Critics might point to Mass Effect 2's structure as evidence of a more linear experience. And indeed you can play the game one clearly signposted mission at a time, with little exploration in between. But that does a disservice to the frenetic, relentless blockbuster pace. Mass Effect 2 takes its pacing cues from the likes of Gears of War 2 and Uncharted 2; the missions tie together seamlessly and never outlast their welcome. But there's nothing stopping you from going anywhere at any point, if you want to. You can play Mass Effect 2 and finish it without having to put 40 hours in. That option is an important one, in this time-starved, socially networked age.
In any case, like the most thrilling rollercoasters, once you've finished the game the first thing you'll do is play it through again. Why? Because any single playthrough only offers a snap shot of Mass Effect 2's gargantuan innards. Try a different class - the Adept, perhaps. Try playing Paragon instead of Renegade. Make different decisions at key junctures. Try taking on the Collectors with only the minimum team requirement, and with only a few of them loyal to your galaxy-saving machinations. Try all these things in different combinations; Mass Effect 2 will adapt and tell a different story each time.
Having finished the game ourselves, we're almost overwhelmed by the sheer number of standout moments. The first time you walk towards the Afterlife nightclub on Omega and marvel at the flying car-filled night sky; the first time you gawp at the busy backgrounds of Illium, or the war-torn rubble of the Krogan homeworld Tuchanka; the moment you finally convince Jack to let her guard down and open the door to her bed; the moment Shepard interrupts a female journalist mid-question by punching her in the head; the Salarian video game sales assistant who references old school role-playing games; the game's thrilling Dead Space-esque opening, in which the Normandy is obliterated and Shepard "dies". And what about the sex scenes; not quite good enough to convince but as good an effort as we've seen in video game land so far?
Best of all, though, are the party members themselves. The shaven-headed Angelina Jolie look-a-like Jack is our favourite; her incessant swearing and voluptuous lips made us weak at the knees. The religious Assassin Thane is another stand out NPC; his mysterious motivations and keen eye with a sniper rifle make him as cool as he is deadly. But what about the sexy Miranda, or the hyper Mordin, both stars in their own right? It would have been an easy win for BioWare to simply repopulate Shepard's party with familiar faces. We're glad it didn't: Mass Effect 2's NPCs are up there with the best of all time.
Mass Effect 2 is easily a 10. Easily. We're trying desperately to think of something to moan about, just so this review doesn't sound too much like a Mass Effect love-in, but we can't. The side missions are a bit abrupt. The game still takes too long to load. And your party members will occasionally get in your line of sight. But these annoyances are as inconsequential as a fly landing on a whale's back. Mass Effect 2 is the perfect fusion of the shooter and RPG genres. When you're not playing it, you wish you were. When you are playing it, you can't imagine doing anything else. Engrossing, captivating, stunning. Roll on DLC, and Mass Effect 3.