Mass Effect 2 takes the bleak vacuum of space and flushes it with color--the light of stars and galaxies, the red and violet swirls of far-off nebulas, and the glimpses of comets as they burn through the void. You’ll catch your first glimpse of this in the game’s intense and much-improved art design, but that dance of light and shadows is also an apt metaphor for bleak undercurrents in the story, as well as the moral quandaries and past indiscretions that haunt the main characters. More so than its predecessor, Mass Effect 2 possesses an identity, and most of the obvious changes and improvements over the original are beholden to the shift in tone. The shooting is more immediate and satisfying, which keeps the pace moving and intensifies the violence of each encounter. Rich characterizations invite you to look more closely at each crew member's personal stake in the sprawling galactic backdrop. Even the relatively predictable space opera that is the main plot has sinister moments, and you sense the characters struggling with that heavy burden. Mass Effect 2 is incredibly enjoyable, but it's more than just fun: It's a stellar package with a fierce spirit that makes it engrossing and unforgettable.
Mass Effect 2 begins with dire events that foreshadow the game's darker tone--an attack that leaves the SSV Normandy in pieces and the fate of series protagonist Shepard temporarily unclear. Never fear: Shepard returns thanks to the efforts of the controversial pro-human organization called Cerberus and under the watchful eye of its chain-smoking overseer, The Illusive Man. Entire human colonies are disappearing without a trace, and Cerberus needs you--as Shepard--to investigate and confront the vicious forces behind the mystery. Whether you make your contempt for Cerberus' questionable methods clear or espouse the organization's manipulations, you owe The Illusive Man your life. Like it or loathe it, he casts his shadow on every action you take.
A race of locustlike beings known as the Collectors cast an even larger shadow, and the threat they pose is greater than may first appear. Cerberus wants you to assemble a formidable team to assist and provides you with two human officers of its own. First, there is the sexy Miranda. Then, there is Jacob, who seems initially reticent but allows his emotional fire to burn more brightly as the journey progresses. One by one, you build up your crew of specialists to complement them. Among them are a stoic but powerful Asari named Samara, whose ethical code is as unforgiving as it is inflexible, and Thane, a brooding assassin that belongs to the reptilian Drell race. These are great characters, as are other members of your team, though the Salarian scientist Mordin Solus is possibly the finest character in Mass Effect 2 and arguably the most interesting one seen in an RPG in some time. His ultracaffeinated, ultralogical delivery is often hysterical and always entertaining (his romantic advice will have you in stitches), but his moral misgivings and humaneness make him more than just comic relief. This diverse team joins you aboard a newly built vessel named, appropriately enough, The Normandy SR-2, with the ever-reliable and ever-feisty Joker at the helm. He's not the only blast from the past to cross your path in Mass Effect 2, but it's best to discover for yourself which characters from its predecessor (and what role they play in this trek across the Milky Way) you'll meet again.
The main plot is conventional science fiction that draws to a predictable close, so the narrative wonders don't exist within the sturdy-but-safe central story; rather, they gild its periphery. Each recruit offers a quest of his or her own to undertake, and these missions give you a lot of insight into your crew members--even those, like Jacob, that seem rather boring initially. Not all of these missions involve combat, which doesn't always work in the game's favor; one in which you follow your target from a walkway overhead is one of Mass Effect 2's weaker moments. But even the rare missions that are light on thrills are still heavy on character development. Writing and dialogue are top notch, keeping each teammate from being a simple sci-fi cliche. The game may come with an M rating, but it doesn't flaunt its adult motifs. Profanity and sexual themes are handled maturely, and their use has purpose and poignancy. There's nary a weak link in the tremendous voice cast, so each line sounds heartfelt, and great facial animations (especially among the nonhuman members of your crew) and physical gestures make it easy to connect with your cohorts.
Conversations commonly present you with a number of responses that affect the meters representing two sides of the ethical spectrum: paragon and renegade. These meters are handled separately rather than represent sides of a single gauge. This structure makes a simple but important point: Morality isn't an either/or, good/bad attribute, but it allows for shades of gray in which to maneuver. As these meters fill, new conversation options open, giving you additional ways to solve dilemmas. These choices don't lead to the complexity and flexibility you see in RPGs like Fallout 3 or Dragon Age, but they result in some electric moments, particularly during the final hours. If you import your character from the original Mass Effect, the decisions you made in that game will be manifested here in extraordinary ways--though it might take a second play-through for you to really understand exactly how extraordinary. A more immediately noticeable adjustment to the conversations is the addition of interrupt triggers. In certain cases, you may get a prompt allowing you to interrupt the scene. This may involve pulling a gun on an unsavory mercenary (a renegade action) or snatching an impressionable youngster from the clutches of a gang when he tries to enroll (a paragon action). These instances have a nice feeling of immediacy and prove that actions really are louder than words.
Mass Effect 2's third-person shooting action is greatly enhanced over the original, making battles exciting and violent, which befits the overall shift in tone. Battles play out as they do in a typical cover-based shooter like Gears of War, with a few caveats (you can't tumble, for example). Sliding into cover is slick and easy, as is popping in and out to take potshots at the wide variety of foes that assault you. Action sequences still present a few rare hangups; you may suddenly rise a few feet into the air for no reason and be unable to move. Or you may get stuck on an invisible obstacle and jitter back and forth. Uncommon bugs aside, Mass Effect 2 works well as a shooter, and other changes to the combat reinforce the improvements. For example, your shields and health automatically regenerate as they commonly do in straightforward shooters, and you now pick up ammo from the battlefield. You can still pause the action to let loose biotic-powered fury, but combat remains fluid and stimulating. It helps that the two teammates accompanying you on your missions are much less of a burden than before--not quite brilliant, but certainly smart enough to stay out of your way and stay alive.
