Mass Effect’s biggest innovation was arguably the way it combined strong voicework with superbly animated close-ups to turn conversation into something more immersive and cinematic; not only could you see how characters responded to you, but the overall effect was emotionally a lot more engaging than anything you’d find in, say, Oblivion or Fallout 3. Mass Effect 2 does this even better, moving the camera around more during scenes and having the characters themselves more mobile. Frankly, the more you play Mass Effect 2, the more stilted and artificial character dialogue in other games seems. In this area, if no other, Bioware leads the field.
Character development, meanwhile, remains strong. RPG die-hards will complain that the streamlining of systems has resulted in a dumbing-down, and that simplified equipment systems and skill trees mean that Mass Effect 2 suffers from a lack of serious RPG depth, but to my mind there are still enough variables to play with, particularly if you move outside the combat-heavy Soldier class, and there’s still enough complexity in the equipment research area to make you feel like you’re tailoring Shepherd and his crew.
The more important thing is that Mass Effect 2 gives you a clear sense that you’re playing a role. You’re not just ticking simplistic good or evil boxes, but working in the grey areas in-between and trying to work out both what kind of Shepherd you want to be, and what kind of Shepherd can get the job done. The way that characters respond to your actions is a joy; give your crewmates the support they need, help them on their own personal quests and treat them right, and you’ll earn their loyalty (and maybe win their hearts and get into their futuristic space knickers).
What’s more, if you completed the first game and import a character, you’ll not only receive practical bonuses, but start off with a history that Mass Effect 2 will regularly refer back to. In the stats and options sense, Mass Effect 2 is an RPG-lite, but in the role-playing sense? Nope. This is as good as it gets.
I’m not sure Bioware has ever come up with a dull character or a bad story – after all, this was Dragon Age’s biggest saving grace – and Mass Effect 2’s cast is consistently interesting, with each major character having some sort of arc that makes them a more sympathetic or well-rounded personality. You’ll be pleased to see old faces, some in situations that reveal more of their character, and the new ones are just as likely to grab your imagination. After a while, you’ll warm to Miranda, Grunt and Subject Zero as much as you warmed to Ashley, Garrus and Tali in the original. They’re written so well that you can’t help but like them. And this is what really sets Mass Effect 2 apart. Like any good story, Mass Effect 2 is an emotionally engaging experience, and even if we’ve got a long way to go before virtual actors in a video game can match real actors in a TV show or movie, we can definitely see this game as another big step along the right path.