BioWare’s Mass Effect 2 is a masterpiece of storytelling that shows that movies and books don’t have a monopoly on epic tales. This video game for the PC and Xbox 360 also shows that, even in the tired genre of science fiction, it’s still possible to create a great game based on an original story.

Mass Effect 2 has already sold more than 2 million copies since its launch on Jan. 26 and it is one of the first bonafide blockbuster games of 2010. More than 40 critics have given it a perfect 100 out of 100 on Metacritic.com, which aggregates review scores. I’ll add my own assessment: 9 out of 10. It’s an amazing game.

The success of this game should help BioWare’s owner, Electronic Arts, dig itself out of a hole of losses and bad bets made on original titles. In a lot of ways, this game will determine whether EA got its money’s worth when it paid $800 million in 2008 for BioWare/Pandemic from Elevation Partners.

Mass Effect 2 is the second installment of BioWare’s epic trilogy. The first one debuted in 2007 on the Xbox 360 and later on the PC. It sold millions of units, which was good enough to merit a sequel and a lot of respect from game critics, including me, after I retracted a review I wrote after playing the game for eight hours.

Upon further play and reflection, I wrote a follow-up review of the first after playing the game for 20 hours, and I was much more enthusiastic about what the game offered. Now, after playing the second game for 26 hours and completing the main story, I’m prepared to give this game two big thumbs up. The game play problems of the first version are by and large fixed, and the story has become more interesting.

The game combines first-person shooting game play with the story-based elements of a role-playing game. By blending these very distinct genres, BioWare took some big risks. It’s pretty hard to please fans of both genres, since most games that attempt to please too many audiences wind up angering everyone. But BioWare pulled it off, partly by listening to criticism of the first game.

The basic story and game play

The game takes place about 17o years in the future. You play Commander Shepard, a starship chief who has to zip across the galaxy, recruit dangerous human and alien allies, and then take on the Reapers, an ancient race of mysterious origin that comes to cleanse the galaxy of all life every 50,000 years. Yes, they’re like the enema for the Milky Way. The Reapers make their appearance again in the sequel, which takes place about two years after the end of the previous mission, and this time they have a bug-like alien race, the Collectors, working on their behalf.

In the game’s dramatic opening, a mysterious ship shreds Shepard’s starship, the Normandy, and Shepard floats off into space, presumably dead. But he is found and revived, using the miracles of nanotechnology. When he awakes, Shepard is in for a surprise. Rather than work for the pro-alien Alliance faction, he is now part of a pro-human intergalactic corporation, dubbed Cerberus. This means that many in his crew, both old and new companions, are distrustful of Shepard’s intentions and he must take pains to win their loyalty.

The basic game play hasn’t changed. Much of the story progresses through face-to-face conversations. The graphics in the game are top notch, so the human faces and expressions look real, even as the characters are talking to each other. During the conversations, you have to decide what your character will say. You can lean toward being a paragon or a renegade. The more experience you build up, the more you know what to say to unlock hidden secrets as you pry information from aliens or humans who don’t want to tell you the truth. Your choices can either exacerbate or defuse tense situations. The dialogue and voice acting are outstanding, and there is a fair amount of humor sprinkled into the drama.

You wander around spaceships and other scenes in third-person mode, and when the combat starts, you can fire at enemies in first-person view. You almost always have two allies by your side, helping you in the firefights. You can command them where to move. You can also freeze the action of a firefight and issue command to the allies. Some of them have special powers that can overcome the shields or rivals, while others have biotic powers, much like The Force in Star Wars. If you shoot it out without assigning tasks to your allies, you will invariably fail. That’s what I did in my initial review of the original Mass Effect, and the game’s design allowed me to make that mistake. But this game makes it abundantly clear that you have to invoke the powers of your allies to win. The tutorial for learning how to play is built into the story.

As Shepard have to make some difficult moral decisions about whether it’s worth sacrificing crew members for the greater good or fighting dirty to accomplish your larger purpose. The story falls back on familiar plot lines such as Akira Kurosawa’s classic sword fighting film, The Seven Samurai, where peasant farmers recruit seven warriors to fight off bandits in a suicide mission. In this game, Shepard has to recruit each new dangerousally, and keep the ally from becoming disloyal. At the same time, Shepard has to decide if Cerberus, and its chain-smoking boss, The Illusive Man (pictured), deserves his unquestioning loyalty.

