Simply put, Mass Effect 2 is the Terminator 2 of video games.  It takes everything great from the first game and capitalizes on it, in terms of story, characters, gameplay, and visuals.  After the events of Mass Effect 1, Shepard is killed by a mysterious force, only to be resurrected by the Cerberus corporation and a mysterious figure known as the Illusive Man (Martin Sheen, an excellent choice for the role).  Shepard, in exchange for his/her life back, agrees to work with Cerberus to find out why several human colonies have been disappearing at the hands of an alien race known as the Collectors.  Whether or not the Collectors are working with the Reapers, that's why Shepard specifically was chosen for this mission.  As Shepard, you have to travel across the galaxy once again to put together a team of elites that will take the fight to the Collectors in a suicide mission beyond the Omega 4 Relay.

You have the option of importing your Shepard from Mass Effect 1 into the game, which is a fascinating aspect to the game overall.  You still have the option to be a saint or devil to anyone you meet, and there are several more opportunities to do so than in Mass Effect 1.  As you interact with the galaxy, several familiar faces will pop up, recognizing you from Mass Effect 1.  In addition to your new squad mates, you run into people you knew from before, such as recruiting Garrus Vakarian and Tali 'Zorah.  Provided you kept him alive in Mass Effect 1, Wrex makes an appearance as clan leader on the krogan homeworld of Tuchanka.  Even Liara T'Soni shows up now and then. 

That's not to say there aren't intriguing new characters.  There's the quirky, eccentric salarian doctor Mordin Solus, the tank-bred genophage-free krogan called Grunt, the penitent drell assassin Thane Krios, and the intriguing geth known as Legion.  Seeing friends and NPCs react in various ways, depending on how you acted around them in the first game, makes the situation of galactic destruction seem like a family reunion.

Missions in Mass Effect 2 have been greatly redesigned.  Instead of wandering around in a tank on horribly bleak and repetitive worlds, the Normandy drops you off right where the action is!  The nature of what you do on the surface of random planets is improved as well, since you're not just blasting through the same underground compound time after time.  There are several different types of side missions, like searching the abandoned wreckage of a ship, or tracking a malfunctioned AI across the galaxy.  Your squad mates also get more depth to them in the form of loyalty missions.  After recruiting individuals, they'll ask you for a favor, usually involving their family or associates who are in peril.  By helping them on these missions, you secure their loyalty, and everyone's chances of surviving the suicide mission increase.

The fact that repetitive missions are gone in Mass Effect 2 doesn't mean there isn't anything repetitive throughout the game.  In your free time, you can go jumping across the galaxy, scanning planets for their natural resources, and deploy probes that mine said resources that can be used for upgrading your team.  After sucking a few clusters worth of planets dry, however, you'll probably have enough palladium for two playthroughs.  Upgrades in Mass Effect 2 have been downgraded severely.  Instead of being able to select from a plethora of weapons and customize them with different ammo and firing upgrades, you can only chose which type you want before missions.  Upgrading is mostly reserved for researching new things, like biotic enhancers and a stronger hull for the Normandy. 

Combat in Mass Effect 2 hasn't really been messed with, you can still use biotic and tech powers as you see fit, and the addition of heavy weapons to your arsenal is heartily welcomed.  However, now you have to be on the lookout for ammo clips on your way.  Instead of waiting for your weapons to cool down, like in Mass Effect 1, you have a finite number of shots to each weapon, which is a bit of an annoyance, especially since you didn't have to put up with it it the first time through...


Yes, that's another Terminator 2 reference.

Visually, the game is stunning, and improves on the look of the first game.  Plus, textures load at a ridiculously fast rate, blowing away the look of Mass Effect 1 spectacularly.  I did at one time, however, experience a glitch where one krogan character on Tuchanka had absolutely no rendering, he was just a giant silhouette talking to me.  It was only for a short cutscene, but it stuck out to me, especially amongst the other visual marvels.  Cutscenes look amazing, making it seem like you're watching a movie at times.  The only problem is that the game is now on two discs on the 360, so changing them back and forth a few times is a little annoying.

Overall, the game is a huge step up from Mass Effect 2.  Everything great about the first game is back, and things that didn't work have been reworked to near perfection in this one.  It also advances the story along brilliantly, and is a great addition to the franchise.  I give it a 9.5, vastly improved over Mass Effect 1, here's hoping this Terminator-like franchise won't go the same way Terminator 3 did...