There's something really awesome about playing as a galactic hero, commanding the most advanced ship known to man, with a crew composed of some of the most skilled and talented people in the galaxy. This is what Mass Effect 2 does, and thus it's already getting points with me.
Mass Effect 2 starts off right after the end of Mass Effect. The Alliance and galactic governments have downplayed the entire affair with Saren (a rogue Spectre) and Sovereign (a gigantic, partially organic and sentient ship that is a part of a race of antagonistic beings known as Reapers), sending main character Commander Shepard off to hunt down any remaining rogue Geth in the Normandy. Shepard and his crew know that they're really probably just being sent away so that the higher-ups can forge a story to quell public fear (because Sovereign was just one of thousands of Reapers still out there somewhere in the universe), but they know the truth.
Apparently, the governments weren't the only ones who wanted Shepard out of the way, however. At the beginning of the Mass Effect 2, the Normandy is attacked by an unidentified alien cruiser. The ship proves too powerful, and Shepard's frigate is quickly sunk. With his help, most of the crew escapes, but Shepard him/herself is blown out into space, seemingly lost forever in the dark void.
The game then fast forwards two years later. Shepard's body was recovered by the pro-human organization Cerberus, and using the best equipment and scientists, and a whole lot of money, was fully rebuilt. The Commander's recovery is cut-off a tad early though, when the facility comes under attack. Getting through this serves as the game's tutorial for basic movements, teaching you how to take cover, sprint, use the command menu to access personal and squad powers, and use medi-gel.
Evacuating the facility, Shepard is taken to one of Cerberus's primary bases of operations, where he/she is invited to speak with the Illusive Man, the organization's mysterious and enigmatic leader. The Illusive Man explains that the Normandy's downfall and Shepard's death was the work of the Collectors, a race of aliens so rare they are publicly considered a myth. The Illusive Man reveals that the Collectors have begun to kidnap entire human colonies. The strange thing is, there's never evidence indicating a struggle. One day they're there, the next the entire colony is deserted. The Illusive Man believes they are rounding up humans and taking them to their base, which is believed to be located in some uncharted space beyond the mysterious Omega-4 Relay. For what purpose they're doing this, nobody knows.
The Illusive Man tasks Shepard with finding out the Collectors' motives, and stopping them. But for all his skill and experience, Shepard is still just one human. To take the fight to the Collectors, he's going to need a team. A team of the most skilled people in the universe.
That team begins with Miranda Lawson and Jacob Taylor, who you first meet on the facility you were rebuilt in. Miranda was the director of the project to revive you, and features heavy genetic modification herself. She is curt with Shepard at the beginning of the game, but it's possible to get her to soften up to you. Besides being a strong biotic and a capable strategist, Miranda is focused (almost to a fault), and completely loyal to those that prove themselves worthy of her trust.
As the head of security at the facility, Jacob proves to be a bit more likable at first glance. A former Alliance Corsair, Jacob knows his way around a gun, and proves it when he escorts you to the evacuation area of the facility. Jacob is a bit more laid-back and headstrong than Miranda, but that also makes him a sensible and dependable ally.
The rest of your team must be gathered from across the galaxy. The Illusive Man will keep a steady stream of recommendations coming your way via dossiers containing information on those he thinks might be worthy additions to your cause. Examples of such additions include Thane Krios, a highly skilled assassin, and the salarian scientist Mordin, who is not only a brilliant scientist but a capable combatant, having run with the Salarian Special Forces for some time.
But the Normandy is gone, remember? Shepard's going to need a new ship to house his band of buddies. A ship capable of braving whatever waits beyond the Omega-4 relay. Fortunately, Shepard wasn't the Illusive Man's only big budget project related to the destruction of the Collectors.
Enter the Normandy SR-2, the most advanced frigate in the galaxy. Building off the original Normandy's overall specs, Cerberus installed multiple upgrades across the board, including stronger weapons, a custom quantum comm interface, some civilian class comfort standards, and a powerful AI. The new Normandy is twice as large as the old one though, so it uses a landing shuttle, instead of landing on planets itself. The Illusive Man even tracked down Joker and brought him back as the pilot.
The Normandy is composed of 4 primary decks. The topmost deck, also called the loft, is Shepard's cabin. Here you can choose your casual (aboard the Normandy) and mission (everywhere else) clothes and armor, respectively. The regular armor can be customized with various pieces found across the galaxy. The cabin is also home to some displays of Shepard's accomplishments (including a way to check your achievement progress), as well as a message terminal, where you can read messages sent to you by the Illusive Man and other characters you meet in your travels.
