Brandy is made by taking wine, boiling off some of the water and sticking it in a barrel for a few years.  When it’s done, you have a better, stronger and totally different drink.  Mass Effect 2 is like the brandy to the original Mass Effect.  While its predecessor was a very good game, Mass Effect 2 borrows some of the best aspects from a wide variety of games.  The result is in a highly refined, streamlined game that has few equals in terms of quality and replayability. 

The story picks up shortly after the events of Mass Effect 1.  Saren has been killed and the Reapers, a huge, mysterious, and super-powerful entity that intends to annihilate all life in the universe (or something), has been momentarily halted.  Series protagonist and generally cool dude, John Shepard (or a slight variation on the character you may or may not have created in the original), is on a seemingly routine mission where he suddenly gets ambushed by an unknown enemy.  His ship is destroyed, and many crew members die in the attack, including Shepard.   But is he really dead?  No, of course not. His body is recovered by the terrorist group Cerberus, an organization seeking human supremacy in galactic politics, and he is given the Six Million Dollar Man treatment and rebuilt from next to nothing.  From there, Shepard is tasked with ending a sudden surge in attacks on human colonies…a mission that puts him at odds with many former allies, and puts him in a position to make plenty of new friends.

While the story is a semi-direct sequel, the gameplay doesn’t quite follow suit, spreading itself out and adding by subtracting in many departments.  Subtle changes have been made across the board that pull the game farther from the RPG median than any other Bioware title.  While the original had a number of intricacies that can be found in any Final Fantasy, including a semi-elaborate leveling system and an intricate equipment system, ME2 cuts back on these things.  While it hasn’t entirely removed itself from the RPG genre, the game really has become a lot more “shoot first, manage inventory later”.

In combat, the game handles like a fairly standard squad-based shooter, and largely uses a standard control scheme, with shooting, skills and weapons mapped to the four shoulder buttons, squad commands mapped to the control pad, and the camera mapped to the right stick.  The game breaks off from its predecessor mainly in the equipment department.  Instead of a standard, RPG-style pick ‘em, where you have a huge inventory of weapons and armors that you attach to one ally, the game completely omits the entire equipment collecting endeavor. 

Let me start by saying armor is completely done away with.  Sorry to all you fans of giving Wrex pink heavy armor.  Weapons are found throughout the game, usually during missions.  Rather than having a lineup of weapons that progressively improve as the game progresses, weapons are “different”, as opposed to “better” and once you find a new toy, the entire team can play with it.  For example, the first pistol found in the game is a medium damage, twelve-shot pistol that can bring five reserve clips.  The next pistol is high-damage, but only six shots and has only three reserve clips.  While you technically only find one of each, any character that has access to pistols can use them. Your team, rather than having everyone equip four different generic types of weapon (pistol, rifle, sniper rifle and shotgun), different characters have access to a few different weapon types.  While it’s occasionally annoying, it makes a huge difference when you’re choosing your characters.  The biggest difference, though, is that the game uses ammo.  While it’s something you have to be mindful of, gun-slinging never really gets seriously hindered by this limitation. 

While that obviously shifts the game towards the shooter genre, the game doesn’t totally forsake its RPG-ness.  The game still has characters gaining experience points, leveling up and unlocking abilities as the game progresses.  Characters don’t have as broad of a skill lineup as in the past, thanks to a unanimous affinity with weapons, but there’s plenty there to keep things interesting.  Outside characters, new weapons, abilities and stat boosts can be acquired by mining planets for resources, and purchasing upgrades.  I’m expecting some RPG junkies to be a little irked by this shift, but the game is definitively better off because of it.

While the original Mass Effect had vaunted aesthetics, with quality voice acting, slick graphics and solid presentation, I was actually under-impressed with it.  ME2, though, “kicks it up a notch” and fixes literally every problem I had with the original.  An extreme level of care is put into the detail of every character in the game (as opposed to ME1, which had it look as though every human female fell face-first into a puddle of vanishing cream).  Dialogue is greatly improved, presentation-wise.  While ME1 had Shepard and whoever he was speaking with standing like gingerbread men, conversations in ME2 typically have characters interacting and emoting in very realistic ways.  The excellent voice acting  certainly doesn’t hurt, with quality performance by the usual list of voice actors, as well as some celebrity contributions from Chuck’s Yvonne Strahovski and Martin Sheen. 

While Mass Effect 1 was a good game, this sequel really just improves everything.  With a wide range of gameplay tweaks and some slight nudges to the presentation, the game ends up really reaching its full potential.  The game is getting all sorts of hype, and it is warranted.  Pick this up if you beat the last one.  Take your original Shepard and assemble your team.  RIGHT NOW!

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