Mass Effect 2 takes the bleak vacuum of space and flushes it with color–the light of stars and galaxies, the red and violet swirls of far-off nebulas, and the glimpses of comets as they burn through the void. You’ll catch your first glimpse of this in the game’s intense and much-improved art design, but that dance of light and shadows is also an apt metaphor for bleak undercurrents in the story, as well as the moral quandaries and past indiscretions that haunt the main characters. More so than its predecessor, Mass Effect 2 possesses an identity, and most of the obvious changes and improvements over the original are beholden to the shift in tone. The shooting is more immediate and satisfying, which keeps the pace moving and intensifies the violence of each encounter. Rich characterizations invite you to look more closely at each crew member’s personal stake in the sprawling galactic backdrop. Even the relatively predictable space opera that is the main plot has sinister moments, and you sense the characters struggling with that heavy burden. Mass Effect 2 is incredibly enjoyable, but it’s more than just fun: It’s a stellar package with a fierce spirit that makes it engrossing and unforgettable.
Mass Effect 2 begins with dire events that foreshadow the game’s darker tone–an attack that leaves the SSV Normandy in pieces and the fate of series protagonist Shepard temporarily unclear. Never fear: Shepard returns thanks to the efforts of the controversial pro-human organization called Cerberus and under the watchful eye of its chain-smoking overseer, The Illusive Man. Entire human colonies are disappearing without a trace, and Cerberus needs you–as Shepard–to investigate and confront the vicious forces behind the mystery. Whether you make your contempt for Cerberus’ questionable methods clear or espouse the organization’s manipulations, you owe The Illusive Man your life. Like it or loathe it, he casts his shadow on every action you take.