Impressions: Mass Effect 2 'suicide mission'

Is Commander Shepard alive or dead? Mass Effect 2 project director Casey Hudson raised the big question again today at E3 to begin a behind-closed-doors demo of the dark sequel from BioWare. The short answer is no, of course he's not dead. Players will take control of Shepard (either fresh or imported from save data from the first game) in the next chapter of the three-part space opera, which Hudson forewarned would explore "the most brutal parts" of the universe.

Apparently, humans have been reported missing all across the galaxy and, as players, we are working with a "shadowy" pro-human group to get to the bottom of this body-snatching business. This is generally considered a suicide mission (more on that after the break), but nonetheless, we do proceed, recruiting a squad of "the most dangerous, powerful individuals" (oh c'mon, they're aliens) from the known universe to help us.
We caught a tease of one such individual, Thane, described by Hudson as "the most deadly assassin in the galaxy." The mission to encounter Thane showed off some of the new combat enhancements developed for Mass Effect 2, which appear to improve the real-time playability of battle. Hudson described these tweaks, including location damage (i.e., exploding heads, blown-off limbs), as creating "a new precision-shooter feel," but we were still seeing evidence of the clunky experience that marred the original. Animations were stiff and inconsistent, and the AI, both friendly and enemy, continues to manifest itself as robotic (sure, some of these characters are robots, but we were under the impression that they were a bit more intelligent.)

Shepard does appear more capable with a firearm in this sequel, as the demo was played almost entirely in run-and-gun fashion, showing off a seemingly improved cover system and better weapon handling. BioWare is including nine new weapons classes and another new heavy weapons system, featuring a missile launcher, which our demoer used to pelt a wave of enemies. Of course, the pause-and-strategize alternative is still available, too, using a slightly revamped Power Wheel, which can preload "real-time" attacks and help steer squad mates.

Mass Effect 2 is still more RPG than shooter and really shines when the game enters into the dialogue-driven cinematic storytelling choosing. BioWare has added a new twitch element, called "Interrupt," which can be used to force action into conversation when the appropriate blinking icon (the Left Trigger, for example) appears on-screen and is quickly pressed. Frustrated by a stalling interrogation? "I've got nothing more to say to you," offered up an NPC, crossing his arms in dismissal. No problem. Just "interrupt" with a quick shove ... out the window. "How 'bout goodbye," Shepard absurdly one-lined as the man plunged to his death. Wait, there was more: "So, when do we read him his rights?" followed up a squad mate.

Shepard was (played) more apathetic than cold-hearted throughout the demo, coolly watching as Thane crept into the background of a conversation set and offed an important-sounding Asari and her bodyguards. "I was curious to see how far you'd go to find me," Thane gurgled out to Shepard when he was finished. "Well, here I am." We're not entirely sure what was supposed to happen next, as BioWare jumped ahead, skipping past "the entire new level of interactivity" in the planetary scouting mode, too ("We'll explain more about this later in the year," Hudson promised). Let's just assume, then, Thane joined up -- before things went really wrong ...



Yup, this was the point in the demo that Hudson prefaced with: "What we're about to show you is actually a spoiler that is from something that we will never show again outside the game." So, consider yourself warned before you read on for the the long answer to: Is Commander Shepard alive or dead?

Our next glimpse into the game opened in the midst of chaos. Shepard's ship, the Normandy, was hemorrhaging flames and metal. Hudson explained that it had been "severely damaged by a new force in the galaxy." Shepard is played as the good captain, evacuating as many of his crew as possible and presumably sacrificing his own opportunities to hop inside the various escape pods along the path. One too many missed opportunities and Shepard is seen cannon-balled out of the Normandy's exploding side, careening helplessly into space, gasping as the last of his air tanks fizzle out. And then, silence.

This "sets the stage for the very real possibility that Commander Shepard can die in the end of Mass Effect 2," Hudson cryptically posed. "You can actually keep playing after the credits roll; you can go finish adventures; download new stories; and carry your character forward into Mass Effect 3 ... but only if you survive." It's a suicide mission, remember? So save often.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.