Mass Effect 2 still fully embraces its RPG roots, and Bioware does an excellent job of still giving your character a sense of empowerment as your decisions help to shape the way the story unfolds. If you have saves from the first Mass Effect game, you can import them into the sequel and your decisions from that game impact what happens here, which is a feature I cannot say enough good things about. While the first title only has a couple of pieces of so-so DLC, Mass Effect 2 has quite a bit more and while it varies in quality from 'okay' to 'excellent', I find that it all helps add to the overall storyline, which I have become quite invested in by now.
There are some key differences between the first Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. Most of them come down to pacing. While Bioware tried to update Dragon Age so its sequel was more action oriented, the results were considered streamlined and largely unsuccessful. Here Mass Effect 2 benefits from a tighter focus on combat and menu navigation, and I think the sequel benefits mightily from it.
Graphics - 9:
The visuals are as inspired as ever. I really liked some of the distant skylines and landscapes found in the first game, and in Mass Effect 2 they are just as impressive in scope - but even better in execution. The quality of the graphics improved greatly from the original title, with character models animating better, especially in the face as they converse. The oddly popping shadows and light effects that I commonly found in the first title are gone as well, making this a pretty game both on a technical level and in the overall artistic style.
Sound & Music - 10:
The already great voice acting found in Mass Effect is even better in this title. The music is excellent as well, and if maybe no better than the original game, the epic scores and heavy base beats are just as good. The sound effects have a bit more variety to them while you firefight with aliens, but the voice acting is what really makes this such an outstanding quality of the game.
Gameplay - 8:
Things can still get a bit iffy when you are fighting at close range, but the mechanics are so much better this time around. They are not perfect, but the cover and fire gameplay is fast and fluid. Add in things like flipping from gun to biotic power to a new gun quickly and easily, and you have an experience that does not bog down under menus quite as badly as the first game did. My primary complaint? The mineral gathering sort of 'mini game'. It adds an annoying level of grinding to the proceedings that lends itself to the feeling of exploration, but with none of the fun.
Intangibles - 9:
Once more the urge to replay this game overtakes me. I want to see what could have been different. Whether this is a romantic relationship, a tough choice when trying to settle a dilemma or what combination of decisions at the end of the game lead to the survival or death of your party, I cannot wait to see how my save files will be implemented in the third title.
Overall - 8.75:
This is easily one of my favorite games of all time. I've never tried to settle on an 'all-time' favorite game, because there are so many different things that can factor into that sort of a discussion. That said? As good as Mass Effect was, Mass Effect 2 is even better. The blend of shooting mechanics and RPG elements may not gel for everyone, but they worked for me and then some. Again the themes are not really kid appropriate, but they make the story all that much more engaging in my opinion as well.