The original teaser trailer for Mass Effect 2 cast a great big blanket of uncertainty on the status of Commander Shepard leading into this sequel. Whether he's alive and well or was truly "killed in action" as that video would have you believe was the big question at the time. But that was back in February, and since then we've seen a veritable flood of screenshots, videos, and advance demos showing what's either a living, breathing Shepard going about his business, or a startlingly accurate wax model. At any rate, after recently playing the first hour or so of Mass Effect 2, we can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that Shepard is back. Sort of.
Aside from being one of the more incredible scenes we've seen in a game all year, the first 10 minutes of Mass Effect 2 serve as an explanation for why Shepard would be presumed dead. This introductory sequence is really something else, so we won't spoil the details of it for you. But suffice it to say that something goes horribly wrong on the Normandy, and Shepard finds himself in a medical bay waking up to a group of faces he doesn't recognize. It turns out that Shepard's wounds have been mended by none other than the staunchly pro-human Cerberus Corporation from the first game. After some interrogating and a desperate escape from this medical station, Shepard meets with the leader of Cerberus, a shadowy figure dubbed the Illusive Man, voiced by Martin Sheen.
The conversation between Shepard and the Illusive Man is a tense and rocky one, but after some convincing, Shepard agrees to begin working for Cerberus. After all, he essentially owes his life to the company and its miraculous knack for medical science. (Exactly how Cerberus saved Shepard is still up in the air--the game strongly hints at some inorganic medical augmentations. Case in point: his scars glow a bright orange.) And thus begins Mass Effect 2's overarching story: Shephard must assemble the best team he can in order to accomplish the potentially humanity-saving, potentially suicidal mission that the Illusive Man has laid out for him. The Illusive Man has furnished Shepard with a list of some of the best talent in the universe, and much of the game will see you venturing into deep corners of space to recruit these guns for hire. They'll add to a squad already consisting of the two Cerberus employees you meet at the very beginning, the biotics expert Jacob and the so-cute-she-must-be-a-love-interest Miranda.
Along the way, however, you'll encounter a number of familiar faces from the original game. What's most interesting is how prior story choices affect these reunions. Much has been made about the ability to import your save file from Mass Effect, but until now, BioWare hadn't been very forthcoming with details on this feature. After a bit of prodding, here's what BioWare was willing to tell us: The save file that you import carries over the story choices you made in the original game; provides specific boosts to your combat abilities without maintaining your old skill levels; and keeps the same gender while providing a chance for you to redesign your character's appearance.
The one example shown--we'll try to avoid spoilers here--involved a squad member whom you had a potentially deadly altercation with in the original game. If the altercation went south and the character died, you'll inevitably visit this person's homeworld and receive a cold greeting from his people, making your diplomatic quest that much harder. More importantly, though, that person will be completely absent from Mass Effect 2. But if you imported a save file from a game where you managed to smooth things over with this person, you willl receive a warm welcome and he'll be both alive and accommodating to your quest.
That's one of the big, attention-grabbing features from Mass Effect 2, but our time with the game wasn't without its little discoveries. One of these is the new armor customization system that lets you take any of the armor you find in the game and alter the look of it down to its colors and finish. There's also a post-mission recap screen that gives you a better sense of how you've progressed if you were too focused on combat to notice your various pickups and upgrades. The screen gives a plot summary of the mission you just completed, the new weapons you acquired, how many credits you found, any new skills and levels gained, and other details. There are also a number of new minigames used to unlock safes and bypass security systems that require quite a bit more mental acumen than the Simon Says-style games from Mass Effect.
We could go on about how quickly Mass Effect 2 picks up and the new faces you'll meet early on, but we don't want to give away too much. All you need to know is that the end of our demo came much too soon. It looks like BioWare has made good on its promise to deliver a darker, more engrossing game than the original, and one that has minimized its predecessor's technical gaffes. We'll need to wait to see how two of the biggest flaws from the original game play out--inventory management and vehicle control--but we're optimistic about Mass Effect 2 just the same. While you wait for more coverage, be sure to check out our other previews of Mass Effect 2.