Mass Effect 2 is like the videogame version of the missing link. It’s a dense, story-oriented, character-driven space opera designed for gamers who would rather play 10 hours of Gears Of War than 10 minutes of Final Fantasy. The original Mass Effect, successful in its own right, looks like a mere first draft in comparison. For this second of three planned chapters, developer BioWare has added depth to characters, speed to combat, and elegance to the entire tale.
As returning protagonist Commander Shepard awakens after two years in stasis, Mass Effect 2 quickly sketches in a detailed set of characters. You engage in conversations by picking from a set of emotional prompts that trigger chunks of character interaction. The system always worked well—better than almost any other RPG dialogue system, in fact—but it was visually static. Now the camera moves like a filmmaker’s, making scenes more interesting to watch.
Dialogue in Mass Effect was well-written and performed, but it was easy to tune out, thanks to the talking-heads presentation. The new cinematic aspects are a shortcut to immersion, making the handful of generic science-fiction elements (“galactic menace” plot threads, for instance) easier to swallow. The good stuff happens as characters intersect and clash on social, sexual, and ideological planes.
For all the story emphasis, combat is far more entertaining. With more weapons and better-focused biotic (read: magic) powers, firefights are more concussive and demanding. Your team AI is better; most of the time you can rely on teammates to fight well enough on their own, though there is a simple system for issuing commands in battle. Fights aren’t a grind; they underline the urgency of the story.
Trust is always a central question; placing trust in some teammates requires conscious force of will. While learning the background of a brilliant but quasi-genocidal ally, for instance, you might be unable to suppress a surge of revulsion. It’s initially easy to play Shepard as the anything-to-get-the-job-done hard-ass, but interactions with NPCs will test your ability to remain in character. Great role-playing uses unpredictable situations to provoke unexpected responses in players, and accordingly, Mass Effect 2 is surprising time and again.