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You know Mass Effect 2 is a great game. But for me it became a microcosm of my school playground -- where sides, absences and heroes were the most intense and important they have ever been in my life.
After dropping off the playground for a few years, due to a very nasty case of chickenpox, I find myself plonked straight back in the thick of it all.
Mass Effect 2 recreated this for me. I am Commander Shepard. Everyone knows my name, and everyone knows of my disappearance and timely reappearance. Have you ever thought of space as a school playground? I have.
If you somehow missed it so far, Mass Effect is the hugely successful spacey role-player from Bioware, two games out already and the third and final episode arriving in early 2012. You are Shepard, and you are the Council's First Human Spectre -- a title which grants its user clearance above Top Secret.
You can go anywhere, talk to anyone and shoot a lot of people. And by a lot I mean, there's an entire galaxy out there, go nuts! You lead a band of unlikely comrades against the evils of Saren (a rogue Spectre), the Geth (organic robotics), and their Reaper overlord, Sovereign.
Now in Mass Effect 2, like when I returned to the playground, everything's changed.
The Geth, although still quite a terrifying enemy, aren't actually the Big Bad Wolf anymore, though you'll still find your underlying fears and hatred for them from the first game. Their role as the puppet of the Reapers has been handed over to the Collectors who, some might argue, are far creepier than any living robot could be.
It's a gaming microcosm that's like finding a woodlouse for the first time, conquering your fear of it, and then realising that there're some bigger, uglier, and far more terrifying bugs next to the woodlouse you just squashed. Oh, and this bug gave you the chickenpox for two years -- well that's what seemed to happen anyway.
But that's all they should be to you, bugs. The game constantly reminds you of both the Geth and the Collector presence within the space you travel. It even, sometimes, gives you the idea that you can't win this fight, though you know you can and if you die along the way then you've got hundreds of save points behind you.
It's a gaming microcosm that's like finding a woodlouse .
Reflecting our childhood instinct to squash insects, the Geth and the Collectors are just things to be squashed. It's the Reapers you should be afraid of in Mass Effect 3, because if the rumours are true then you can be given detention while the teachers go out to play. And then it really is game over.
Thankfully, as ever, with any Mass Effect game you are actively encouraged to go make friends with the galaxy of sentient beings out there. So without further prompting you go and visit the friends you already know.
When I return to the playground I was very disappointed to find that only one of my former comrades wished to join me again. Luckily he just happened to be the coolest cat in the school. In the Mass Effect 2 microcosm this was Garrus. Not only is he completely alien, completely cool, and a former galactic police officer, but he's also quite sexy for someone that you never see undressed, nor would you want to.
The original game offered six possible choices for teammates, but in Mass Effect 2 you're given ten (or even twelve if you buy and download the DLC). Now, I don't know about you, but when it comes to making your decisions do you chose your favourites? I know I do. And that made me feel sorry for the other eight or ten choices I could have made, because they're just left alone on the ship, being ignored by everyone including me.
I'm a nice guy, and just as in the playground I'd want to hang out with the kids who never got picked, in Mass Effect I found myself dropping in on less popular characters to see how they were doing. Unlike the playground though, none of them showed any signs of cabin fever or mutiny. They just seemed to be happy to be brought along for the ride.
This is where the microcosm fractured and I was seriously disappointed with Mass Effect 2.
So, as I took pity on most of them -- Zaeed never left the rubbish room -- I discovered that it really didn't matter whether your teammates could throw someone across the room with their minds, make them explode, or had a special kind of ammunition they that didn't share with you, because no matter what your teammates look like or say, they're all equally as good, or average, as each other.
This is where the microcosm fractured and I was seriously disappointed with Mass Effect 2. The game gives you hundreds of choices, but when it comes down to it, those choices don't seem to make as big an impact as you originally thought it might have done.
Though don't get me wrong, I still loved it. It is far better than its predecessor and is an immensely immersive RPG that lures you in and keeps you playing until after your bedtime. And there's still another chapter to encounter when Mass Effect 3 arrives.
War is a hellish place, space war doubly so. But the playground will always be the real measure of conflict for me, and Mass Effect seems to understand this.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: