“Shepard! But... but you’re dead!” cries a baffled Asari crime lord having been backed into a corner by our hero. “I got better,” replies Shepard, as cool as a penguin’s bum. It’s not a dialogue choice, it’s right there in the cutscene; otherwise we’d have chosen the option along the lines of “I know, after that E3 trailer I’m just as confused as you about the whole thing.”
If you missed it, the debut trailer panned around Shepard’s armor, reeling off a list of his achievements and credentials before flashing the words “Killed in Action” on screen. BioWare aren’t talking in any real detail about what it all meant - instead they point us at the playable demo, in which you’re very much in control of a living, breathing Shepard. Not only do we have to grapple with the fact that game characters die over and over again as a matter of course, now we’re told that in BioWare’s sci-fi RPG sequel your character can die in a narrative context, and stay dead.
Avoiding this fate seems to be the crux of the second game, which ends in a potentially suicidal mission for Shepard and his team. Play well, amass a decent squad and do your best to keep them alive, and you might just arrive at the end of a game with an intact main character. The reason it’s puzzling is that BioWare are carrying saved games over from the first title.
Mass Effect 2 will have tracked over 60 individual choices you made, from the fate of major characters – if some of your Mass Effect mates didn’t make it they won’t be in Mass Effect 2 – right down to seemingly inconsequential encounters having unforeseeable repercussions. It means that Shepard’s death at the end of Mass Effect 2 would presumably leave Mass Effect 3 without a lead. And the trilogy is about Shepard.
Clearly there’s more to it than what we’ve been told, and the developers would rather leave us wallowing in intrigue while they show off the more tactile changes they’ve made in Mass Effect 2. Combat’s been scrubbed up well, not least through the introduction of heavy weapons and rocket launchers (there’s even a Fat Man-esque nuke launcher to play with), but also by tweaking the AI to be more fun to fight against. Biotics will no longer spam you with their stun abilities, so Shepard won’t spend half his fights flopping about on the floor like a fish out of water.
There’s an immediately recognizable difference in gun combat as the game is loosed from its RPG moorings. Your rounds carry more impact, scraps feel less floaty and more physical (often literally, as you can punch things), and there’s a satisfying sense of connection during exchanges. The cover system’s been fixed, so accidentally sticking to walls and crates is less frequent.
The brainy tactical hemisphere of Mass Effect’s combat hasn’t been neglected – you’ll still command your squad’s roster of special abilities through the power wheel, and this time around you’ll have a greater degree of control over the placement and movements of your team. Oh, and having realised the Mako handles like a remote-controlled boat, we’ll be getting a new ATV to truck about planetside with.