Commander Shepard dies. Or he doesn’t. I’m doing nothing here to spoil Mass Effect 2’s ending—or the beginning for that matter. Because of the vast amount of choices you can make in this exquisite second chapter in Bioware’s sci-fi trilogy, your experience will almost certainly be different than mine. Paths begin to diverge immediately, particularly if you’ve played and held onto your completed game from 2007′s Mass Effect. If you did, you have the option to carry over your customized Shepard into ME2. Some of the key actions and decisions you made in the original affect how characters in the sequel react to you. One of my favorite squad mates, a Krogan alien named Wrex, was killed during the first game (yes, I was traumatized). In ME2, when visiting his homeworld, I’m reminded that I wasn’t able to save him.
If Wrex didn’t die on your watch or—shame on you—you didn’t play the first Mass Effect at all, you won’t get this guilt trip. Visiting the Krogan planet isn’t required to finish the game. In fact, if you’re in a rush to get to the end, you can sprint there in less than a day if you barely deviate from your primary mission, one that involves finding out who’s been kidnapping entire colonies of humans stationed throughout the galaxy. You’ll still get your fill of fast-twitch, intense action, which is on par with the best third-person shooters out there, including Gears of War 2.
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Rushing through the game, though, deprives you of ME2’s best feature: getting to know the intriguing cast of team members, adversaries, and random personalities you encounter during your odyssey. Standouts include the Illusive Man, the chain-smoking boss of a shadowy organization called Cerberus who recruits Shepard, Subject Zero, a tattooed violence junkie who gives new meaning to “girl power”, and Mordin Solus, a babbling Salarian savant scientist cut from the same cloth as Doc Brown from Back to the Future. It’s worth your time to drill deep into the psyches of every character because the dialogue sparkles with quality writing and voice acting (as if this game needed more geek cred, Tricia Helfer, Michael Dorn, Seth Green, Yvonne Strahovski, and Carrie-Anne Moss all have speaking parts).
If I had to nitpick two areas where ME2 disappointed me, it would be the optional planetary exploration—hands down the worst part of the first game and, despite an overhaul, the worst in the second—and the aggravating mini-games that you need to work through in order to hack computer terminals.
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These two weaknesses represent a pretty small fraction of the overall experience. Bioware, whose remarkable consistency in churning out quality entertainment makes them the Pixar of the videogame world, deserves heaps of credit for Mass Effect 2, no matter how you choose to play it.
Mass Effect 2, Rated M, is available today for the PC and Xbox 360. This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version provided by the publisher.
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