Following the defeat of Sovereign at the end of Mass Effect 1, Shepherd and crew find themselves in the midst of a grand denial. The Council attributes the unprecedented attack against the Citadel to the Geth and a rogue agent, blissfully happy to believe that the danger has passed. Meanwhile, they still treat the true threat, the Reapers, as myth. Shepherd finds himself in a waiting game; without Council support for a full investigation of the Reapers, there is little else to do but wait for their next move. When a mysterious ship appears and attacks the Normandy, Shepherd find himself injured, presumed dead, and cut off from the Alliance--at least temporarily.
The highlight of Mass Effect 2 is unquestionably its story and universe, which builds upon the first game's fantastic universe with a tremendous deal of depth and new revelations. Many of the races that were only hinted at are given far more treatment this time around. With Shepherd working outside the Alliance, we get to explore the outer rim systems. It is a realm that ranges from semi-ordered to lawless, and most of its residents are happy to operate outside of Council space. The Quarians, courtesy of a companion character, are given a tremendous amount of development, including a visit to the migrant fleet. And, in a surprise highlight later in the game, we even get a healthy dose of new insights on the Geth. Several other races also are featured heavily, many of which received only a brief mention in the first game.
The story is fast-paced throughout the game, with the feeling of tangible threat growing each step along the way. It is a good length--I finished the game in 52 hours, and I always play slowly--just enough to feel like you can sink yourself into the story without every feeling like the game was dragging. It was a very satisfying experience, and yet I was wishing for more by the end.
The combat and RPG system is still fun in Mass Effect 2, but it is definitely different. Many of the classical RPG elements were streamlined from the first game, which was a little disappointing. There is very little, if any, choice to be made about equipment, with the exception of one's preferred rate of fire for shotguns. Furthermore, decisions about abilities are largely relegated to deciding which of four skills (five for Shepherd) to forego. Controls were similarly simplified, with you needing basically three buttons outside of movement: your trigger, the pause-the-game-breathe-and-trigger-abilities button (I live and die with this button), and the run/take cover button. It took some getting used to, but by the end I found that combat was pretty fluid, fun, dynamic, and rarely over-dependent on "twitchy" player skills.
The biggest addition to the combat system was a paper-rock-scissors (sort of) system of defenses. In addition to health, enemies can have up to three other types of defenses: armor, shields, and biotic barriers. Each defense is best targeted by different kinds of weapons and skills. Shields, for example, can be attacked by semi-automatic guns of Warp biotic abilities, whereas armor is better penetrated by heavy pistols and fire-based biotics. I really enjoyed this addition; it made weapon switching important in combat, and, best of all, encouraged me to take along different companions depending on the types of enemies I expected to face in a given mission.
Also gone in this game were the planetary exploration missions of the first game. You never get the equivalent of the mako tank missions where you get to drop down on a planet and battle your way to a mercenary base. Instead, in this game, the mission just starts at the door to the base. The mako's controls might have been bad at release, but by the time I played the game, it was vastly improved and, frankly, really fun. I LOVED the opportunity to trek across alien landscapes of random planets, many of which weren't directly tied to the main plot. ME2 seemingly replaced the mako experience with something far less fun: painfully slow, boring scans of planets for resources. Those scans are mandatory, too, if you want to get enough resources to upgrade your weapons and ship sufficiently to take down the bad guys in the endgame. I have no idea what the designers were thinking with this part of the game; more than once, they ended my late-night gaming session because I was nodding off trying to find a little bit more iridium.
In the end, ME2 is a terrific game. Its main failing is that it probably isn't quite as good as the original, which has an argument for best RPG of all time. If you compare it against ME1, you probably have to take off a star. But compared to other games, I just can't do that. ME2 is a blast to play, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to others. It's not perfect, but it's a 5 out of 5.
(sorry for no screenshots on this one; I took them, but they seem to have been deleted from my Steam screenshot directory!)