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Bonus Wibble: Mass Effect 2

John's already thoroughly Wot-I-Thunked Bioware's rather splendid star-biffing RPG, which remains very much the RPS DEFIN-O-TAKE on the game, but I have these words about it lying around from something that's not ever going to be published. So I might as well quietly leave them on this table here and walk away whistling, really. It's also an indulgent excuse to do something with a meagre few of the 412 screenshots I've accrued whilst playing ME2. Pretty graphics are pretty! If you read this piece thinking "this doesn't sound very much like RPS", that's because it isn't. Basically. WE HAVE MANY VOICES. Some of which don't involve repeatedly referring to ourselves in the first or third person and making jokes about bears. It does at least contain the word 'nookie' and a William Shatner reference, however.

Is it still a roleplaying game? That's a question that may repeatedly trouble you as you sink yourself brain-deep into this long-awaited return to Mass Effect's universe of space cowboys, genocidal AI and interstellar nookie. It has moral deliberation, it has shopping and it has experience points - but it does not have untold mountains of loot, the option to play dress-up with your party or screens full of statistics. Instead, it has an awful lot of fluid, thrilling shooting and the kind of visuals that make you want to overuse the word 'cinematic'. A lot of treasured babies have been thrown out with the bathwater. It seems impossible that it could still be a roleplaying game when so much tradition has been removed. Yet you couldn't possibly mistake it for anything else.

The decision to ditch the micro-management of your squad of spacefaring hardnuts could have been a costly one - it's a break with tradition for both Bioware and Mass Effect, reaching far beyond their comfort zones. The first Mass Effect, splendid a tale of exploration and ethical dilemmas as it was, suggested gunplay wasn't this developer's forte. Mass Effect 2, though, is a top-notch action game. The balance of straight-up shooting and brutally effective Jedi-like powers finally makes Mass Effect into the breathlessly exciting sci-fi epic it's always threatened to be. You pick your favourite team-mates and your favourite powers, and you lay utter, devastating waste to whatever you encounter. It's easy to level a charge of being too easy at the combat, that there's rarely much real challenge, and in turn some of the weapon and armour upgrades you hunger for are entirely unnecessary - but when it feels and looks this good, that doesn't matter.

Mass Effect 2 is about forward motion. There's no time to worry about the finer details, including choosing which hat each of your squad members should wear. Everything that could possibly get in the way of feeling like the game and its world is instantly responding to you is gone. Somehow, this is true even when you're ignoring the universe-at-war panic of the main mission and idly exploring a backwater planet. ME2 creates a sense of urgency even when you're doing nothing. There's palpable grittiness at all times, music that swells in all the right places, characters who subtly push you onwards, to the next adventure, rather than becoming tediously over-chatty.

The really extreme moral judgements aren't simply a matter of picking a play-it-safe or play-it-nasty conversation option (though there are plenty of those too), but of quickly hitting a trigger when you see a red or blue prompt to activate a cutscene in which your character makes a dramatic intervention. If you're a Paragon, that might be talking a naive teenager out of signing up to a squad of brutal mercenaries. If you're a Renegade, that might be jamming a space-screwdriver into the spine of unhelpful mechanic when he turns his back. In other words, it's much more visceral than before - less chin-scratching-in-space, more whatever-it-takes (anti)heroism.

Think about it afterwards and perhaps you'll feel like it was a whole lot of time spent pratting pointlessly about on distant planets in the name of levelling up and cash, before one final big, potentially suicidal push against a monstrous alien menace. Perhaps it is. Crucially, it never feels like that. Everything you do feels incredibly important, with the irksome exception of the planet-scanning minigame. Rare minerals are necessary to unlock most of the game's upgrades, but to get 'em you need to spend a lot of time starting at graphs and launching probes at static images of planets. It's about as much fun as working in a photocopying shop, and if there's any justice in the world Bioware will issue a public apology for it. Miraculously, it doesn't drag the rest of the game down, because in every other respect ME2 seems to know exactly what it's doing.

The smartest decision the game makes, outside of striving to make the action as meaty and responsive as any first-person shooter you care to name, is to make your team members a core party of the story rather than simply a bunch of guys you randomly bump into as you go. To fight the aforementioned monstrous alien menace, who are busily abducting half the humans in the universe, you need to recruit a team of bruisers, psychopaths, soldiers, genetically-modified superpeople and even the odd true-blue hero. No-one joins your gang just because they've got nothing better to do, or because you might be able to help them find a hat they left on the other side of the galaxy.

Again, this means that even when you're light-years away from the main mission, chatting up returning characters like Tali and Garrus or trying to talk suspicious newcomers such as the Biotic nutjob Jack or sombre Krogan supersoldier Grunt into enlisting, you feel like you're going somewhere. Sure, the nearly dozen-strong squad roster has a few duds - most of all with its initial members, the improbably-bodied but slightly drony Miranda (also the proud owner of Most Unconvincing, Terrifying Smile In Games, 2010) and the instantly forgettable conflicted soldier Jacob. It's also a shame that they're quite so silent during missions, saving their well-written, well-performed chatter for their own sub-plots.

Most of all, it's almost heartbreaking that you can only take two of them with you at any one time. You get so fond of some of them that you want them all constantly by your side rather than having to select chums based on who's abilities are best for the task at hand. Troubled Turian scientist Mordin, for instance, may sound like William Shatner on a caffeine bender and be prone to spontaneously breaking into song, but is such sublime comic relief much help when you're up against an army of vicious robots?

With, again, the pretty tedious exception of Miranda and Jacob, everyone has a intriguing backstory, a typically Biowarian blend of tragedy, mystery and moral ambiguity. In Mass Effect 2's predecessors - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and last year's Dragon Age, as well as ME1 - such dark pasts were revealed and concluded by intermittent conversation options. Here, it's done by Loyalty Missions. These vignette sub-plots play out as a mix of action and tricky conversational dilemmas.

Some are more successful than others - Miranda's, for instance, isn't much more than a shoot-out in warehouse followed by some hugging. Another character, whose identity is best kept under wraps for the sake of spoiler-avoidance, has a Loyalty Mission which involves essentially deciding the fate of an entire race. Mordin's, meanwhile, results in you feeling, frankly, quite uncomfortable around him afterwards, discovering that he's so much more, and so much darker, than the light relief he initially seems to be. Hit and miss the Loyalty Missions may be, but they're a much convincing, memorable way of getting to know the guys who are helping you save the universe than standing around chatting to them in the mess hall ever was.

Underneath is this all is an admittedly slim but reliably thrilling sci-fi yarn with a palpable race-against-time atmosphere, an excellent finale, and some of the best in-engine visuals money can buy. That there'll be a sequel is basically stated in mountain-sized neon lettering, but, going on how dramatic an improvement over the memorable but often plodding first game this is, Mass Effect 3 can't come soon enough.

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