I've been playing Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 a lot lately, so I felt I might as well post a review of them. I guess it's more of a retrospective, but whatever. For reference, I played both games on the PC, like God intended.
I played Mass Effect 2 first, so I'll start with that one. I will try to get through this review without comparing it to the previous game, since that discussion warrants its own post.
Mass Effect 2 is a shooter-RPG that follows the exploits of Commander Shepard, a human soldier who lives just a few decades after humanity makes first contact with aliens. His actions in the first game have made him a hero (possibly a widely-hated hero, but a hero nonetheless). Of course, a new enemy soon rears its ugly head, and Shepard must again lead a team of humans and aliens against impossible odds in order to save the galaxy.
As tends to be the case with BioWare games, the story is quite well-written, as is the dialogue. The climax of the story really feels like the climax of a story should. No disappointing ending here. The characters are fairly compelling, if somewhat formulaic. It seems all but two have some sort of tragic past, which is about as common in BioWare games as lutefisk in Minnesota (which is to say, enough to be cause for concern). One of the most memorable characters is the ship's pilot, Joker. He's an arrogant jerk, but he expresses his arrogance and general abrasiveness in a very entertaining way. He offers commentary on the other characters after you recruit them and will offer further commentary after you take them out on missions.
The characters in the player's party have well-defined personalities and well-written dialog, along with interesting and varied costumes. The strange part, though, is that these characters wear the same costumes when out on a mission. It's a little strange to have a woman in a catsuit going toe-to-toe with fully-armored mercenaries. What's even stranger is the downright bizarre choices of environmental protection that they wear in areas with no atmosphere or a hostile atmosphere. I don't care how genetically-modified that lady is; don't tell me her eyes can withstand total vacuum or concentrated chlorine gas. That's just bullshit. Oddly enough, the krogan character (a member of a legendarily tough race) wears a full helmet in such environments.
As for gameplay, it's solid. The combat and NPC interaction systems generally work smoothly. The space bar is a tad overworked, though. Off the top of my head, I can think of four things it does:
1. Take cover
2. Activate object
3. Vault over low wall
Oddly, the shift key (used for sprinting in most shooter games) is used to pause the game and bring up a menu for switching weapons, using powers, and giving orders to your team.
Combat is fairly standard cover-based shooting. The tech and biotic (aka space magic) powers help it rise above simple "knucklehead A taking potshots at knucklehead B from behind a chest-high wall." The heavy weapons are satisfying, and it's fairly obvious which enemies warrant their use. Ammunition for such weapons is rare enough to dissuade their use against dime-a-dozen mercenary idiots, but common enough that you probably won't ever find yourself up against a powerful enemy without enough ammo. The M-920 Cain does throw this off a bit, since a weapon that only has enough ammunition for one shot (maybe two if you get enough of the right upgrades) necessarily changes the economics of its use.
Interacting with NPCs is a step above the ordinary. You still have a standard dialog tree, but the options are arranged on a wheel, with three on the left and three on the right. Generally speaking, the options on top are the "nice guy" options, the options on the bottom are the "jerk" options, the middle option on the left is for more information, and the middle option on the right is a neutral response. The options on the top left and bottom left typically require Shepard to have a certain number of paragon or renegade points. Paragon and renegade points are obtained by choosing the "nice guy" or "jerk" options (most of the time; sometimes you don't get points either way). Extra paragon and renegade points can be obtained via paragon and renegade interrupts. These are indicated by blue or red icons that appear on the screen at certain points during certain interactions. Paragon interrupts often take the form of assisting someone, while renegade interrupts tend to involve gratuitous violence. Paragon and renegade points form a sort of morality system, but not quite like what you find in, say, Knights of the Old Republic. It's a given that Commander Shepard will save the galaxy; it's just a question of what the price will be. As the inimitable Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw put it, the paragon vs renegade choice determines whether Shepard takes after Captain Picard or Dirty Harry. That said, going pure renegade results in a Shepard who is an utterly heartless asshole.
In terms of environments, there are really only two types: a few twisty hallways without enemies (i.e. the settled areas you can visit) and a single really long twisty hall with an offshoot here and there and enemies all over the place (i.e. the actual mission areas). It feels somewhat constrained, but it does help maintain focus. Free roaming is only possible in space, where you can fly your starship more or less anywhere. Flying around inside a star system costs nothing, and going from one star cluster to another is done via mass relay, which also costs nothing. Flying between stars in a cluster, on the other hand, burns fuel, which costs money to replenish. While this isn't a deal-breaker, it is a bit annoying, and it does kill a bit of the fun of exploring.