The repetitive nature of Mass Effect's cookie-cutter levels is gone, as are the vehicle sequences featuring the oft-maligned rover called the Mako. Mass Effect 2's missions take place across a wonderful variety of locales, from the creepy interior of a derelict vessel to a deep-space prison. Some of them trip up the pace by throwing in additional challenges, such as one in which you must avoid direct sunlight lest it burn you to a crisp. Most levels are thoughtfully constructed, letting you charge from one cover spot to the next in order to unleash destruction. You certainly get an impressive array of devastating tools to that end, including a blinding nuclear weapon that's always a delight to fire. Standard weapons (as opposed to heavy weapons) also support additional ammo types--such as cryo ammo--which provide additional benefits. Besides, it's always fun to watch a Krogan merc's final sliver of health burn away when you equip incendiary rounds. And if that doesn't bring a wicked smile to your face, throwing a horde of advancing security bots into the air with the shockwave skill certainly will.
It's hard to miss Mass Effect 2's focus on action, not just because you can reasonably play it as a third-person shooter, but also because certain features associated with RPGs have been restructured and streamlined. At first, you might see Mass Effect 2 as somewhat stripped; you don't have a traditional inventory management screen, for example, where you would choose a weapon to equip or convert an item into omni-gel. Instead, you select the weapons you want when you embark on a mission or from a weapons locker. You purchase or find universal weapon and armor upgrades, which are then transferred to the Normandy's science station, where you can apply them, provided you have enough mineral resources. If you want to change armor, you go to your personal quarters, where you can don the armor items you've obtained and personalize them with different colors and textures. Even character development feels lighter. You have fewer skills to develop for each team member (though you have a much larger team to choose from), and you could complete a thorough, 40-hour play-through without reaching level 30.
Yet in most cases, the role-playing elements haven't been pared down as much as they've been cleaned up, forcing you to spend less time staring at menus and more time gunning down Geth and earning the loyalty of your comrades. After all, when you can equip alternate ammo without opening up a cluttered inventory screen, you stay connected to the moment, whether that consists of a heartfelt one-on-one encounter with a tormented Thane or an electrifying encounter with a thresher maw. However, don't assume that you won't get time to shop for goodies or check out the sights and sounds at important space stations. You can still load up on upgrades and weapons on hub worlds or even grab souvenirs like model ships to show off in your quarters. (And be sure to pick up a space hamster, which is exactly what it sounds like.) Nevertheless, the balance between shooting and role playing is different in Mass Effect 2 than in the first game--but the focus on action works to the game's benefit, given the intensity of the characters and visuals.
When you aren't shooting the heads off of clamoring husks or eavesdropping on a bizarre bachelor party, you'll be flying the Normandy about the galaxy from a top-down view, scanning planets for side missions and for the resources used to purchase upgrades. To do so, you move a scanning reticle about the planet and drop a probe when your scanner indicates the presence of a resource. At first, this is a comfortable change of tempo, but eventually, scanning wears a bit thin--though it is a necessary task if you want to get the most out of your weapons and armor. You can purchase an upgrade to speed up spanning speeds, but the reticle moves slowly regardless (albeit faster on the PC than on the Xbox 360), which makes the entire process feel sluggish if you spend too much time exploring each system at once. Luckily, other noncombat activities make a better impression. Hacking computers and wall safes initiates one of two minigames--one in which you match blocks of code to a scrolling sequence underneath and another in which you must match like symbols as you would in the card game concentration. These little hacking games are brief and last just long enough to provide a pleasant distraction.
If you played the original Mass Effect, you may remember the jarring texture pop-in and frequent frame rate stutters as much as you remember the excellent character design and atmospheric planetside vistas. You'll notice few if any instances of those drawbacks in this installment, which means there's less to distract you from the impressive visuals. Just as an interior designer works from a collection of complementary and contrasting colors and textures, so too does Mass Effect 2 draw from a consistent set of hues and architectural touches. Deep reds and glowing indigos saturate certain scenes, making them richer and more sinister; eerie fog limits your vision in one side mission, while rain pours down upon you in another. Subtle, moody lighting gives certain interactions great impact, such as one scene in which your troubled, tattooed teammate appears as a black silhouette. The visuals are a superb melding of art and technology, with only a few animation hitches that stand out because most aspects are consistently excellent. The fantastic musical score and sound effects do more than their share to enhance the production, working the deeper end of the sonic spectrum and communicating tension and weight without getting heavy handed or manipulative.
Mass Effect 2's improved shooting mechanics are no-brainers; they're the expected advancements that clean up the flaws of its predecessor. But what makes this sequel so rich isn't mechanics, but vision. A nightclub lit with flames, deadly family reunions, a friend accused of the inconceivable--these are the sights and events that cast shadows in your mind and heart. A few blemishes prove that this planned trilogy still has potential for growth, but they barely diminish the game's overall impact. This is a galaxy you want to explore that is populated with characters you are glad to know. Mass Effect 2 is the kind of game that you return to, not just because it's fun to play multiple times, but also because its universe is a place you wish you could call home.