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Hands-on: Mass Effect 2, the first 90 minutes


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With the game set to ship out on January 26, EA held one last hands-on sneak preview of Mass Effect 2 on Wednesday night in San Francisco. We were there, of course, intrigued by an invitation that promised we'd learn what something called "Project Lazarus" was -- as it turned out, it's a crucial part of the game's plot that makes an appearance in the first 20 minutes.

We know that because -- save for some optimizations here and there -- we played the first hour-and-a-half of a finished Mass Effect 2, from the title screen until being politely informed that we were about to enter forbidden plot territory. Which is surprising, considering that the opening of the game, apart from being one of the most dramatic we've witnessed in recent memory, is also chockablock with pretty huge plot twists.

That said, we must warn you that the preview after the break contains what some may consider MAJOR SPOILERS -- so if you want the beginning of the game and the surprises it holds to remain unrevealed until launch day, seriously ... don't read any further.

Gallery: Mass Effect 2 (12-17-09) | 9 Photos

The game begins with a cinematic of two characters, Miranda and "The Illusive Man," talking about Commander Shepard's victory against Saren and the Geth, the downfall of the council and Humanity's rise to power at the end of the original Mass Effect. The commander, so it seems, is the only person The Illusive Man thinks can stop an even greater threat to mankind: the Reavers.

The scene transitions to a shot of the SSV Normandy screaming across a backdrop of stars, cutting to the interior to show Joker at the helm calling out techno-jargon that roughly translated into "things are a-ok!" Then they weren't. Out of nowhere, a huge, unidentified ship was bearing down on the Normandy, prompting Joker to take evasive maneuvers -- but it was too late.

If this sounds like the footage we've seen depicting the destruction of the Normandy and described as a possible ending of the game, that's because it is. Only it's not an ending; it's the beginning. We've been had. The Normandy is toast in the first five minutes.

Gameplay begins with you, as Commander Shepard, making your way to the ship's helm to rescue Joker, who's bound and determined to save the vessel. Along the way, you rush through raging fires and traverse a section of the ship that's been torn open, exposing it to the void (complete with the appropriate loss of all sound save for Shepard's breathing). Once you reach Joker, you engage in some brief dialog before pulling him from his seat and forcing him into the last remaining escape pod.

The commander's body has been recovered and -- with the aid of nanomachines, cybernetic parts and a lot of sci-fi pixie dust -- resurrected.

Before you're able to climb inside, a final laser volley from the unknown ship sends you hurtling backwards into debris which rips your pressurized suit. With the Normandy spitting and splintering into pieces in the background, Shepard clutches the suit's helmet, flails as the oxygen is purged, then dies. A limp, lifeless Shepard drifts across the horizon of the nearby planet and the game's logo provides an exclamation point to the scene.

In the sequence that follows, we learn what Project Lazarus is all about. As its name suggests, it's the program initiated to literally bring Shepard back from the dead. The commander's body has been recovered and -- with the aid of nanomachines, cybernetic parts and a lot of sci-fi pixie dust -- resurrected. It's at this point that you're able to create your character's appearance, unless you are importing your Commander Shepard from Mass Effect 1. The variety of facial features has been expanded to offer more diversity -- we were able to make a Shepard who looked a lot like Hong Kong action legend Andy Lau.

But while Shepard may be alive, any of the major characters that didn't survive in the first game due to your actions are dead. In fact, it was revealed that the ramifications of every major player decision in the original Mass Effect will be borne out in the sequel. Cutscenes will be entirely different, returning characters and races will treat you differently depending on your past choices, and so on. Your skills may get reset when Shepard dies, but the universe doesn't forget your actions.

When the game picks back up, the space station Shepard's been taken to is under attack, so you have to spring into action before the reconstructive process is fully complete (hence the strange scars on the male Shepard's face in the accompanying screenshot).

The space station escape serves as a "learn by surviving" tutorial, walking you through all of the game's systems, with a strong focus on combat -- as is the case with the entire game, actually. Many of the user interface elements from the first game remain, such as the talent and weapon selection radials, but as we've touched on in earlier previews the combat is far more robust and akin to that of a top-tier third-person shooter. There are also two different hacking minigames introduced: one that requires you to match snippets of "code" that scroll up the screen, the other a memorization puzzle worked into a "circuit bypass" sequence.

Shepard's joined in the escape by Jacob Taylor, a biotic user we teamed up with for an earlier hands-on, and Miranda, a new, no-nonsense female member of Cerberus, the first game's pro-human faction. The trio makes their way through waves of reprogrammed security robots and terminals in need of overriding (hence the minigames) and eventually boards a shuttle to escape.

The next sequence is Shepard's first meeting -- via hologram -- with The Illusive Man, voiced by Martin Sheen. It's during this meeting that Shepard learns of the "real threat" to the galaxy and is called upon to assemble a team to deal with it, because, of course, no one else can.

The game starts off with a riveting introduction and eases vets and newcomers alike into the revamped gameplay systems.

The first order of business, though, is to head for the colony of Freedom's Progress to investigate a loss of communication with the human colonists there. After touching down on the planet, Shepard and company fight through more bots and sentry turrets before running into an old friend and squad mate from Mass Effect 1, the Quarian female Tali'Zorah nar Rayya. She and a team of her people are also on-site investigating what happened to Freedom's Progress, but also searching for one of their own who's gone missing. Shepard and the others join the search, which leads them to an encounter with a heavy security mech.

Once the missing Quarian is located, Shepard has to find out what he knows. During the dialog scenes, the usual Paragon / Renegade conversation choices are present, along with a new element -- a sort of quick time event. In the case of this scene, you're prompted to pull the right trigger in order to intimidate the Quarian into spilling what he knows. If you choose to do it and don't fudge the timing, Shepard draws a pistol and shoots the screen next to the alien's head. Needless to say, he snaps out of his jabbering and shows his rescuers footage of the colonists being rounded up by a race called the Collectors who use a massive swarm of wasp-like insects to poison and incapacity their quarry.

With this information, Shepard and Tali part ways. Back off of the planet, you meet with The Illusive Man again and explain what's happened. He gives you marching orders to round up a team to deal with the threat, and it's shortly thereafter that we reached the stopping point. At the conclusion of the gameplay session, Shepard was reunited with Joker, now a member of Cerberus and your pilot for the mission ... on-board a new, bigger, more advanced looking SSV Normandy.

Having to stop just when things were getting rolling wasn't great, but at least we'd gotten to experience how the game starts off with a riveting introduction and eases vets and newcomers alike into the revamped gameplay systems -- which BioWare says it's worked hard to improve across the board. From our playtime, we're inclined to say "mission accomplished." Again, this was only about 90 minutes at the start of the game, but it was enough to leave us with a really good feeling about one of 2010's first major releases.

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