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Review: Mass Effect 2 gives you hope for the future of gaming (oh, and humanity, too)

Avatar's wearisomely mystical Na'vi have become the de facto blue-skinned extraterrestrials of our imaginations, and it's a shame. Consider instead the Asari, a cerulean-hued, mono-gendered alien race with millennium-long life spans and a pleasantly sophisticated culture that -- dare I say -- has moved beyond the tedium of tree worship. So much more intriguing.

These fascinating creatures are just one of more than a dozen species featured in Mass Effect 2 (ESRB: Mature: Xbox 360 (reviewed), Windows PC ), the second entry in a planned trilogy of sci-fi role-playing games developed by Edmonton-based BioWare that is proving to be one of the most remarkable achievements yet in interactive storytelling.

The action is set 170 years in the future, a few decades after the discovery of ancient alien technologies on Mars and Charon that lead to faster-than-light travel. Humans have become part of a complex galactic civilization and find themselves the target of hostile alien forces.

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The first game, released in 2007, introduced players to the series' universe and served up several thought-provoking ideas, including interspecies breeding, alien racism and a bioengineered anti-fertility plague promoted as a humane means of eradicating a warlike species.

These subplots and others are revisited in the second game (we meet, for example, the scientist who invented the sterility plague -- a Gilbert and Sullivan-singing alien now wracked with guilt) even as new questions are posed. How much of your body and mind can be surgically replaced before you are no longer you? If you are genetically engineered to strive for and attain perfection, can you take credit for your achievements?

Some of these queries go without answer, while others invite players to make decisions that will shape both their characters and the world they inhabit.

There is just so much to talk about when it comes to BioWare's new role-playing game that a simple review can't say it all.

What's more, the story takes into account the decisions that returning players made in the first game. Important characters may be dead, others may like or hate you, and situations of galactic importance could stand differently depending on choices made in the original Mass Effect. Even our hero's gender—and lovers—will vary from player to player.

The result is an astoundingly complex narrative web that won't be identical for any two players.

At this point you'd be forgiven for wondering whether this is a game at all and not some sort of interactive choose-your-own-adventure story. Rest assured there is plenty of action.

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Battles are of the third-person shooter variety. We wield more than a dozen futuristic weapons, command our squad mates in real time, and collect and evolve "biotic" powers reminiscent of those possessed by Star Wars' Jedi.

Truthfully, though, I spent more time engaged in conversation than battle.

Chinwags are rarely boring. A brilliant dialogue system allows players to carry out organic chats in which they have the option of interrupting, sympathizing with, or intimidating those with whom they speak. Plus, sci-fi novelist Drew Karpyshyn has penned tens of thousands of sharp, witty lines that are given life by award-winning actors including Martin Sheen, Shohreh Aghdashloo, and Keith David. Cameos by Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer and Michael Hogan, The Matrix's Carrie-Ann Moss, and Star Trek's Michael Dorn will please sci-fi fans.

In fact, many players will be hard-pressed not to think of Star Trek while playing -- and not just because our crewmembers include a greying doctor with whom we share drinks and a glib Scot tending the ship's engine.

Like Gene Roddenberry's TV series, BioWare's sci-fi saga is hopeful for the future of humanity. It suggests we'll always deal with issues of prejudice, face moral quandaries and struggle against dark forces, but that, as a species, we'll find a way to muddle through. More than that, it implies that these struggles are what make life interesting and worth living, and Mass Effect 2 worth playing.

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