I hit the 20-hour mark last night in Mass Effect 2 (ME2), and I've got quite a list of review notes going. Much, much more than I would have anticipated before starting the game, actually.
To anyone who would say that ME2 is indisputably better than the first game, I would ask what it was that they felt was lacking the first time around. I don't mean to broadly assume, but from those I've spoken to, it seems as though players who wanted a more combat-focused experience are loving what ME2 brings to the table. Players (like myself) who enjoyed the combat but were more interested in the story and characters seem to have some issues embracing it wholeheartedly. Your mileage may vary of course, but this seems to be a general trend I've observed.
Although I don't want to spoil my review before it's written, one issue I've really been wrestling with is the developers' decision to radically shift their design in order to bring total focus on the teammates Commander Shepard can recruit.
Being able to convince someone to join forces with you and get to know them over the course of an adventure is one of the hallmarks of BioWare's greatness, and it's certainly one of the things that made me a convert after my experience with Knights of the Old Republic. However, in every BioWare title previous to ME2, there has been a larger, overarching plot, usually involving saving the universe or something along those lines.
Characters are encountered over the course of a player's travels as they attempt to resolve this big issue, and by choosing to engage in conversation with them, their particular backstory and (sometimes) hidden quest is revealed—but, this type of content has always been what could be properly categorized as sidequests. They're there if the player wants them, but they are not the focus of play.
In ME2, BioWare has changed tactics and taken these hidden surprises a player had to work for, and instead put them front and center. Essentially, the main quests in the game are sidequests, and to be frank, I don't feel as though this tactic was successful—for a couple of reasons.
First, although there is an overarching plot, it's not able to be advanced until the player recruits a certain number of teammates, which basically forces them into a number of disconnected, random-feeling missions. Go here and meet this person. Go there and meet that one. The game explains it in the context of the plot, but this structure makes it nearly impossible to feel as though the game is moving forward. Rather than meeting someone on the way to accomplishing a goal, simply meeting them is the goal itself. There is little sense of drive. Having said that, I don't think that such a structure is inherently unworkable, but what puts the nail in the coffin for me is the sheer amount of characters to be recruited.
At the moment, I have ten characters in my stable, with a slot for one more. With two characters on my team at the start of the game, this basically means that I've been through approximately eight core missions with the sole objective of recruiting someone. By way of comparison, I'd say that there have only been two missions which could be seen as advancing the main plot. The ratio here is way off.
Making the situation worse is the fact that the player can only be accompanied by two characters at a time. With this structure, there is little opportunity to develop significant bonds or any sense of in-game camaraderie with more than a few of them. There just isn't time to have most of the cast mean much, yet getting these characters to join and completing their individual quests is the bulk of the ME2 experience regardless of how much or how little screen time they get.
As I go through the game and complete these missions, I can't help but get the sense that each one would be improved and feel much more significant if there were just less of them. It's not very meaningful to me to accomplish Mission X for Character Y when I've only used them once or twice, and there's no real chance for dramatic build-up with the stop-start-stop rhythm the game has. There is no flow to progression; no feeling that things are building to a head. I've just been making frequent stops around the neighborhood, basically. Need a ride? Gotta drop something off? No problem.
Further complicating things and detracting from the experience overall is that with so much focus on one person or another's problems, there's little room for me to develop any feelings at all about the antagonists of the game—and every good game needs a recognizable and present enemy. What would Mario be without Bowser? What would Final Fantasy VII be without Sephiroth? In Mass Effect 1, Saren and the Geth filled this role quite satisfactorily, but this time around, there are so many people to meet and such a great number of errands to run that it's quite possible to forget that there's even a larger threat at all.
I may be in the minority with this view, but I think the BioWare Character Sidequest System™ worked better and was more meaningful when it actually consisted of sidequests. The player could participate in the larger adventure and feel as though significant events were happening, yet still had complete control over when (and if) they took the time to take a break from saving the galaxy to delve deeper into someone's problems. I'm not done with the game yet, but after the last 20 hours, I feel comfortable saying that this reverse-prioritization gives ME2 a very haphazard, aimless feeling, and a central plot that fails to materialize. For a game that's ostensibly about saving the universe, I can only see this as a bad thing.
…Of course, there's still time to pull things together and drive it home with a bang, but based on my time spent so far, I'd say that BioWare's going to have to pull off one hell of a trick to do it.