What makes it better: story depth and emotional engagement

There are plenty of side missions that extend the process of preparing for the main mission of the game, which is to jump through the Omega 4 relay, a mysterious transporation hub in space, to track down the Collectors and to discover why they’re abducting entire human colonies. It is during the side missions that you get to know your crew. You find out, for instance, that your cold and super-caffeinated scientist, Mordin Solus, has a conscience. You find that one of your genetically engineered companions has a twin sister that must be protected so that she can live a normal life. You discover that your Zen-like assassin Thane fears his son will follow in his footsteps (like the story in Tom Hanks’ Road to Perdition film). And you see that your disturbed but powerful companion Jack, (pictured), has to be liberated from an emotional prison by returning to a place where she was experimented upon as a child. Each side mission brings out the inner truth and emotions that make your allies the way they are.

The game makes you think about topics like alien racism, human progress, whether you can take credit for your deeds when you are genetically engineered, and whether it is OK to stunt the fertility of an alien race that threatens to multiply out of control and take over the galaxy.

Once you’ve spent many hours assembling and building up your team, you head off into a suicide mission, taking your ship the Normandy off into something that is like the Bermuda Triangle of space. Whether you survive depends on the choices that you make and how much preparation you have done to succeed with the mission.

mass effect 2 action

BioWare’s style, in games from Baldur’s Gate to Dragon Age: Origins, is to marry role-playing game play with an emotionally engaging story. In this respect, Mass Effect 2 is no letdown. The game starts out with much more drama than the first game. There is a lot of action right at the start. You get a deeper sense of the crisis and what’s at stake, and a feeling of deeper intensity for each mission you pursue.

The characters may seem boring at first, but they all shed their skins to reveal something under the surface. Some of the characters from the first game make another appearance in this one. If you make the right decisions, you can carry on a romance with a member of your crew and even have sex (with pretty tame sex scenes). Some mainstream publications (including anti-game zealots) have made a big deal out of this, and it’s a reminder to parents that the game has a mature rating. But the subject of sex isn’t handled in a titillating way.

Improvements from the first game

The improvements upon the first game are many. I hated the mobile rover in the last game because it was impossible to steer. Rather than try to fix it, BioWare ditched vehicles altogether from this game. The developers also simplified how you manage the things that you carry, dispensing with a complicated inventory system. The load times are shorter. Last time, you had to wait a long time for scenes to load. This time, you still do, but you don’t have to deal with bad elevator music in between levels now. The action also moves faster, with very few technical glitches in the way the game plays.

One of the coolest things about the sequel is that it can import the saved games from the first game. If you played the first game in a way that preserved the life of one of your allies, the story in the sequel unfolds in a way that makes it easier for you. If the ally died in the first game, then your path in the sequel is harder.

mass effect fight

A few flaws

There are a few complaints I had with the game. The game has a cover system, where your character can hide behind columns and other barriers. It works reasonably well, and is absolutely necessary to keep your character safe from enemies who are shooting back. But isn’t nearly as polished as similar systems in games like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. It’s virtually impossible to hit someone who is moving with any degree of accuracy. But the aiming system is forgiving, and the cover system is good enough so that each firefight is still fun. You can’t go in with guns blazing. Rather, you have to hide behind barriers to survive. Hence, as far as shooting games go, it’s a slow shooting game, not a lightening fast one. Given the weird viewing system, it’s actually easier to shoot an alien who is farther away from you than it is to shoot one that is right next to you. As weak as this sounds, the combat system is an improvement over the first game.

BioWare also tried to deal with another of the complaints of the first game, which was that gathering resources and experience took a lot of time. You could try to explore a lot of planets in the first game but never find anything useful. And if you stumbled upon a secret mission on an unexplored planet, it was thin. This time, the secret missions are deeper. But the gathering resources part is better.

When you come upon an unexplored planet, you don’t have to land on it. You can start a scan from space and then send a probe down to collect material that you find. This mining operation is time consuming and somewhat tedious. I hope they fix it in the third game so that it’s more fun. But it allows you to gain enough material to purchase upgrades for your crew and ship. And thus, these boring explorations come in very handy when you’re about to head off into the suicide mission.

The suicide mission

The culmination of the story comes when the ship makes its jump into the unknown. There, Shepard has to decide which compadres will fight with him and who will stage diversions or stay with injured crew members. The decisions have bearing on the outcome, and not everyone will survive. I was emotionally attached to the characters enough to worry about which ones would live and which would die. In that way, the ending is a bit like the end of The Seven Samurai (although there are ten in this case). I assigned an ally who was the least loyal to me to carry out a lesser task, away from the main action. It might have been no coincidence that this was the one crew member I lost in the final battle.

Fortunately, the flaws in the game aren’t fatal. They give BioWare something to think about for Mass Effect 3. But it’s easy to see why this game is likely to sell a lot more units than the first. Ray Muzyka, head of BioWare, told me that he thought this game was the finest that his teams had ever made. That wasn’t just bluster. It’s actually true.