The circuit bypass and hacking minigames are enough of a challenge to be exciting without being a burden. That said, the fact that a pure soldier is just as effective at these tasks as an engineer detracts a bit from the sense of difference between the character classes. It's not to the point that choosing a character class feels irrelevant, but it does rub me the wrong way.
Upgrades to weapons and armor are (mainly) obtained via research. Research uses minerals. How do you obtain minerals? Well, you will sometimes find refined minerals lying around when you are on a mission. These minerals will get you one or two weapon upgrades over the course of the entire game. If you want some serious upgrades (some of which are needed in order to obtain the best ending), you will need to mine them. This is done by rubbing a scanner all over a planet and firing probes when the clicky sound gets loud and rapid enough, and it's about as fun as it sounds. If I wanted to rub something all over something and poke at it, I'd go detail my car. On the plus side, you tend to get a fairly large amount of minerals back with every probe (if you aim properly, which isn't hard), so it's not /that/ obnoxious. It's still annoying enough that I don't do it unless I have to (either because I need an upgrade or because my completionist OCD finally gets the better of me and I feel compelled to strip-mine a planet in the most boring way possible). This is a case where character class can make a big difference: the Engineer class can get a discount on research. Having to do 25% less planet scanning is rather nice. Some upgrades can be purchased. They tend to be fairly expensive.
Character levelling is fairly rewarding, if somewhat disappointingly rare. Each skill has four levels, with the first costing 1 point, the second costing 2 points, the third costing 3 points, and the fourth costing 4 points. Since you get two points every time you gain a level, you can boost your skills fairly quickly. However, the infrequent levelling means that you may very well enter the endgame two points away from a level 4 skill, which is particularly disappointing, since reaching level 4 in a skill lets you choose between two substantially improved versions. Even more aggravating is that you may have completed several missions without obtaining those last two skill points. Going to the trouble of playing through a mission to storm a mercenary base or something only to receive a mere 7500 credits (only 10% of the biotic power upgrade you're saving up for), 2000 units of palladium (the most common mineral), and a downright miserly 156 experience points is a bit disappointing. Sure, playing the mission was fun, but this is an RPG. You're supposed to get stuff after a mission. At least missions directly related to the story reliably provide level-ups.
Stock Mass Effect 2 is fairly stable (installing DLC seems to change this, unfortunately). However, the physics engine is an evil bastard that will glitch out in the worst way at the worst time. Stepped in the wrong place? Now Shepard is hovering in the air, able to move only a few feet in any direction. If you're really, really lucky, you can reach some sort of elevated ground and regain your footing. More likely, though, you will simply have to load your most recent save. To make matters worse, this happens most reliably during a mission in which there are ZERO opportunities to save. The Cerberus Network DLC (stuff you get for free if you bought the game in a physical store at the right time) seems to be fairly safe, but after installing Arrival, Stolen Memory, and Lair of the Shadow Broker, the game has become far more unstable, frequently crashing at inopportune times. To add insult to...um...insult, Arrival includes a dumpster (something you might want to take cover behind) that can cause the floating-in-midair bug if touched. FAIL.
There is one aspect of one DLC that I particularly feel the need to call out: the star system added by Stolen Memory. There are two things wrong with it. First of all, the system is identified as being one of the first settled by humanity, but it's right by the Citadel. You don't even have to go through a mass relay to get to it. Don't tell me the other races who have been on the Citadel for millenia never noticed it. Furthermore, the fact that you don't have to go through a mass relay to get to it stands in stark contrast to an established fact about the Citadel: it is surrounded by a nebula of abrasive dust that ensures that the mass relay is the ONLY way to reach it. These things don't detract from gameplay, but they give the game's universe a slightly schizophrenic feel.
You'll notice that I haven't mentioned the graphics yet. That's because graphics are generally not worth mentioning these days unless there's a problem. Mass Effect 2 looks nice, largely avoiding the "brown, brown, and more brown with a bit of grey" color scheme that plagues modern shooters. The fact that many enemies are mercenaries wearing brightly-colored uniforms helps in this regard.
All in all, Mass Effect 2 is a good game. I would recommend buying it (not enthusiastically, mind you) unless you are boycotting EA (I don't blame you if you are). If you liked Mass Effect, at least give Mass Effect 2 a try.