Mass Effect 2 is one of the greatest video games that I have ever played. The subtle links to the first game, the standard of character writing and the universe detail gave me an experience I quite literally fell in love with.
What's more, recruiting old and new crew-members and the development of these characters made the journey of my Commander Shepard all the more special. I felt like I was interacting with proper people and meant the final act of the game was a brutal roller-coaster that left me drained and exhausted.
In this review I will be referencing plot points and story twists so if you don't want the game spoiled for you then refrain from reading until you complete the game.
Right from the start I was wrapped up in the fiction of universe. The spectacular destruction of the Normandy is arguably the strongest beginning of any game in recent memory. Not only does Mass Effect 2 continue the world seamlessly but then it suddenly destroys all that was precious to you from that game. Having a body count right from the start was a signal that this game is serious about its fiction and I felt nothing but a sense of foreboding about what was to come.
The subsequent manner of your death in space and resurrection at the hands of Cerberus is arguably the most effective means of transferring a character over from a previous game that I've seen. The sense of continuity is amazing - not only do the major decisions carry over but a lot of minor and seemingly throwaway choices also return in the most unlikely places.
These moments are peppered throughout the universe of Mass Effect 2 and give it a layer of detail and consequence that remind you there is whole galaxy operating outside your game bubble. It reminded me of playing Elite, Frontier or Freelancer. Mass Effect 2 doesn't quite have that level of freedom but the history is all the richer for its specificity.
In recent years sci-fi has become more allegorical than just the literal escapism I enjoyed when I was growing up. Mass Effect 2 certainly injects some modern issues - although I'm unsure whether it was intentional or not. Humanity is almost exclusively portrayed by Americans - there's little in the way of Halo's multicultural force - and the way humans (by the game's default) barge into the galaxy and throw their arrogant weight around draws telling real world parallels.
Usually I'd drone on, citing this as the major reason I find Mass Effect 2 so good, but the more pleasing truth is that I never felt beaten over the head by any of these issues. It was just there in the background for me to notice (or not) and then get on with the gameplay. This series does a great job of offering up interesting characters and an intriguing, space operatic stories because of it's expertly crafted atmosphere and social detail.
The world of Mass Effect could seem generic at first glance - a clean, hermetically-sealed sci-fi mash-up that hits stereotypes and archetypes without worrying about the detail. But in the detail of Mass Effect 2 I found a familiarity that made everything about the world feel believable. Even though the characters you meet in both games are usually alien, they have been drawn and crafted with such care that they exude more humanity than I ever expected. Ironically though, most of the human characters lack the same colour or detail and are often something of a weak link.
When the majority of Mass Effect 2 turns towards recruiting team members and scouring the galaxy for resources, it never felt like a video game conceit. I had been itching to immerse myself in as much of this universe as possible. In all honesty this sequel turned my slightly apathetic attitude towards the franchise into an all-consuming passion that had me devouring the books, iPhone game and comic series with relish. Not since Lord of the Rings have I had such a strong feeling about a fantasy reality and its wide context of lore, sub-stories and history.
Yet this immersion toyed with my feelings more than once. Once I had recruited a few new members to my crew, I found Liara on Ilium. This encounter changed the pedestrian pace into a blazing trail of heart-break and destruction.I remembered my Mass Effect 1 Shepard being smitten by this blue-skinned alien and made it my mission on Illium to rekindle this romance. But she had changed into this serious and obsessed information dealer, hell-bent on destroying the Shadow Broker who killed her partner. It was both shocking and awesome.
Amazing for her character as it lent a depth she lacked in the first game but it was also heart-breaking. I've never felt quite like a 5th wheel in a video game before (plenty in real life I can assure you), but seeing how Liara's life had taken a different turn and how independent she had become was pretty cutting. It was almost a case of unrequited love for my Shepard - taking me from the position of being able to romance anyone to now having no chance with the only one I wanted.
From then on I didn't care about the other characters, except for Garrus and Tali and their link back to those good-ol' days of the first game. My Shepard turned into a driven and emotional wreck of a Commander who couldn't think about anyone else other than Liara and herself. Instead of going through the loyalty missions like I should have, I drove as quickly as possible to the end game, ignoring the chance to upgrade my ship and personnel equipment.
And oh, what a mistake that turned out to be.
Though the attack on the new Normandy felt like a contrived happen-stance its effect was no less devastating. Seeing yet another crew killed or displaced is hard to take, even if those characters were only incidental. With Kelly and Dr. Chakwas gone though, I started to realise that maybe I should have done more preparation and not been a sullen, moody, love-torn Commander.
It set up the final 90 minutes as a blood-pumping climax which filled me with a nervous fear usually reserved for real-life struggles. I won't be as ridiculous as to say it matched the terror of a difficult child-birth, but ask me another day and I just might draw that parallel - depending whether my partner is in ear shot.
Subsequently, the decisions of whom to send on which particular part of the mission really began to eat away at me. Despite my lack of care for the other characters away from Tali and Garrus they had begun to mean more as the game got darker and meaner. I physically had to get up and walk away from the console before deciding who was go down a ventilation shaft to hack the security systems or who would lead the other diversion teams later on.
My fears turned out to be well-founded as the body-count grew and I zeroed in on the objective. The moments when I lost both Tali and Garrus I actually shouted out ‘No!' and nearly gave my cat a heart attack. It physically felt like I was taking a blow to the stomach and turned the blood-pumping final act into a somber, last-gasp attempt to avenge their memories.
The end was no less exciting as in my melancholic haze I wished my Commander Shepard hadn't survived. The final scenes where you stare at the coffins of your fallen companions was as depressing an end as I could have imagined.
The manner with which I've fallen in love with the Mass Effect universe and become attached to its inhabitants shows that this is a game worth savouring. I won't say this is the best game of 2010 - that would be pointless - but there's no doubt in my mind that it's the greatest game I've ever had the pleasure of playing and its emotional punch only leaves me more enthused about the final instalment.