Review: Mass Effect 2

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The adage “don’t mess with success” clearly isn’t in Bioware’s lexicon. And thank goodness for that.

The surprise of “Mass Effect 2″ isn’t that the RPG powerhouse has released another great game, the astonishing thing is that Bioware has managed to make so many improvements on such an extraordinary foundation.

Although “Mass Effect” is justifiably considered a magnum opus of a role-playing game, its sequel leaves it looking like just a preview of something greater. Building on some aspects of “Mass Effect” and cutting back on others, Bioware has refined almost every aspect of the game, from exploration to combat to storytelling.

Even the dialogue system, perhaps the defining attribute of “Mass Effect,” is able to be improved. The ability to interrupt dialogue scenes with action adds another element of drama to the already immersive experience. The actions can be compassionate — like putting an arm around a grieving mother — or ruthless — like showing a mouthy mercenary the fastest way from the roof of a skyscraper to the street — but all heighten the emotion or tension of the scene.

But the greatest success of “Mass Effect 2″ is that it truly is a continuation of the first game. Although the game can be played and understood perfectly well by newcomers, the ability to import a character from the first game and see so many choices and relationships reflected in the new story greatly enhances the experience. As you encounter the surviving members of your old crew, their reactions to you — a tender kiss from one, a cold shoulder from another — reflect the complexity and maturity of the game’s writing.

Commander Shepard’s story picks up a few years after defeating Saren and preventing the invasion of the Reapers at the end of “Mass Effect.” Shepard’s ship, the now-legendary Normandy, is attacked and destroyed by an unknown alien ship. Thought to be dead, Shepard is instead rescued by Cerberus, a sprawling military-scientific organization that seeks human dominance in the galaxy. After two years recovering in Cerberus’ Lazarus project, Shepard meets Cerberus’ shadowy, chain-smoking leader (voiced by Martin Sheen, the most notable member of an outstanding voice cast), who provides a new ship and a new task: Form an elite team to find out why entire colonies of humans are being abducted and continue your fight against the Reapers. Oh, and don’t expect to make it back alive.

Despite the far-reaching implications of your mission, the story of “Mass Effect 2″ is more intimate than its prequel (and not just in the abundance of Shepard’s romantic possibilities). Whereas in the first game, your team came together quickly and you had to race against time to solve a mystery, recruiting a team to your cause is now a goal in itself.

And it’s not just anybody you want on the Normandy. The cast of characters that surround you are an impressive and dangerous bunch, each of whom brings something unique. But just as you demand that your team be willing to sacrifice their lives for the mission, they need something from you. Each crew member has his or her own mission that will shape the rest of their interactions with Shepard.

Your choices in these missions play a key role in “Mass Effect 2″, but rather than deciding the fate of an entire colony or of galactic politics, they individually affect the assassin looking for his son, the hired gun seeking revenge and the warrior who just wants a place to belong. Secure the loyalty of your teammates and they’ll unlock new talents; fail them and your suicide mission just gets that much harder.

But despite the importance of your decisions, the game lacks any situation like the single, punch-in-the-gut dilemma that provides the most wrenching moment of the first “Mass Effect” game and still the most memorable moment of the series so far. Even the suicide mission never forces your hand to the extent that you must balance lives against one another. Happy endings should be harder to come by.

And although the entire focus of the game is on gathering a team willing to sacrifice everything to “fight for the lost,” the suicide mission itself is over too quickly. It took me less than two hours to finish after devoting nearly 40 hours to that point. After recruiting a team of warriors with their own special talents and motivations, the game offers scant opportunity for them to put those skills to use in the mission they signed up for.

But despite the hurried conclusion, the game leading up to the final assault is better integrated and focused than in the first “Mass Effect.” No longer are there assignments in which you collect random items for no real payoff. Instead, resource collection is expanded to be a vital part of the preparation for your final mission. You can scan entire planets and put the resources you find into developing more powerful shields and weapons for your ship and your crew. Scanning planets can get addictive, and it’s a nice way to cool off after a fierce firefight.

The cover-based combat of “Mass Effect 2″ will be familiar to those who played the first game, and especially to “Gears of War” players, but it has also seen some improvement. Battles flow much better than before, due in part to a smart of use hot keys that reduce the need to pull up menus of powers and weapons. The commands to your squad have also been streamlined, allowing you to give individual orders without pausing the action. The addition of heavy weapons wielded only by Shepard also adds some visceral thrills to combat.

Although the combat is good, it’s the story and characters of the “Mass Effect” universe that will keep players coming back. The games — always planned as a trilogy — create a universe full of danger, drama, humor and heartbreak that rivals any in science fiction. The magic of “Mass Effect 2″ is your role in shaping all of this.

Score: 9.5 out of 10
Developer: Bioware
Platforms: Xbox 360, PC
Rating: M for Mature