Mass Effect 2
Credit: Electronic Arts / BioWare

During the opening sequence of sci-fi saga Mass Effect 2, the story’s hero, Commander Shepard, gets sucked out of his imploding spaceship and hurtled through the cold, silent vacuum of space toward certain death in the atmosphere of a looming planet. Watching him writhe and struggle in his uselessly slick space suit is chilling and heartbreaking. Even if you’ve never played the popular first Mass Effect, it won’t matter. My mind was captured, my emotions engaged. Mass Effect 2 is one massively affecting experience.

Playing as (the revitalized) Shepard, you must assemble a team of soldiers, mercenaries, and mad scientists (including the fast-talking, hilariously crass Mordin Solus, one of many standout supporting characters) to investigate the disappearance of human colonies throughout the galaxy at the hands of villains called the Collectors. Almost every sequence includes opportunities for extended dialogue among characters, should the player choose, and the conversations are loaded with mucho backstory and intrigue. The game is almost Lost-like in its amount of mystery mythology. You can also dictate the emotional tenor of the scene, choosing to respond rudely or graciously. These choices in turn supposedly alter the fundamental nature of your character and affect your ability to charm and cooperate when needed, although honestly, as neat as that sounds, I experienced that aspect as either needlessly complex or just inconsequential.

Or maybe I was just too distracted by the purrrrrty imagery and environments. The game is a triumph of art direction and design. I loved the shadowy office of the Illusive Man, with its panoramic view of a swirling amber gas planet; the vast, fun-to-explore four-level interior of Shepard’s spaceship (complete with flushable toilets!); and the look of characters like Samara, a scary-sexy assassin whose red leather armor crackles with blue electricity. Can’t wait for the Halloween costume.

The run, duck, and shoot gameplay is unexceptionally good, and often feels incidental if not irrelevant to what ME2 really wants to be: an interactive story, an audience-guided Star Wars. My biggest quibble is with the characters’ faces: Ironically, the remarkable emphasis on story and character brings too much attention to the cross-eyes and mouths, which don’t match the voluminous, well-written dialogue. Mass Effect 2 is state-of-the-art sensational, but also leaves you wondering how much better videogames will be as the quality of character animation improves. James Cameron, I hereby assign you your next project. B+