First off ... importing your character from the previous game is a huge hassle, at least on Steam. The game can't just look for it where Steam left it like The Witcher and every other game that imports saves. Even manually copying the right files from the Mass Effect 1 save directory to the Mass Effect 2 directory isn't good enough for the finicky-ass game, you have to run some obscure "configuration tool" buried in the messy Steam directory somewhere. But for some reason, I didn't get a copy of that tool! After 20 minutes of bullshitting around with this I just said "fuck it" and re-rolled the character from scratch. A multimillion dollar budget and this janky patchwork importing is the best you can do? What the hell EA. CD Projekt Red made you look stupid on this one.
One of the only reasons I bothered plowing through Mass Effect 1 after it got boring was to import the character, so I felt like this whole thing wasted at least a few hours of my life. I took a break to settle down, though, and came back ready to appraise Ass Le Fect 2 with an objective eye.
The Continuing Adventures of Yolo Shepard (sort of)
Well, good thing I was patient. Mass Effect 2 isn't perfect, but it nicely tweaks away most of the serious problems with the first game, while also managing to be absorbing and have well-written characters.
Our story begins soon after the first game's conclusion, as a giant unknown alien ship materializes out of nowhere and makes quick work of the Normandy with a giant laz0r. Shepard is ejected into space and believed to be dead, but has actually been scooped up by the rogue mercenary organization Cerberus, who served as minor antagonists in the previous game if you were doing all the side-quests. Cerberus spends 2 years putting Shepard Chunks back together again, because their leader The Illusive Man believes Sheppard is the only hope to lead humanity in a successful campaign against the Reapers. Who are still a threat but apparently taking their sweet-ass time about doing anything significant.
So it's off around the galaxy to assemble your Ocean's 13 team of specialists, while also finding a way to get through the Omega Relay, the gate to the Reaper world that no one has ever successfully returned from. The first major improvement - NO MORE FUCKING MAKO DRIVING! Exploration of planets is handled from a distance with a remote scanner now, rather than having to land on them and drive all over with wonky Moon Patrol physics. Scanning planets for resources this way is actually terminally boring, and probably the weakest portion of the whole game, but it's still way less time-consuming and frustrating than driving on planets in the previous game.
The other major change is that the awful equipment / inventory menu is completely gone. This reflects a shift in balance a little more away from RPG, and a little more toward a dudebro cover-based shooter emphasis. Which isn't really a bad thing here because it's executed pretty well. There are still some of the same issues with derpy AI running right in front of your current stream of fire, switching cover can get a bit wonky, and it would be nice if so many of the enemies weren't damage sponges that feel no pain, but on the whole it nicely retains the balance of different classes and using "powers" strategically in battle in tandem with the Dudebro Shewtin'
In the previous game's review, I mentioned it was hard to get into because the writing felt rather SyFy Channel. Somehow, it seems sharper and more interesting here. I think it's because of the Cerberus affiliation. Cerberus pre-selects your recruitment targets for you, and a lot of them are borderline personalities - assassins, wild-ass Krogans, amoral Cerberus operatives and scientists, even a Judge Dredd chick. Most of the team is new, with only two characters from the previous game returning to your active party. With these more morally ambiguous and interesting characters - not to mention the EXTREMELY morally ambiguous organization you're working for - I think there's more complexity, and more of a dark and real edge to this game. You often feel like you don't entirely know who to trust and are in real danger, whereas the first game was more of a Buck Rogers Saves The Galaxy sort of vibe.
You do still run into Bioware's typical "black and white morality" issue, though. Mass Effect 2 does give you a free hand to handle your affairs how you like; however, unless you've chosen to robotically role-play either Ultimate Simp or Ultimate Jerkface, it will eventually take away Nice Things from you for not commiting to one shoehorned personality or the other. One major exacerbation of this issue in this game is that the Charm and Intimidate conversation perks are no longer skills that you electively put points into, but are tied entirely to your Paragon and Renegade standing, respectively. Effectively role-playing a Renegade is now even more problematic (and it was already problematic in the first game); to do so you have to continually make sociopathic choices and be a shithead to your crew and friends for no good reason. Otherwise, doing even basic pragmatic things will inevitably get a butt-ton of Paragon points dumped on you anyway. Bioware (http://kotaku.com/5992092/two-thirds-of-you-played-mass-effect-3-as-a-paragon-mostly-as-soldiers) apparently kept track of saved characters over Steam as some sort of sociological study, and found that 2/3 of players played as Paragon ... I seriously wonder how much of that was an intentional choice though, when you make choices like "Don't callously let the colonists die for no logical reason" and suddenly get +30 Paragon Points dumped on you. Anyway, this simplistic morality has been a problem for Bioware since Baldur's Gate, and they haven't really solved it yet here.
Morality issues aside, Bioware's greatest strength is intricacy of game world and background detail, and they deserve a lot of credit for fusing in all the choices you make in ME1 (even in minor sidequests) deftly into the narrative here. And going forward - I haven't played ME3 as of this writing, but apparently a full 12 of the 13 characters you recruit here can potentially fail to make it to that game. It's hard enough to write a compelling linear narrative; add in all those variables, and still make the game's world and story engrossing and coherent? That's an exceptional creative feat.
And it's largely on the strength of that feat that I think the game is a must-play and deserves a 5/5. I was tempted to dock it a point for having such problems with importing a character - when importing is so key to the whole experience and a major franchise selling point - but after some research it seems that my problem is pretty rare, and may be a Steam-only issue (and then only on certain flavors of OS or setups.) Since it seems very uncommon, I'm giving the benefit of the doubt there. Little things here and there could stand improvement, but a lot of the major problems from ME1 were corrected, and on the whole it's really a pretty amazing work.