Galaxy quest

Moral quandaries and rhetorical pickles in Mass Effect 2

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MASS EFFECT 2

(Bioware/Electronic Arts) PC, Xbox360

GAMER It took a piece of state-of-the-art hardware and a team of abundantly talented animators and programmers to get me back to the gaming basics. I'd assumed control of Commander Shepard, hero of Mass Effect 2, and I needed to weigh my many options; making the wrong choice would have disastrous consequences. As the Xbox hummed and guzzled power from across the room, the back of a takeout menu became its newest pen-and-paper peripheral — a list of pros and cons.

The first Mass Effect introduced us to Commander Shepard and the galaxy he inhabits: our familiar Milky Way, but teeming with alien species, political intrigue, and the casualties of interstellar capitalism. It, too, was a game of choices. The series' developer, BioWare, specializes in role-playing games built around these choices, allowing players to make their own decisions while navigating intricate dialogue trees and labyrinthine, branching plots. Moral quandaries and rhetorical pickles are almost as frequent as futuristic gun battles in Mass Effect 2, and an instinct for the right choice of words at the right moment can be more valuable than a hyperactive trigger finger. The characters you encounter can be made to do your bidding, but only if you cajole those who need cajoling, and threaten those who can't be cajoled.

It's a system that cannot be sustained without top-notch writing, and BioWare's well-honed dialogue, careful storytelling, and limber imagination can be felt in every aspect of the game. Though the subject matter takes full advantage of a "Mature" rating, it avoids the schlock or ham-handedness that plagues similarly calibrated titles. The shocking crimes of Mass Effect are the product of a science fiction universe built painstakingly from the ground up, and as Shepard journeys across the galaxy, he encounters crises mundane and mythic.

Though some troublesome complaints persist, the sequel improves on the original in most important areas, boasting a fleshed-out side-quest system, refined galactic exploration methods, and a host of other changes designed to make life as the savior of the galaxy just a little bit easier. The farther into the game you get, however, the less these mechanical concerns matter — the staggering ambition of the designers, along with the depth and nuance of the fiction they created, dwarf more pedestrian concerns. As an inhabitant of a dangerous, space-operatic world that feels more alive than most video game representations of existence on Earth, your survival will depend on your decisions. Choose wisely.

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