They got me again when I found the MSV Estevanico.
In truth, Mass Effect has had its hooks in me since the first time I stood in front of the Citadel Council and dobbed in that crazy old bastard Saren. Back then, as I struggled to assimilate the quirks of the stupid inventory system and put up with a cover mechanic apparently thrown together on someone's lunchbreak, the scale and disposition of the universe was suddenly sold to me in seconds. With the fates of billions of lives at stake, I was told, I would need something a bit more convincing than, er, dozens of eyewitness accounts of Saren killing a fellow Spectre and ransacking Eden Prime in search of Prothean leftovers in order to get him into trouble. Disbelief: suspended.
So while everyone else sobered up at the beginning of 2010, I tore into a slightly buggy review copy of Mass Effect 2. (Don't worry - I played the whole way through a retail copy to double-check my conclusions. Twice.) At the time, I was amazed how far BioWare had gone to overpower criticisms of the first game - by scrapping my beloved Mako, streamlining all the major systems and breathing action into static conversations - but it wasn't until I first diverted myself away from the main story quest that I really fell in love again.
The MSV Estevanico disappeared without a trace roughly a year before the events of Mass Effect 2, only for Commander Shepard and his intergalactic recruitment roadshow to discover its epic bulk teetering over a cliff edge, crash-landed on the planet of Zanethu (Ploitari system, Hourglass Nebula - but I'm sure you knew that). And in a game where I spent most of the time ducking, diving and slinging magical homing fireballs around in-between firing sniper rounds, I found myself climbing over the gigantic corpse of the Estevanico, listening to the ghostly sighs of its creaking bones and looking for an explanation.
I flew away and landed on Canalus (Pylos Nebula, Dirada system - obviously), where I could barely see my hand in front of my face, let alone enemies popping up in the middle distance (or Miranda standing next to me - cruel and wonderful Miranda). So I tiptoed around in the fog fighting off Geth and looking for weather beacons. I think I saw a dragon. Anyway, I found some meteorological survey team corpses or something and left again.
By this stage I had completely forgotten what I was meant to be doing. I was exploring. Alone among the dozens of RPGs I've played and loved over the years, Mass Effect 2 really made me want to explore, rather than simply giving me the option to do so, and it did it really cleverly - first it encouraged me to mine unsurveyed planets using the scanner device, and then sometimes it located an anomaly, which meant it was time for an away mission, and unlike the bouncy, homogenous wilds of Mass Effect 1's epic fringes, each new destination planet had character and a story to tell.
It was on one of these mini adventures that I had my saddest experience in Mass Effect 2. For me it wasn't you-know-what, but finding the corpse of a tortured Cerberus operative and being forced to contemplate dying slowly, billions of miles from home with no hope of rescue.
Perhaps I'm a bit soft like that (most people's reaction was probably to shrug, pick up the nearby Palladium and then dust off). I was certainly a bit soft on the planet-scanning aspect of the game and the streamlined inventory in my review, or so some of you noted (screamed, whatever), but then I like it when games give me a bit of time to calm down and meditate between the heavy lifting, which the hypnotic, slow-paced scanning provided, and I like it when games weed out unnecessary maintenance and labour, as the pared-back weapon and upgrade systems seemed apt to do. (You may never agree with me on this, incidentally - but then I loved the Mako, and I don't care who knows that either.)
With a few notable exceptions (Heavy Rain, for one), we've had 12 months of safe sequels since I started Mass Effect 2, and the year's left me relatively cold. I adored Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, and I had no trouble letting myself be swept along by Call of Duty: Black Ops and Halo: Reach. And even though I thought it was disappointingly staid, I still play FIFA 11 every day. But while advances have been stark in many areas of the games industry in 2010, especially motion control, I don't think they have among our core blockbusters, which have played it so safe that we predicted the five best-selling games for Christmas weeks in advance.
Mass Effect 2 is probably as guilty as anything else released this year of playing it safe. The things it changed may be bold in the context of its overly complicated predecessor, but it sticks doggedly to the BioWare funnel of RPG design: big thing happens, go find some dudes, big thing happens, maybe go shopping occasionally. And you're still exploring those conversation trees because eventually you might get to see the chick from Chuck grinding herself against your body armour in spectacularly unerotic fashion.
But still it turns out my favourite game of the year was also my first game of the year - and rather like Fable III, which I also enjoyed more than it perhaps deserved - it's the universe that won me over. Looking back on what I said when I gave Mass Effect 2 a whopping 10/10 in January, I'm drawn to one particular pretentiously written comment above all others: "Space is every bit as mythological and diverse as the old worlds of high fantasy to which RPGs are so frequently and unimaginatively confined, but in space it's rather more difficult to predict what you will encounter." Bring on the Reapers.