The space epic "Mass Effect" ended with Commander Shepard stopping a fierce alien onslaught.

In the sequel, Shepard’s saga continues in an exhilarating adventure filled with intense action, rewarding character interactions and stellar graphics.

The M-rated "Mass Effect 2" — developed by BioWare for Electronic Arts — actually opens with Shepard’s death at the hands of a mysterious, and immensely powerful, alien spacecraft. A shadowy organization known as Cerberus pays big bucks to have him revivified — because it sees Shepard as humanity’s only hope against the Reapers, a machine-based civilization, and their pals, the Collectors.

If you played the original "Mass Effect," you can import your character from that game. You won’t get all of your cool weaponry back, but your appearance and history will transfer and you will receive some bonuses based on your status. You do have the option to change your appearance and your character class. Returning players will notice that the classes have been tweaked to include interesting mixes of the soldier, tech and biotic abilities.

After a brief tutorial, you’re off to recruit the toughest fighters in the galaxy for what might be a suicide mission. You’ll meet old friends and acquire new ones in the process. Of course there are plenty of weird and wonderful alien races.

Everything about "Mass Effect 2" is bigger and better than the original — the action is contained on two discs.

The graphics are superb. The characters are much more lifelike and the environments are far more interesting — and far less generic.

Many game-play elements have been streamlined. Instead of picking up countless weapons and gadgets that need to be maintained in an inventory or sold, you pick up credits and upgrades that can be used once you return to your ship. Instead of spending hours driving around drab planets looking for valuable resources, you simply scan for them from orbit. Each character has fewer customizable attributes to worry about. In my book, this all adds up to more — and better — action, with fewer tedious distractions.

This might seems to push "Mass Effect 2" into the realm of shooters, but the most rewarding role-playing elements remain as robust as ever.

For example, your interactions with nonplayer characters again play a crucial role in the action. You can choose to be a bully or a diplomat as you converse with scores of humans and aliens from across the galaxy. Behave like a self-sacrificing hero, and you’ll gain paragon points. Behave like a selfish thug, and you’ll gain renegade points. As you accumulate points in either category, you’ll gain additional dialogue options that can dramatically change the outcome of certain situations.

Character development and relationship-building have been imbedded in the story line — at least on an optional basis. Once you round up your assault team, you can choose to help each member accomplish a personal mission. This mission will offer insight into the character’s background, culture and motivations. This, plus a fascinating primary mission, gives the game even more depth and texture than its excellent predecessor.

Another improvement has been a reduction in loading times. In the original game, it could take ages for a new environment to appear on the screen.

The game is rated M for a bit of blood and coarse language, as well as the ability to pursue a relationship with a member of your crew. Apparently, Cerberus doesn’t prohibit fraternization.

This new year has already seen several excellent games. However, "Mass Effect 2" is definitely light years ahead of the others.

Platforms: Xbox 360 (tested), PC

On the Web:

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now