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Mass Effect 2 lives up to the hype (if you're a fan)

Things can get very heated between Shepard and new, suicidal biotic squad member Subject Zero. Yes, this is what I mean by “character-driven.”

EA/Bioware

Things can get very heated between Shepard and new, suicidal biotic squad member Subject Zero. Yes, this is what I mean by “character-driven.”

I'm not going to lie to you: I'm not a big fan of role-playing games.

That's a bold statement, considering my biweekly geek confessional, but I've never really dug them. The level-grinding, dialogue-heavy pseudo action proved too tedious, too cumbersome.

But I've learned that this was a prejudice against turn-based fantasy games, and have seen the light. And that light is provided by bursts of gunfire in the new gunplay-oriented RPGs like Fallout 3, Borderlands and, yes, 2007's Mass Effect.

And while Bioware's initial offering had its limitations, the much-hyped sequel, which hits shelves today, serves its legions of fans well by actually delivering the experience the developers have been promising.

I've always championed games with well-developed characters and storylines, and the Mass Effect saga has both in spades. What's remarkable about this sequel is Bioware's commitment to rewarding players who have created personable characters by allowing them to upload the save data from their playthrough of the original.

Indeed, that's the most compelling innovation of this now-franchised series. Instead of playing as an entirely new character and trying to build a background, my Commander Shep-ard's experience comes all but preloaded, allowing me to pick up where my ruthless, renegade, infiltrator war hero left off after battling the Reapers.

The issue, of course, is that if you are new to ME, the above description is practically worthless. ME2 makes things difficult to the uninitiated, but that's not the target audience here. This game is aimed squarely at fans of the original, especially those who complained vocally about dull Mako driving and generic side missions.

The key here is that the sheer customization of this title, which builds on the game's strengths — a rich cast of characters, creative combat, an engaging dialogue system with excellent voice acting (featuring Keith David, video-game staple Michael Beattie and, yes, Martin Sheen) — is an exercise in rewarding gamer loyalty on a scale we've not yet seen. It's easy to get caught up in this emotive, cinematic, character-driven drama, to the point that this may be the dovetailing of games and movies that's been touted since laserdisc legend Dragon's Lair.

Perhaps the most exciting and alarming element of this sequel is the illustration of how your choices affect this go-around. It's so seamlessly integrated and all-encompassing, it overrides my wish that I had played as a vanguard or adept. I still want to see what happens to my scar-faced avatar, even with his overreliance on pistols and sniper rifles. The improved graphics and sound don't hurt, either.

But time-starved gamers beware; Because every action has a reaction, and those reactions are recorded, expect to keep playing simply to see what happens if you had chosen differently. Because even if you only managed to watch the feature-film-like commercial during Sunday's NFC Championship Game, you no doubt have realized that, yes, even Commander Shepard can be killed in this game. And you'll want him (or her) around for Mass Effect 3.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

Mass Effect 2

Platforms: Xbox 360, PC Rating: M

Mass Effect 2 lives up to the hype (if you're a fan) 01/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 25, 2010 9:32pm]

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