Fans of "Avatar" rave about how immersive it is, but it has a problem: The film only lasts 161 minutes.
If you really want immersive, travel to the amazing universe of BioWare's Edmonton studio's science-fiction epic "Mass Effect 2" (Electronic Arts, for the Xbox 360). I've already spent about 50 hours there and I can't wait to return. And there's no need for 3-D glasses.
"Mass Effect" introduced an intergalactic menace called the Reapers, an ornery bunch that wakes up every few millenniums and destroys all organic life. The main character, Shepard, managed to repel a Reaper attack against the headquarters of star-faring civilization, but as the dust settled, it was clear the battle was only beginning.
"ME2" begins with Shepard's death, although she's quickly resurrected by a shadowy group called Cerberus and its cryptic leader, the Illusive Man. (Shepard can be either male or female; I chose to play the game as a woman.) Cerberus awakens Shepard with the news that entire human colonies are vanishing, and provides her with a sparkly new spaceship to investigate the mystery.
Since most of Shepard's old crew don't know she's alive, she needs to assemble a new gang from a file of dubious resumes gathered by the Illusive Man. Most of them aren't the kind of creatures you'd want to be stuck with on a spaceship: a tattooed human psychopath; a stoic, fish-faced assassin; a bloodthirsty giant lizard.
Even the most incorrigible of them has a compelling back story, something developer BioWare has mastered over the years since its first blockbuster, 1998's "Baldur's Gate." Most of "ME2" is spent recruiting your crewmates and then earning their loyalty by helping them resolve issues from their past.
Shepard herself evolves over the course of the drama. Throughout, you are asked to make moral choices. Act heroically and characters will treat you with respect; act like a jerk and they'll be more fearful. The choices aren't always that cut and dried, though, and options that feel right emotionally may not have the expected results.
Much of the tale is told through interactive dialogue sequences, which may frustrate players with an itchy trigger finger. But the conversations never get boring, and you can always tell a yappy co-worker to can it. The voice cast, including Martin Sheen, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Seth Green, is first-rate.
On-planet exploration can be nerve-racking, with sudden firefights breaking out in the most bucolic of settings. But the sometimes confusing violence of the original has given way to tighter, more suspenseful scenarios, and it's far easier to control the exotic powers - like hacking enemy robots so they attack each other - that Shepard and her squadmates have developed.
BioWare has answered other complaints that gamers had about 2007's "Mass Effect," jettisoning its bewildering inventory system and repetitious planetary missions. If you played that adventure, though, you'll be delighted by the return of some familiar faces - and you can load your stats into the new game, so decisions you made earlier affect the plot of "ME2."
Overall, "Mass Effect" is sophisticated, thought-provoking science fiction that makes "Avatar" look simple-minded. So soon after last year's "Dragon Age: Origins," it confirms the status of the BioWare team as the best storytellers in video games. Four stars out of four.
On the Net: http://masseffect.bioware.com/
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