Developer Bioware has a rich history in producing well thought-out, captivating role playing games. But with Mass Effect 2, they have created a game which eclipses all their past successes.
Polished to perfection and brimming with confidence, Mass Effect 2 is simply one of the best games I have played in the last 10 years.
Mass Effect 2 continues the story of Commander Shepard. But two years after he saved the universe, he has now been relegated to hunting down small pockets of Geth resistance. That is until a string of spectacular events see him working for Cerberus - a shadowy pro-human organisation. They are investigating the disappearance of human colonies throughout the galaxy, so Shepard is tasked with assembling a crew of diverse races and personalities and heads off in search of answers.
The original game wowed gamers with its dazzling visuals and character-driven narrative, however Mass Effect 2 stands head and shoulders above its predecessor in almost every way.
It's a more streamlined experience, with a better menu system, smart loading times, stunning visuals and fluid conversation choices.
Much like the first game, Mass Effect 2 is a third-person shooter mixed with role playing elements. However the original's flimsy gunplay has been beefed up considerably, making the sequel's action much more satisfying.
The radial combat and abilities dial makes a return, with the player able to command team-mates' actions with the touch of a button. Everything from overloading mechanical circuits to changing ammo is done of the fly, and it's incredibly easy to get your head around.
The storyline is typical sci-fi fare, spiced up with a heavy dose of political intrigue, but it holds together remarkably well thanks to the game's cast of characters. Each figure has a rich and detailed background which the player is free to probe into.
As the game progresses, more can be learned about the supporting cast, drawing the player further into Mass Effect's remarkable universe. The bonds between you and your squad are helped enormously by the near flawless voice acting.
This depth isn't confined to the game's main players - random characters you encounter on your galaxy-wide travels are equally as interesting. Special mention goes to the videogames salesman on the rebuilt Citadel, who makes references to Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft and Second Life. It's only a small aside which many players won't discover, but it's details such as this which take Mass Effect 2 to another level.
The Codex system also makes a return and it's from this menu the player can discover a wealth of information on the Mass Effect universe. Details on planets, governments, alien races, starships, technology and organizations are available. For those who want to know everything about the game's setting, this is an invaluable tool.
Running alongside the main storyline are plenty of optional side-quests. Whether you're resolving disputes, exploring hidden pockets of the galaxy, shopping for starship miniatures or choosing fish for your personal aquarium, there's dozens of hours of fun to be had for those who like to wander off the beaten path.
The bland ground-based planet exploration elements from the first game have been replaced with a scanning minigame, which allows the player to mine moons and planets for rich ore deposits. These are used to upgrade your armour, weapons and starship, but unfortunately they aren't very exciting and prove only slightly less tedious than the old system. It jars slightly as the rest of the game is such a fluid and enjoyable experience.
Despite this small flaw, Mass Effect 2 sparkles on every other level. The game's visuals, which are jaw-dropping in places, are a step up from last time. A slight grainy effect has been used which gives the game a cinematic quality, while the alien cities and planet surfaces Shepard and crew visit are stunning.
It's clear the developers were inspired by Eighties blockbuster Bladerunner, and the film's influence can be found throughout. However, it's Bioware's attention to detail which is truly staggering. Where other developers simply black-out windows and fence off areas with masses of debris, Bioware have instead given the player plenty to gawp at.
Peering out of windows reveals spectacular cityscapes, stunning vistas and fields of twinkling stars, while the lighting effects are simply out of this world. Take my advice and savour the experience and stop every so often to drink in the scenery. It's worth it. I've spent longer than is healthy gazing at Nos Astra's bustling skyline and peering out of the Normandy's windows.
The soundtrack, too is quite incredible, with chilled-out soundscapes gently washing over the action, while more dramatic themes kick in as the combat ramps up.
Epic in scope and littered with treasures, Mass Effect 2 sets the benchmark for future role playing games. It is simply one of the most absorbing and enjoyable games I've ever played, and, even in January, could be game of the year. An incredible achievement.