Deck 2 is the CIC, or Combat Information Center. It's arguably the most important one of the bunch, as it contains the Galaxy Map, which you'll use to travel to different locations. Located just beside the galaxy map is your yeoman, Kelly Chambers. Kelly is a quirky but very friendly character. She's also unofficially the ship's psychiatrist. Kelly is useful not only because she announces whenever you have a new message at your terminal, but can also tell you how the other crew members are doing. If someone on the team needs to speak with you, she'll tell you. The CIC also contains the ship armory, where you can customize your loadout, and the comm room, which acts as conference room and also houses the comm interface for conversations with the Illusive Man. At the front of the ship is the cockpit, where you'll find Joker. Joker always has a thing or two to say, either about the people you're picking up, or the status of the mission, but he can be insightful at times, so it pays to hear him out.
Deck 3 is home to most of the crew, featuring the primary crew quarters, a lounge/cafeteria, and a small medical bay (among other things). Deck 4 is Engineering, where you can view the ship's massive energy core, and also the cargo bay. Much of the Normandy is closed off at first, but as you pick up more squadmates, they occupy previously locked rooms, allowing you to explore them.
Once you unlock the science lab, you'll be able to research and obtain upgrades for both your team and the ship. Most or all of them can be useful in the right situation, so it pays to get them regularly. Upgrades include enhanced ship armor, larger ammo magazines, more health, and more efficient biotic usage.
Getting your team together is only half the battle though. Taking on the Collectors with just a frigate-sized crew is pretty much already a suicide mission, and it's highly likely the journey past the Omega-4 relay will be a one-way trip. To even have a hope of surviving, the team has to go in as a band of brothers/sisters, completely focused, with no regrets. To do this, you need to get to know your comrades on a personal level by seeking them out on the Normandy and talking to them on a regular basis. Some characters will be more approachable than others, but with time, all of them can learn to trust you enough to dedicate their loyalty to you.
And then there's Commander Shepard him/herself. A galactic hero. The first human Spectre. And an excellent leader. The really cool thing about Shepard is that he/she is whoever you want him/her to be. The fact that he/she was rebuilt gave Bioware an excuse to shape Shepard's character however you want. You choose Shepard's past, gender, even personality and combat class. Shepard has two primary personality tracks, and Bioware's patented branching dialogue trees return, allowing you to choose Shepard's responses in each conversation. Certain choices give you points in his/her two personality tracks, Renegade and Paragon. A new feature in the conversation system is spontaneous actions, which allow you to interrupt other people with a scripted Paragon or Renegade action.
A Paragon Shepard is friendly, romantic, and somewhat idealistic. He/She is able to rally crowds with powerful words of encouragement, and console saddened teammates with relative ease. Paragon Shepard is always looking for a peaceful way out, and always seems to know what's best. An example of a Paragon interruption would be to immediately reach out and verbally comfort someone who's on the verge of tears, or seize and dismantle the pistol of an eager youngster who obviously hasn't seen a real battlefield. Higher Paragon points allow you to charm people and peacefully convince them to see your perspective.
People will question the methods of a Renegade Shepard, but not his/her results. Renegade Shepard doesn't take crap from anybody, and can't be bothered to sit around dealing with people who can't keep up with him/her. An example of a Renegade action would be headbutting a krogan who is in the middle of scoffing at you for being a "weak human", or punching a suspect square in the jaw during an interrogation to show that you're not kidding around. Higher Renegade actions allow you to intimidate those who would argue with you.
The Paragon/Renegade system is quite satisfying, and encourages multiple playthroughs to experience the game in full. There is one minor problem it introduces, however. As you progress through the game, you'll encounter dialogue choices that require a certain amount of points in either Paragon or Renegade to choose. Many of these choices are ideal ones, and can lead to better outcomes than the regular options. Like for example, not all teammates get along, and a few will eventually get into heated arguments. You have to sort them out, but unless you are almost completely full in either personality track, you're going to have to pick a side, losing loyalty with the person who you don't side with. A character's loyalty is literally one of the deciding factors dictating whether they live or die at the end of the game, so it can feel like if you're not constantly pursuing points in a single track, you risk your squad suffering casualties later on; consequences that will carry over to Mass Effect 3.
When you're not chatting it up with other characters or roaming the Normandy, you're likely traveling the galaxy. It's a big place, to be sure. The world map of Mass Effect 2 is split up into about a dozen nebulas, which each usually contain 2-4 star systems, which in turn each have their own solar system of planets. You jump between nebulas with the use of Mass Relays, which interface with normal FTL drives and slingshot ships extremely far distances near-instantaneously. Though only a small fraction of the planets in the galaxy actually have visitable locations (much less mission-relevant ones), that doesn't mean it doesn't pay to look around.
Each planet secretes a set amount of valuable resources and minerals, which can be spent on upgrades. To obtain resources, you have to enter the planet's orbit, then set about scanning its surface. When you hit a spike, you can launch a probe to collect the deposit. This mining operation represents one of the few minigames in Mass Effect 2, and while it's not one of the game's funner points, it's nice thing to just settle into. And since those resources are the only way to buy upgrades, it's not like it doesn't pay to spend some time with it.
