically improves on the less magnificent parts of the original. Combat feels both streamlined and turbo-charged, replacing the existing health, shields and ammo systems with more conventional third-person shooter mechanics (though you can still use Unity and Medigel for a quick party-wide revive), and making the business of finding and firing from cover feel more fluid.
Enemy AI is more aggressive, and a string of expertly orchestrated firefights ensure that combat in Mass Effect 2 is something you can really sink your teeth into. Sure, it's no Gears of War or Uncharted 2, but this now feels like an excellent shooter within an excellent RPG, and there are some great, stand-out set-pieces to enjoy. Friendly AI also seems to have been polished. There's little need to micro-manage allies - they'll find cover, shoot and use abilities quite well without your help - though there are advantages to taking direct control when the situation demands it.
Above all else, Mass Effect 2 is an incredibly slick and well-polished slice of sci-fi. You'll still face some long loading times, but nearly anything else that might have annoyed you about the first game has gone (will anyone miss the M35 Mako? Thought not). There's some stunning alien scenery to explore, and a new resource harvesting mini-game which makes thrusting around the galaxy feel that little bit more worthwhile.
Meanwhile, Bioware continues to show that, when it comes to creating rich, interesting and rounded characters, it's pretty much out there on its own. Steadily, game by game, the developer is building a universe with its own history, mythology and wonders. It can be a cold, dark place, with only the barest glimmer of hope, but it's a universe you'll want to get lost in.
Whether you completed the first game or not, Mass Effect 2 is unmissable. By streamlining and polishing its RPG/shooter mechanics, Bioware has produced a game that will feel just as satisfying to the Gears of War crowd as it will to those who loved Baldur's Gate or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and the dialogue-driven story is superb. RPG purists might snort at the more action-friendly bias, but anyone with sense will realise that this is a magnificent effort that sees Bioware back at its best.