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The new age of RPGs is exciting, emotional, and utterly captivating. With the advent of Mass Effect 2 I have to wonder if there's even a need for another Final Fantasy. And yes, I'm referring to the one coming out next month.

Nothing about ME2 is typical role-playing fare. The visuals, and not just the cutscenes which are done in-game, are the best I've ever seen in a third-person shooter. Worlds are teeming with such life, diversity, and wonder that you might think you're relapsing back into "Avatar"-like depression once the end game hits.

Beware, though. The game may look nice on a standard definition TV, but in order to read ever-so-crucial combat information you might want to consider splurging on a high-def. Because hitting "Incendiary" ammo instead of "Unity" when your team needs a critical health boost will be the exact opposite of staying alive.

The good thing is that even with the occasional command slip-up, ME2 is intently forgiving when it comes to its battle system. You're not expected to be a complete sure-shot because the underlying emphasis on RPG levels takes care of any trigger happy deficiencies.

Of course, that's not to say it doesn't control well…because it does. Compared to the first where your hits were more reliant on your stats, in ME2, if you get head shots, you're shooting with that skill in mind. It strikes a better balance than ME1 by letting you focus on being either a soldier of destruction or an indestructible power user; the game will adapt to your play style and take care of anything you lack.

Still, and maybe only if you look close enough, ME2 largely plays out as a series of cleverly disguised corridor firefights set in galaxies that are presented as expansive worlds. The great trick Bioware pulls on the player is how well they cover it up by quickly moving you through the action and providing a story that keeps you on your toes from beginning to end.

Right from the start, Mass Effect 2 throws you into the middle of intergalactic warfare with nary a moment to digest what's happening in the game's prelude. You can go for importing your save state from the original title, but in reality, ME2 stands sufficiently alone if you're coming to it fresh.

There are new characters introduced that you'll like or dislike, but you'll love Bioware for including all of them. Each recruit carries his or her own back story and valid reasoning behind following Shepard on his suicide mission. Jack, for example, is probably one of my favorite characters I've ever come across in my years of running through video game worlds.

And the beauty of the story constructed in ME2? You can skip it all. Everything is understated, yet deeply involved if you choose to interact with the world more than you have to. You don't have to pay attention to locals when they call you over on the street. You don't have to go on every side mission that asks for you to find a wine bottle or unearth locations of missing N7 operatives.

You can skip right past it and enjoy the tightly-woven main story thread or you can delve a bit deeper and see what secrets Bioware lay about the universe. It's your choice and you'll get a game uniquely tailored to how you play it.

Just remember that everything you do in the game has a pivotal role on the outcome of ME2 and how it ties into the end of the trilogy in a couple of years. At least, that's what I'm hoping for since the ME1 to ME2 conversion doesn't really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things.

Sure, a few things are different here and there depending on your playthrough with ME1 but they are mostly cosmetic or things that go easily unnoticed if you didn't play the first title. I'll chalk that up to the fact that they were launching a new franchise but considering how flexibly the story can pan out for ME2 you can expect to see significant cross-over variety in ME3. And, hopefully, better world exploration since sending out probes is really only marginally improving on driving a weak-handling vehicle through boring terrain.

Closing Thoughts

Mass Effect 2 pulls no punches with its special brand of RPG and shooter crossbreeding. The shooting mechanics have been polished to stand with the best of them and its expansive storyline is poised to rival — maybe even supplant — the sci-fi predominately owned by "Star Wars." Far from being just another space opera, ME2 offers an adventure of blockbuster proportions that produces tangibly different outcomes particular to every gamer that plays it. And one that takes full advantage of the medium the doctors at Bioware decided to tell it in.

Rating: A

Via HawtWired