I never played any of the games of Mass Effect series. Now I have Mass Effect 2, due to a promotion by Origin, in my library.
Is it possible to understand the storyline of the franchise without playing Mass Effect 1?
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If you mean to ask: Do I need to play Mass Effect 1 to enjoy or understand Mass Effect 2?
Although the entire franchise is enjoyable - No. You do not "need" to play ME1 to understand or otherwise enjoy ME2.
Mass Effect 2 has a preface that brings players "up to speed" so they have all the pertinent information to fully understand what has happened and what is happening. It also allows players to make choices regarding events in Mass Effect 1 so that you're not stuck in a different story than someone who played Mass Effect 1.
Enjoy your ME2, as is.
Although one doesn't need to have played any of the games before to fully understand the plot or enjoy the game, I would definitely recommend it. Specially being the trilogy at such a low price nowadays to get a better grasp of the game. And not only in terms of story* but also in gameplay and design.
The franchise suffered few changes from the first game to the last one and depending on personal tastes the whole experience can change in the different iterations.
*Each sequel had a different main writer affecting the way the plot is told, how it unfolds and what weight other sub-stories have.
If you really want to enjoy the Mass Effect series to its fullest potential, you should play all three parts in order, importing your savegame after each one.
But it might be worth noting that the first part is a bit less polished in regards to graphics, aesthetics and gameplay than the other two. If you play the first one and dislike it because of that, you might want to quit it, read a synopsis of the story, and continue with part 2.
The Answer is Yes and No. I have played Mass Effect 2 before the first part and here am gonna narrate my opinion on this.
Yes - You can understand the story of Mass effect 2 even if you skip playing the first part in the series. You will stumble initially but you will come around if you don't take the storyline very seriously. Over 75+ hours of awesome gameplay awaits you.
No - You wil never get the full essence of Mass effect series without getting a strong grip in the story. Especially in Mass effect 2 you will often come across NPC's which will recognize as a victory hero who defeated Saren and Geth (from Mass effect 1) and you will go like who the heck is Saren and Geth. Sometimes it will annoy you (as it did to me) a lot in fact because i take storyline pretty seriously. Besides storyline of Mass effect 2 have strong roots in ME1(Reapers and their puppets). Also you will meet many characters in ME2 which have deep connection to the protoganist in ME1 and you really don't want to miss the history between characters. And the last thing is ME1 is equally kickass as ME2.
My advice: Start with ME1 to live the awesomeness of Mass effect :)