Everybody keeps asking me what new game they should play. I finally have a four-star answer in 2010: Mass Effect 2.
This is a fun, addicting, epic, cinematic and totally nerdy masterstroke.
You portray a spaceship commander in the decade of the 2180s, in a quest to save the universe from destruction. That plot may sound trite, but listen to what I'm saying.
This game doesn't just take place on a spaceship. It doesn't just take place on a portion of one planet. It takes place on portions of many planets throughout the galaxy. Did I just blow your mind?
Each time you dock at a planet, you and a few backup soldiers walk across that planet, or you walk through its space stations and buildings.
In role-playing game fashion, you saunter about talking to good guys, bad guys and indifferent guys of various alien species. If you choose to be nice or calculating in conversation, aliens will help you on your expeditions.
You must complete missions, like shooting scores of baddies in a big building so you can rescue a friend.
But you can also choose which planets to visit, and when. I'll call this a "sci-fi sandbox," because this is one expansive universe to play in.
Meanwhile, half the game is a real-time shooter. You accumulate pistols, sniper rifles and assault rifles. When battles break out, you and several cohorts also wield man-made supernatural powers (like telekinesis) against villains.
There's nothing new about specific elements in Mass Effect 2. You could say it's just a role-playing shooting adventure, plus mini-games, set in the sandbox of outer space.
And the story details feel like echoes of RoboCop and the bionic man (some characters are humans with machine parts); plus X-Files (the "Illusive Man" played by Martin Sheen reminds me of "Smoking Man"); Star Wars (there's a hotshot wisecracking pilot; and a "chosen one" lead character); plus 2001: A Space Odyssey (a talking, questionable spaceship computer).
So it's not wholly original. But two things are special.
1) The execution: Absolutely every piece of the game sings, from the art direction to the fluid action to the immense script.
2) The depth: Not only do you choose to play as a male or female commander, you also choose to be one of six types of commander (soldier, engineer, supernatural and more). You even choose your own psyche profile (like army brat or Earth orphan).
So you could play the game to the end as a female engineer with daddy issues, then you could start over again but as a male soldier/son of military vets.
You could play it every week for a year and still not take advantage of every such option. And depending on settings you pick, it's not too easy for hardcore gamers or too hard for casual gamers.
I am so hooked that I'm typing this column at 5 a.m. after playing Mass Effect 2 for a full day. I just couldn't stop. It's that good.