I got Mass Effect 2 off my wife for christmas, and after having completed it on saturday night, I started thinking which one of the two games is actually better. Mass Effect is a truly great franchise - a sci-fi opera that is firmly building towards being one of Bioware's great acheivements.
I absolutely loved the first game. the combination of third person action and RPG spanning an entire universe was something that made me love the entire universe and it's characters. The whole series is also wonderfully ambiguous, with a firm way to play the way you want.
But which of the two games is actually better?
Well, the second game ups the action stakes. The tactical system is half arsed in the extreme, with the characters you direct to stay in a position rarely bothering to actually fucking stay there but they certainly fight well. Half the time I found myself hanging back in a support position, allowing the other two members of the party to move forward and assault the enemy. Ironically, when they were out of my control, they often tended to move better tactically and fight back enemies I hadn't even spotted yet.
In the first game, the characters tended to duck straight into cover, and just pop-up shoot at enemies. I suspect this was because of the ammo method in the first game -the weapons had infinite ammo, but tended to 'overheat', which robbed you of being able to fire for a few seconds. The tactics tended to be "pop up, short burst, short bust, overheat, duck back to cover" until you'd killed the enemies. You could use grenades to liven up the proceedings, but it was much slower paced.
In the second game, you can put a LOT more ammo down - but the ammo is limited. Rather than overheating, the guns have "Thermal Clip", that can only take so many shots before it has to be ejected. This makes the gunplay a lot more intense, and forces you to at least occasionally switch weapons. The further firepower supplied by the heavy weapons also gives you a lot more bang for your buck.
The first game used a traditional XP and Levelling RPG system, whereas the second game doles out the level points at regular intervals, forcing you think carefully about the powers and persk you choose. It works, but I did find myself missing the levelling up you get from occasional skirmishes.
On the other hand you didn't really get much incidental fighting outside of missions. Mass Effect was a lot more sprawling than it's sequel with the ability to take a wheeled vehicle - the Mako - down to a lot of the planets and roll around blowing the living shit out of stuff. Of course, one of my freinds pointed out that while Mass effect feels bigger and more open, most of the worlds are pretty much carbon copies of each other with texture changes. The illusion of freedom tended to fall apart whenever you actually went into a building, since they all had exactly the same layout with a few crates moved around. On top of that, the side missions did tend to go be essentially "Go here, shoot this."
Mass Effect 2 is a much tighter game. all of the missions have firm places within the universe and all have a plot that revolves around more than gunning down everything in a ten mile radius.
It's hard to compare the stories, since ME2's story is an extension of ME1's. But I have to say in Saren, the renegade Spectre, Mass Effect has a more compelling antagonist. Mass Effect 2 focus's far more on the wider story of Commander Shephard against the Collectors. You have the Harbringer, the voice of the Reapers - the series' overall megavillains - but other than that theres no-one to directly focus on as a villain.
So, which one is better?
Simple. The one where the refining of the formula finally pays off.
Mass effect 3.