On one level, I find it sort of depressing that the major improvements to Mass Effect 2 over its predecessor are changes that seem to bring it closer to what Deus Ex already was 10 years ago. For example, less interference in your aiming by the skill system, or a much more compressed character system with fewer but greater upgrades, or an expansive weapon modification system.
On the other hand, ME2 still isn’t very much like Deus Ex at all, and its major strengths can be directly attributed to BioWare’s pedigree. It’s down to the macro-level freedom in the game’s structure, its persistent gallery of mostly interesting and memorable characters, and its constantly branching dialogue trees and generally superb acting.
Mass Effect 2 is much more third-person shooter than Mass Effect 1 was, but it’s still significantly more RPG than Deus Ex ever was. Ironically, the opportunities I see for improvement in Mass Effect 3 would all bring it even closer to Deus Ex. I would make the weapon mods more about choice than upgrades by making some of the mods mutually exclusive. I would open the level design up a bit in the major missions (short, linear, shooty missions are good for the side missions, but I missed Noveria’s more open layout in ME2). I would remove the alignment tracker completely so the choice between Paragon and Renegade becomes purely stylistic. Actually, let me go a bit more into that.
I think the persuasion options are a problem. The basic Paragon/Renegade dichotomy is fun, and choosing whether to be a boy scout or a cynical bastard is much more interesting than choosing whether to be Good Or Evil™. With the additions of special actions that let you interrupt the dialogue at certain points by doing something drastic (and consistently awesome), BioWare has forced themselves to implement a lot of really memorable moments. The problem is that they’re still rewarding you for sticking to one type of choice, since you have to almost always be Paragon in order to earn Paragon points that unlock optimal solutions to the more difficult problems later in the game.
I don’t want to stick to one side. Sometimes, the most awesome solution seems to be the Paragon option, sometimes the Renegade options seems more awesome. By rewarding me for always picking either type, they’re not only eliminating a vital part of the freedom they’ve worked so hard to give their players, they’re also making me choose the least awesome option in many situations. And the really stupid aspect of all this is that the reward for sticking to either side actually makes the choices later in the game less interesting. This was exactly the same problem Dragon Age had with its persuasion skill: once your character is good enough, you can immediately defuse the slightest hint of conflict in the game.
In ME2, enough Paragon or Renegade points will allow you to totally pacify the confrontations between certain crew members – it’s the optimal option, so you will feel punished and nerfed if you haven’t unlocked it in time, but at the same time it actually removes the otherwise interesting need to choose sides.
I had a different problem with the implementation of the special actions in that for me, there was never a choice. I knew those actions would always be interesting and rewarding, so every time it flared up a prompt, I would press it. I had no guarantee that skipping eg. a Renegade action would instead allow me to pick a Paragon action afterwards, and I didn’t want to miss a cool special action, so there was never a reason for me not to pull off a special action. From my point of view, it would’ve been a massive improvement if special actions generally came in pairs: then it would be a stylistic choice of whether to go with the Paragon action or the Renegade action at any point.
But that’s the only major annoyance I had with Mass Effect 2. I wouldn’t hesitate to name this my favourite BioWare game so far, though I must admit I’ve never played Shattered Steel (it wouldn’t run on my PC back then) or Sonic Chronicles. I loved ME2′s structure, with the really exciting premise of preparing a ship and a crew for a suicide mission that may well fail completely if you don’t do a good enough job of it. I loved the numerous improvements to the character system and the combat system. I loved the idea of replacing BioWare’s by now stereotypical McGuffins with team members to be found and recruited. Hell, I even loved the two new hacking minigames – they were quick and easy enough not to get in the way, they were pretty decently contextualised, and they were above all infinitely better than ME1′s Simon Says minigame (I played the Xbox 360 version).
At this point, I just want more. I’m super excited to see what BioWare will come up with for Mass Effect 3, but why stop there? If a series like Final Fantasy can reach the 13th goddamn installation, I see no reason why Mass Effect shouldn’t go on forever. I am, as they say, BioWare’s bitch.