Mass Effect 2 makes its predecessor look really simple. Whether you're eavesdropping on a pair of Krogans in the citadel, mining planets for resources from space, or outfitting your private deck with a fish tank and space hamster, almost every area in the game is improved upon and impressively presented.
It's as if BioWare compiled a big checklist of the first game's bad points, and scratched them off one by one. Rubbish vehicle sections, overwhelming inventory management and, yes, elevator load times have all been thrown in the bin. The result is a more refined, balanced and approachable game - arguably BioWare's best to date.
The sequel's events kick off a few years after the original title's conclusion, taking into account all the choices you made and people you killed/spared in the original game (if you've kept hold of your Mass Effect 1 save at least).
The spoiler-free version of the plot is that human colonies have started disappearing around the edges of space. Suspicious that the Reapers - the ancient, galaxy-culling machines - are behind the attacks, our man Sheppard joins up with the Cerberus organisation and its mysterious leader, 'The Illusive Man' (voiced by Martin Sheen), to investigate.
Unlike the original, Mass Effect 2 kicks off with a bang and is generally well-paced throughout. Much of the sequel revolves around Sheppard combing the galaxy to recruit an elite team to tackle the Reapers, which naturally leads to you solving each individual's problem before they hop onto your ship.
These missions are, for the most part, unique, interesting and, most of all, fantastically written. Though cinematic wonder Heavy Rain looms near on the horizon, Mass Effect 2 is arguably the closest to an interactive movie we've ever come.
BioWare's awesome conversation system is as impressive as ever and the choices you're presented with - and their consequences - are more apparent and liberally scattered than before.
Should you execute surrendered hostage takers or stick to your promise to let them live? Does a murderer deserve to die or go to trial? You'll be faced with both of these questions and more during the campaign and some are almost certain to have you pondering over your mouse or joypad.
What impresses most about Mass Effect 2's improvements, though, is not what BioWare's decided to add, but what it's decided to remove. Along with the aforementioned binned vehicle sections and endless elevator rides, the developer has smoothed down the game's rougher edges.
The very traditional inventory system from the first game has been trashed completely, and in its place are in-game weapon lockers and pre-mission squad loadouts.
This move alone could easily have alienated many fans of the first game, but on the contrary it creates focus and removes all distractions from what makes the series brilliant in the first place; its character, freedom of choice and awesome sci-fi combat - the latter of which is another area significantly upped from the original.
With refined skill trees and special abilities, plus far fewer weapons and less armour to fumble around with, Mass Effect 2's combat is a honed beast. Key to this - and this is yet another fix for one of the first game's negative bulletpoints - is the introduction of weapon ammunition, deposited on the floor in true shooter style by downed aggressors.
TO GOOD EFFECT
In the first game's ammo-less setup you'd find yourself committed to a single weapon and dedicating your experience points to it. That meant that by the end of the game you'd sooner touch a splintery broom handle than try to use those guns you hadn't gifted any time to.