A lot of questions still remain unanswered about Mass Effect 2, but we did manage to make a bit more headway today during a new E3 2009 press demo of the highly anticipated role-playing game. Developer BioWare is still mum on certain aspects, but we learned enough today to know that fans of the original will get everything they wanted and a whole lot more.
As we already knew, Mass Effect was designed to be a trilogy, in which one character experiences a huge, epic storyline. This means, of course, that Mass Effect's Commander Shepard is back; rumors of his death have been greatly exaggerated, as it were. Exactly how BioWare brings Shepard back from the dead is still a mystery, though some characters clearly react with surprise upon meeting the assumed deceased commander. If you haven't played the original, don't worry; BioWare intends Mass Effect 2 to be accessible even to those new to the series. However, if you did play the original and held on to your saved games, you have a very special treat in store. Mass Effect 2 will let you import your Mass Effect character and start from where you left off. This means that gameplay choices and moral standing will carry over into Mass Effect 2, giving the impression of a single, lengthy experience.
In Mass Effect 2, Commander Shepard will be dealing with the Cerberus Corporation and their nefarious plans, though what its evils or triumphs may be remain unclear. However, there are colonies disappearing all over the galaxy, and Shepard seems to be the soldier for the mission. However, it is a suicide mission, a fact that became clear toward the end of the demo (more on this to come). There's also the ongoing business of the Reapers, who still remain a real threat. Throughout the game, Shepard searches for powerful individuals to recruit to his team, including an assassin belonging to an unfamiliar race. Although BioWare didn't confirm this during the demo, it seems that this assassin was named Thane and belonged to the new Drell race.
The first bit of the game that we saw was actually a cutscene in which flying vehicles sped above a bustling future metropolis. Shepard and an Asari companion are seated in one of these speeders. As they spoke, dialogue options appeared as in the first game. In this scene, the main difference between the options of yore and Mass Effect 2 was the sense of urgency projected. The camera kept pulling out to show the overall scene--in which speeders zipped quickly along--only to return to the vehicle interior, in which the two characters spoke again and more dialogue options appeared. It felt more like an interactive cutscene than similar conversations in Mass Effect. Once the car landed, Shepard and his companion entered a looming tower. Once inside, Shepard met an individual who seemed to be a security officer. After another sequence of dialogue, Shepard threw him over the side of the balcony, where he plummeted to his death. According to BioWare, there will be prompts during certain interactions that will let you interrupt conversations as they progress.
Mass Effect 2 will not only feature new dialogue options, but new combat options as well. For example, you will now be able to issue separate move and attack orders to squadmates individually. The power wheel remains, so you can still pause the action and issue orders. However, BioWare aims to make real-time action a more viable alternative than ever. To this end, we watched an extended sequence as Shepard fought his way across the space station. BioWare showed off multiple physics-based attacks that sent Shepard's vanguard enemies flying, as well as shooting and cover mechanics that resembled those of the first game. There are nine new classes of weapons, including heavy weapons, such as a missile launcher that we saw in action. That particular weapon wreaked havoc on multiple turrets and looked appropriately powerful.
Mass Effect 2's visuals look darker and grittier than before, as well as a lot more fluid. The new character models move and speak smoothly. As Shepard moved closer to his target recruit, we noted the soft blue lighting of the environments, and how flashes of red and violet provided pleasant contrast. The improvements were most noticeable when Shepherd encountered an Asari that was shocked to see Shepard. This is the moment that we've seen in the earlier trailer: She turns to Shepard in shock, pronouncing "Shepard?! But...you're dead." A conversation ensued, and we noted the lifelike manner in which the characters moved and spoke. The voice acting, as you would expect, was excellent as well. However, we didn't get to chat long, because after a moment, a new character (the one we believe to be called Thane) dropped from above in one slick move, assassinating the Asari and turning his cocky, ridged head toward Shepard. This new character (apparently of the new Drell race) seemed sophisticated. He spoke with deep, dulcet, and slightly menacing tones, announcing himself as only a creature of such confidence could: "Here I am."
The last scene that we got to see was the most powerful, and impressed upon us just how deadly Shepard's new mission is. The Normandy, Mass Effect's home vessel, was under attack. Shepard ran through the fiery corridors as the camera cut away to show the craft smoking and flaming (and, eventually, breaking in two). Shepard and his companion made it to the escape pods, but our protagonist had additional priorities. He climbed stairs to an exposed deck. The sound muffled, and we heard his heart beating loudly from the speakers. We watched him approach Joker, still seated in his navigation seat, unwilling to desert the Normandy. Shepard lifted Joker, but the exploding Normandy propelled them into space. This choice had disastrous consequences for Shepard: The soundtrack slowed, and we watched him float through space, apparently doomed to be simple space debris. BioWare confirmed that your choices can lead to Shepard's death, which drove the "suicide" part of "suicide mission" home.
Expect to see other improvements, particularly where space exploration is concerned. However, BioWare was mum on exactly what those improvements may entail, offering only that exploring the universe will feel more natural and diverse. Needless to say, we're excited to see even more of Mass Effect 2. Expect to see this highly anticipated RPG hit store shelves in 2010 for the Xbox 360 and the PC.