It promises to be Canadian developer BioWare's best game to date. It promises an unrivalled cinematic experience. It promises to tug on your heart strings more violently than any interactive story in history. It promises many, wonderful things. Now, after a mammoth, unhindered two hour hands-on session beginning at the very beginning, Mass Effect 2 has finally stopped promising and started delivering.
What you are about to read is undoubtedly a spoiler. If you want your Mass Effect 2 experience to feel as fresh as possible, go read something else and, when you're done, give up the internet entirely. But what you are about to read is also just one account of a story that can be twisted and turned in as many directions as the player wants. Decisions were made that you may not make. Words were spoken that you may never speak. Words were heard that you may never hear. Whichever truth is your truth, you're about to go deeper underground than ever before…
Mass Effect 2 begins with a cutscene. The chain-smoking Illusive Man (voiced by Martin Sheen), head of the pro-human group Cerberus, is discussing the Reapers, Mass Effect's big bad evil alien bad guys, with brunette biotic Miranda (voiced and quite clearly modelled on Chuck starlet Yvonne Strahovski). Human colonies are being attacked and their populations kidnapped all across the galaxy. Cerberus knows the true nature of the situation, and the pressing need to do something about it. The answer: Commander Shepard is the only person for the job.
The game, without a Mass Effect save to analyse, assumes the Galactic Council was lost during the Reaper attack on the Citadel. Shepard and the rest of the crew, including the Seth Green-voiced Joker, Navigator Pressly, Doctor Chakwas and Kaidan Alenko, are hunting for Geth in the Terminus Systems. They detect something, something that isn't Geth. It's a giant ship, one that looks, somehow, as if it's built into a moon-sized rock. We see Shepard from the back as he or she puts a helmet on. Arguments ensue as Shepard forces the crew into escape pods. The mysterious ship fires and the Normandy's hull is torn apart. Now, the player is in control.
As you move through the ship towards Joker, Shepard shields his or her face from the burning flames. This is all you can do at this point: The Normandy is almost obliterated. At one point, you pass through a section that is now exposed to the cold, airless space that once surrounded it. Here, you can hear Shepard breathing calmly - not one, as we know, to panic under pressure.
Eventually you reach, and save, Joker, but at the expense of your own life. The Normandy's complete destruction approaches, and Shepard is thrown into space. As air escapes the suit, the Commander is seen spiralling towards an unnamed planet… This, of course, is what BioWare had us believe was the death of Commander Shepard. What stuff it was. His survival was as predictable as the release of this sequel. But, hey ho. Don't we just love hanging on tenterhooks?
Now, we get to the juicy part. Shepard did die. Well, sort of. We see the Commander's body being remade by robotic arms; it is an operation, part of something called "The Lazarus Project". Now, Mass Effect 2 begins. Do you quick start with the default male or female Commander Shepard (earthborn, sole survivor, soldier class), or do you create a custom Commander Shepard, tugging at Shepard's face like a puppeteer in charge of the robotic arms performing the facial reconstruction?
Custom, of course. Here, as was the case at the beginning of Mass Effect, you sculpt the face of the Reapers' demise. Multiple sliders are your scalpels. The randomise button is for those without the patience to indulge. Then, as before, you pick a class. This time, however, it's a "Cerberus class". Have you worked it out yet?
The six classes available are lifted verbatim from the first game. Today, though, it's the Infiltrator's turn to shine. Its powers raise the hair on the back of the neck: Tactical Cloak; Incinerate, AI Hacking, sniper rifle, heavy pistol, sub machine gun, cryo ammo, disruptor ammo… oh my. Then, as before, choose your background (spacer, colonist or earthborn) and psych profile (sole survivor, war hero, or ruthless). Accept, move on… next cutscene.