While much of Mass Effect 2 remains virtually identical to its predecessor, its combat got a major overhaul to make it more in line with contemporary shooters. You can either use a radial wheel or the D-pad and shoulder buttons to issue basic commands to your squadmates as well as tap your own special abilities and ammo. Weapons all now require thermal clips that act like ammo - the more powerful the weapon, the fewer shots you get from a clip. It's smooth and intuitive, if a bit simplistic. Choosing companions with the right mix of biotic, tech, and gun powers to bring with you into a fight can be crucial; there's nothing more annoying than getting slaughtered because you brought too many gun jockeys and not enough techs (or the other way around).
Mass Effect's cumbersome inventory system has also thankfully been simplified. Now, rather than carrying around countless bits of guns, ammo, and armor just in case, you simply choose your loadout gear before a mission. Any upgrades you make - say, an increase to shotgun damage - are automatically instituted across the board. Upgrades that are specific to a particular character or species are very clearly indicated, as are each weapon's abilities. It's a simple, clean system that works quite well.
Not all of Mass Effect 2's changes are improvements, however. You'll discover research for upgrades to your ship and crew during your adventures, but you'll need to collect raw materials to construct them. In the previous game, you'd find the minerals you needed by scanning planets, landing on the surface driving around for a bit, and pushing a button. It wasn't exactly exhilarating, but driving the Mako was somewhat interesting. Now, instead of driving around the planet, you're scanning from orbit, which consists of running your cursor around a map of the planet and shooting out a probe every time the meter spikes. It's quite tedious, but the caches of raw material you find make it well worth being thorough. You can eventually buy upgrades that speed the process, but it never feels like anything other than busywork.
Mass Effect 2 manages to straddle the line between RPG and shooter with surprisingly satisfying dexterity, maintaining a fast pace without ever sacrificing its dedication to characters or story. It stumbles at times, but the brilliance of the overall experience isn't diminished by its flaws. BioWare has done an impressive job of making the threat not just to your crew, but to humanity itself feel very real - you can thank the top notch writing and outstanding voice acting for that. The decisions you make have real consequences and weight. This is not a game you blow through in an afternoon, but one you savor, ponder, and carefully consider. The fact that you get to do those things while shooting the crap out of aliens is just a delicious bonus.
Bottom Line: Mass Effect 2 gets everything almost exactly right. It's smart enough to not change what worked best in the first game while polishing the bits that didn't. A few things are still creaky, but you won't care.
Recommendation: Play the first one, if you haven't already, then buy this one and play it too. Then tap your foot impatiently waiting for the final chapter.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Susan Arendt hopes BioWare includes a space pony in upcoming downloadable content.