Mass Effect 2

Massive attack or epic fail? Take one guess.

or all its jaw-dropping role-playing depth, Dragon Age: Origins was, in our minds, hobbled slightly by its ramshackle graphics and presentation, and hackneyed fantasy world. Mass Effect 2 has no such problems; in fact, it may be the best thing Bioware has ever done. Where Dragon Age was largely a brown mess, ME2 is a riot of science fiction colour, a glorious evocation of a possible future rendered in astonishing detail; you have never seen character animation quite as accomplished as this.

As a sequel, it offers returning players a satisfying continuation; for newcomers, it presents a penetrable access point to a universe of staggering detail and history, and a role-playing game that is two parts actual role-playing to one part balls-out blasting action. It is not without its faults, of course (read on!) but it is, without doubt, a hugely enjoyable affair.

The backstory to the first game is economically rendered for newbies, but old pros will relish the dramatic developments of this sequel's prologue. Commander Shepard (or... you) and his (or her) ship, the Normandy, are destroyed, and we see Shepard spin tragically through space, air venting from his suit... It's a crackerjack opening, and what transpires after sets the scene for the many hours of gaming to follow: Shepard is resurrected by the Cerberus group, a human supremacist organisation largely held as dangerous racists by the rest of the galaxy, and led by the 'Illusive Man'.

But it's well-funded, and the only outfit that's taking the threat of the colossally villainous Reapers seriously, so you've got to make a deal with the devil to save the galaxy. It's a fine set-up, complete with a built-in ethical dilemma, and the story that follows - building a team for what is surely a suicide mission to stop the alien 'Collectors' - comes complete with plot twists, character developments and new information that'll surprise and delight old and new players alike. But Mass Effect 2 is also an attempt to finesse the format of the first game into a more satisfying whole.

So, veterans, you'll be glad to know that the Mako driving sections are out completely. Likewise, the interminable elevator rides that masked loading times are erased. Ironically, in their place are actual loading times, decorated with wireframe graphics that demonstrate what you're doing during the wait - taking a shuttle en route to the Normandy, perhaps, or racing a cab cross-city to stop an assassination, or even using an elevator. Self-referential humour or guileless illustration?

The other improvements are thankfully more substantive. Take the combat, for example - the emphasis on ranged fighting that forms the meat of the first game's action was a little lightweight, a little flaky, and enemy models fell woodenly to the ground when killed. Not so here: the actually gunplay, at least when you get access to better guns and more advanced skills, feels heftier and more brutal, and the bad guys react when shot thanks to nifty new hit locations and animations. They'll even fall to the floor and drag themselves up if they're not quite dead; they're not stiff, sterile targets now.

It also helps that the cover system is much improved and functions very much like Gears of War's - hit a and you'll back up against cover, and pop out to snipe or fire a controlled burst at the bad guys before ducking back into safety again. Hammer a and push forward, and you'll vault over cover. It works well. While, of course, the action lacks the grace of the dedicated blasting greats of our times, this is all a definite step up from the mechanics of the first game and should do a better job in courting those gun-heads who might otherwise be put off by RPG trappings and endless conversations. In many ways it's almost the reverse of Borderlands - that game attempted to evolve the shooter with role-playing mechanics, whereas this works from the opposite direction. Both approaches are successful, and distinctive.

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