Mass Effect, by Electronic Arts (EA), sets the benchmark for third person role playing actions games. It is as close to a DVD movie as a video game can get, because, unlike most first person games, players can see and hear the player character as well as the non-player characters (NPCs). This movie-like quality greatly enhances the compelling story, which is the hallmark of the Mass Effect Trilogy.
This second episode of the Mass Effect Trilogy begins with the death (yes, DEATH) of Commander Shepard, in a fiery ambush of the Normandy, two years after he/she defeated the traitorous Saren Arterius in the battle of the Citadel. But, thank the goddess, he/she is later resurrected in Project Lazarus by the Illusive Man, leader of Cerberus, a shadowy and ruthless "human supremacist" organization, for the sole purpose of sending the legendary commander to investigate a new cataclysmic event in the Galaxy: entire human colonies have been vanishing without a trace, leaving behind empty buildings. To confront the threat, Shepard travels across the Galaxy to recruit up to a dozen of the most dangerous characters to his/her elite team, at locations including Illium, an asari colony, and Omega, a lawless mining station built on a hollowed out asteroid in the Terminus Systems, for a mission from which every member of the team, including Commander Shepard, may never return.
**End of Possible Spoilers**
Players who had completed Mass Effect 1 (ME1) can import a Save Game from the list of Character Saves into Mass Effect 2 (ME2). During the file transfer, they have the option of changing the class of Commander Shepard, for example, from adept to vanguard, as well as his/her physical characteristics. This is possible in the storyline on account of Project Lazarus--a very clever way of putting Shepard on reset. If Shepard was imported at a high level in ME1, players will be awarded with bonus squad points and research metals at the start. All the NPCs who were alive at the end of the ME1 are transferred. Furthermore, the story in ME2 unfolds in accordance with the decisions made by the players in ME1, for example, whether Shepard set the Rachni queen free in Noveria, whether he/she resolved the conflict with Wrex on Virmire peacefully, or whether he/she called in the human fleet to save the Council in the battle of the Citadel. The main story line, however, remains unchanged. For those who never play ME1, ME2 can be played stand-alone with new characters and certain pre-set assumptions on events in ME1. New characters in ME2 include Thane, a drell master assassin, Legion, a free-thinking geth, who is stalking Commander Shepard, and Subject Zero, a female human biotic gang and cult member, with head-to-toe tattoos. Other than the geth and the Reapers, new enemies emerge in ME2. They include the Collectors, a winged insect-like species who are suspected to be working for the Reapers, and Scions, which are grotesque experiments of the Reaper, as well as monstrous beings created by the Reapers out of other species they abducted.
THE GAME/COMBAT SYSTEM
The Artificial Intelligence (AI) and combat system have been vastly improved in ME2. Gone are those annoying texture pop-ups in ME1. So are those long elevator rides--they are replaced with loading screens. Battle scenes are more realistic: enemies are thrown against walls, limbs are blown off, and wounded fighters continue to fight by crawling on the ground. Players can hit the enemies where they place the reticles, like in a shooter. (This is not so in ME1, where hits are calculated based on the number of skill points assigned by the players to the characters.) Players can now issue attack orders to Shepard's squad mates by using the directional-pad of the controller (of the Xbox 360), and manually prompt Commander Shepard to duck behind covers. The limitless ammo is no more in ME2. It is replaced with removable "thermal clips". When a clip is spent, it must be ejected and replaced with a new one. Players are therefore advised to take note of the amount of thermo clips available during battles. Instead of only four weapon types as in ME1, there are nineteen in ME2. One of my gripes with ME1 was the lack of heavy hand-held weapons. In ME2, they are available to the soldier class player character (as well as Commander Shepard of all classes). These heavy weapons knock down multiple enemies in one gigantic blast. A sentinel class player character now dons an ablation tactical armor, which makes him/her very tough to kill. An engineer class player character can launch a drone to aid him/her in battle. An adept class player character can spawn micro-singularities around the enemies, annihilating them en masse. Tactical cloak, which renders a combatant invisible briefly, is available to an infiltrator class player character. A vanguard class player character can dash around the battlefield with a new biotic power--the "biotic charge", which propels him/her forward at tremendous speed and force, to attack or evade the enemies. There is no longer any class restriction in armor. Medi-gel, used in the ME1 to regenerate health, is replaced with auto-regeneration, although the players still need it to cast the Unity reviving power. (Note: auto-regeneration is also available in ME1, but only as an upgrade to the armors.)
The dialogue wheel in ME1 is the most innovative dialogue system in all the games I have ever played. When used probably, it delivers a continuous and seamless dialogue, and hence the movie-like quality of the game. In ME2, the dialogue wheel is further improved. A new "interrupt" system is introduced. When prompted by the players with the left or right trigger of the controller (of the Xbox 360), Commander Shepard can interrupt the dialogue with "heroic" or "hostile" action to get the answer he/she wants. Furthermore, instead of the previous static camera position in ME1, the camera moves around during conversations in ME2, adding further cinematic effect to the game.
Like in ME1, choices made by the players influence the outcome of the game in ME2. For example, in ME1, on the planet Virmire, Commander Shepard (and hence the players), was called upon to decide which of the two squad mates he/she would rescue; the one left behind was consumed in a subsequent nuclear blast. In the same manner, decisions of the players in ME2 throughout the game may eventually lead to the annihilation of the entire ground team in the final mission, including Commander Shepard, or the survival of every team member, or something in between. Players with a "dead" Shepard will not be able to import him/her into ME3. The same thing is true with a "dead" teammate. They can play ME3 with a generic Shepard, but not "their" Shepard. Furthermore, with Shepard killed, players can't return to the game world after the final mission and continue to play, for example, to complete a side quest, or to explore a new locale. They will have to start a new game or reload with a previous save-file and replay part of the game for a different outcome. This gives incentive to players to make sound decisions throughout the game, before heading into the final mission.
THE CERBERUS NETWORK
The Cerberus Network is a cleverly designed in-game portal through which players can access "Downloadable Contents (DLCs)" from EA. Players activate this network with a one-time access code, which is included in every new game purchase. Game renters and used game buyers will have to pay for the code. This arrangement is apparently a ploy by EA to combat the rental and used game market, which has been undermining retail sales of new games. Players who access the network will receive the first DLC pack on January 26, 2010, the date on which the game is released in North America. This first DLC introduces Zaeed, a rough and tumble mercenary who will join Shepard's elite team. A future DLC will introduce the Hammerhead, a hover tank to replace the much-maligned Mako in ME1. (Note: There is no driveable vehicle in the core game.) In addition, new missions and in-game items will be released to gamers by EA through this network.
ME2 comes with 2 discs. Players have to swap discs (twice per game) at some points. There are 90 voice actors playing 546 characters with over 30,000 lines of dialogue. New voice actors in ME2 include D.C. Douglas, Martin Sheen and Adam Baldwin. In conclusion, ME2 is a role-playing game with the look and feel of a shooter. It is a must-have game of the year.