WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age.
I'm finally done with Mass Effect 2.
I'm not talking about "finishing the game". I've done that 3 times already. I mean that I'm finally done with the game and can move on to other things. Its stranglehold on my brain has slackened. I was unable to achieve escape velocity until I'd explored every nook and cranny, completed every quest, and gotten my fill of shooting at giant robots.
Mass Effect 2, like Bioware's other recent RPG release Dragon Age, is a game about choices, but unlike DA, it's also about consequences. That's partly because DA is the first in a series and ME2 is the "Empire Strikes Back" of a trilogy, so you see the consequences of your choices from the first game and always hold the possible consequences for ME3 in your mind (does anyone doubt that ME3 will be about uniting the galaxy against the incoming Reaper fleet?). But it also has to do with the impact of your choices in ME2.
In DA, you can't get to the end without recruiting the four main armies, and the differences your choices make in the ending sequence are largely cosmetic. Sure, your actions lead to each faction having a different leader, and maybe you have stone golems or werewolves on your side, but in the end that doesn't amount to much in the climax.
In ME2, you simply need to complete a certain number of missions to progress to the end, so if you do some sidequests you don't need to recruit every crew member, and you certainly don't need to make any or all of them loyal. Even if you do a loyalty quest, the way you choose to complete it can actually prevent that squad member from becoming loyal. You also don't need to get every upgrade to progress. This matters because all of these choices have consequences. Neglecting to upgrade your ship can actually kill your crew members in the final assault, and loyalty, along with your choices, determines who in your crew survives as the end sequence progresses. Even the choice to do sidequests before heading off for the final battle can lead to dire consequences that impact both the talking and combat aspects of the game.
I think by integrating these consequences and making your choices more impactful, Mass Effect 2 is a leap ahead of Dragon Age. Add in the fact that the combat gameplay is just so much better in ME2, and I don't see much reason to go back and replay DA even though I've chain-replayed ME2.
Much ado has been made on the internetz about how streamlined ME2 is, and how it barely qualifies as an RPG instead of a shooter because the itemization and character development have been simplified.
Having played ME1, I can say unequivocally that this streamlining is an exceedingly good thing. ME1's items and levelling could fairly be described as a "clusterbumblefuck." The reason ME2's is so good is because it almost eliminates item management and scales back on talent points without losing depth. This is a very important lesson for game developers to learn, because otherwise you end up with disasters like Final Fantasy 12 where I gave up 2/3 of the way through the game because I was tired of grinding mobs so I could vendor wolf pelts.
The beauty of these streamlined systems in ME2 is in their immediacy. There is no more fumbling with a menu after every mission, or even checking every time you pick up a new item to see if it's an upgrade. You can get to the actual play. At the same time, if you decide you want to change your weapon loadout or focus on certain skills, you can. It's just that those parts don't weigh so heavily on the game anymore. It makes the game feel more like an action game while still giving RPG depth and meaningful choices.
This idea that depth and choice without unnecessary complexity will lead to good gameplay (a tenet the WoW devs have recently embraced more fully) is evident throughout the entire design of ME2. Most noticeable is in the new combat system, where 3 different types of possible armoring on enemies leads to more interesting gameplay scenarios, and gives you a legitimate reason to switch guns or modify your strategy without being gimmicky or annoying. It makes the fights more interesting by constantly making you feel like you are making impactful strategic choices and demonstrating mastery.
The class design reinforces this. One of the greatest masterstrokes of ME2 was giving each character class a different special power that only that class has access to. For instance, my Vanguard had a unique "biotic charge" ability that would instantly teleport me into an enemy across the room, knocking them back, shielding me, and slowing down time so I could land a perfectly-aimed shotgun blast into their internal organs. My Sentinel had a "tech shield" that afforded an extra layer of tanky protection and knocked back enemies when it was destroyed. Infiltrators were the only ones with access to cloaking. I think the only place Bioware failed with this system was in making the special ability for the Engineer be attack drones, because there are a few squad members who also have that ability. The other unique class abilities are not shared by any non-player characters or even enemies. These abilities gave each class a clear identity and a totally different playstyle, a massive improvement over ME1's muddled classes.
Despite these victories, the game is far from perfect. Sure, exploring planets for resources and anomolies is streamlined into a mini-game, but the mini-game is mind-numbingly boring and tedious. If there is one thing that needs to be removed, it's that. One reviewer even demanded that Bioware issue a public apology. It's that bad.
The Security Bypass and Hacking mini-games are also tedious interruptions that could stand to be sheared off, though they are better than the "circular frogger" Bypass from ME1. I do like the idea of having some active player involvement in hacking, so perhaps instead of scrubbing the games, they should just be replaced with something better. For instance, the word games from Fallout 3's hacking system were infinitely better than the lame match games ME2 requires you to play. At the same time, F3's slower pace might have just been a better fit for that type of game.
The morality system is also limited, though it works well in its own way. Most interactions give you three choices of response: Paragon (generally "nice"), neutral, and Renegade (generally "not so nice", but not to be confused with "evil"). You cannot play a Shepard who is not trying to save the world, so either you do it by helping people out or you do it by blunt-forcing your way through situations.
The morality system suffers from being yoked to the "negotation" system. What this means is that certain Paragon or Renegade dialogue options only open up if you've already built up points by acting like a P or an R. This wouldn't be so bad, except these special options tend to be much better than the default options, and often have a major impact on your gameplay. For instance, you can get discounts at stores if one of your scores is high enough, and you can - without warning - even lose the loyalty of a crew member if you haven't built your score up in one of the two directions by a certain point in the game. I think the game suffers for this, because I tended to feel like my choice was taken away most of the time because I had to take the Paragon options just to build my Paragon score, even though I didn't think that option was the one my mostly-Paragon Shepard would really choose. The system basically punishes you for making choices in shades of grey, and that's a major failing they should fix in the third installment.
Those are my "deep thoughts" on the game, having completed it once neutrally, once as a Renegade, and once as a Paragon. On my first "blind" playthrough, I managed to keep everyone alive except for poor Yoeman Chambers. On the second, my goal was to kill Shepard, but I failed. In order to die, you need to kill off every single member of your squad, and due to some missteps on my part both Zaeed and Miranda were alive at the end to save me. My final runthrough was meant to max out my Paragon points and get a "perfect" playthrough where everyone lived, I explored every planet, got every upgrade, did every sidequest, and maxed everything out in preparation for ME3.
Now that I'm done with all that, I feel like I've finally truly "finished" the game and I'm ready to move on. Next up: Final Fantasy 13 (and hopefully Starcraft 2 beta)!