What relatively few planetary locations you can explore, you'll be visiting multiple times for different missions. So it's a good thing that they're not only expansive, but fully realized and very unique. Examples include Omega, a lawless space station where gangs duke it out for power, and the innocent try to scrape out a living. Its primary attraction is an eclectic nightclub run by the enigmatic Aria. There's dancing, drinks, and the obligatory shady business going on in some of the side rooms. Another example is Illium is a popular trade center, where it's said that literally anything can be bought (including people), if you know who to talk to. Because of its very lax regulations, one is advised against signing anything.
You'll visit such locations both to do some surface-side shopping, and to complete missions. Primary missions are those that have you searching out people on your dossiers. They tend to be rather elusive though, so you'll have to do some investigating, and talk to residents to pick up their trail. As people like assassins and vigilantes (the type of people you'll find yourself recruiting) are often surrounded in trouble, tracking down potential squadmates usually results in a few firefights.
General combat in Mass Effect 2 is composed of 3rd person shooting. You take cover to avoid enemy fire, and can sprint and melee in a pinch. Things are mixed up a bit with biotics, which are sort of like super powers. In addition to regular shooting, biotics add some strategic value to fights by giving you various ways weaken your enemies.
In addition, your general role in combat is determined by your chosen character class, just like in an RPG. Each character class has access to varying portions of the weapons and biotic powers. Soldiers can use all weapons (except SMGs), but cannot use any biotics beyond weapon powers. Infiltrators are snipers, and have exclusive access to the tactical cloak power, which lets them disappear for a few seconds. Adepts are full-on biotics, relying less on weapons and more on ranged powers and a powerful biotic charge that lets them slam into enemies from afar. Vangaurds are a bit Adept and a bit Soldier. Engineers use tech powers that let them hack robotic enemies and summon drones.
But you're not just a soldier, you're a commander! Whenever you leave the Normandy, you pick two people from your band of buddies to accompany you as henchmen. Each potential squadmate has varying strengths and weaknesses, and access to different powers and weapons, like you. Miranda is a capable biotic, but uses only pistols and submachine guns. Jacob has a couple biotic powers, but relies more on weapons to get the job done.
In battle, your squadmates are as responsive to your commands as your left and right arms. You give them orders via the command menu, which can be called up any time during a firefight. The command menu lets you use your own powers and switch your own weapons, as well as those of your comrades. You point at an enemy and click on a teammate's available power, and he/she uses it immediately on the targeted victim.
Combat in Mass Effect 2 is a very linear and straightforward affair, making it compare unfavorably to the game's more open-ended features. But it's still very enjoyable. Weapons come in several typical classes (shotguns, sniper rifles, assault rifles, etc.), with a couple weapons of minor variation in each class. Weapons themselves don't really have stats. The idea is to either augment your ammo to fit the situation, or simply change weapons. There are a few different "enchantment" powers, such as Cryo ammo which freezes nonshielded enemies after a few shots, leaving them vulnerable to shattering, and Disruptor ammo, which is designed to slice through shields and robotic enemies with its EMP qualities.
For a part-RPG, Mass Effect 2 features little in the way of side content. But what side missions present are substantial, and relevant to the survival of your team. That's because most of the actual missions (known as loyalty missions) are carried out as favors for your teammates. For example, Jacob hasn't spoken with his father in years, and their relationship has fallen out. But he eventually learns that the ship his father was commanding went off the radar some time ago, supposedly crashing into a nearby planet. You have the option of going there and investigating what happened, which serves as Jacob's loyalty mission. Each character's loyalty mission explores that person's past, and completing it raises their loyalty, which helps ensure their survival in the final battle. For some, it can also open up romance options.
In addition to this, if you buy Mass Effect 2 brand new, you are given free access to the Cerberus Network, which Bioware uses as medium to release free DLC (such as another recruit, or the original Normandy's crash site).
Mass Effect 2 is a beautiful game. Character models are clear and detailed, and the game makes excellent use of depth of field and blur to increase the feeling of realism. Each environment is remarkably unique, from the dark and murky alleys of Omega to the bright and sterile hallways of the Normandy. Every location has a visual style to call its own.
The soundtrack is filled with tons of moody and mostly forgettable space themes, but the more exciting moments in the game (the Normandy SR2's reveal) are done justice with just as exciting BGMs. The voice acting, on the other hand, is phenomenal. Regardless of whether he/she is male or female, and regardless of what options you choose in conversations, Shepard is fully voiced, and voiced with skill and enthusiasm at that. Other characters are given similar treatment.
Mass Effect 2 isn't the perfect game. There's an annoying bug where you sometimes find yourself stuck up high on a wall. The Paragon/Renegade system is mildly flawed, and combat doesn't stack up well against the game's better features. But the voice acting is exemplary, the graphics are excellent, and with multiple ways for Shepard's journey to play out and end as well as an entire galaxy to explore, the game's hardly lacking replay value. This game does so many things right, what few faults it has are immediately and easily forgivable. That's why Mass Effect 2 is getting my first 10 rating. A 10/10.