I got to play some more Mass Effect 2 earlier this week. And guess which familiar face I discovered? That's right! Garrus mother-effing Vakarian! Everyone's favorite good-natured Turian will make at least a cameo appearance in this sequel, and it was good to hear his oddly soothing, gravelly tones as he picked off enemy mechs with a sniper rifle in a cutscene. Garrus is a smooth operator, you know.
BioWare has admitted several of your party members from the first Mass Effect will be back for part two, though some will have bigger roles than others. The only original character confirmed to be an active party member in Mass Effect 2 is Tali, the Darth Vader-masked engineer who for some reason I never, ever used. Hopefully other favorites like Garrus and (fingers crossed) Wrex will be able to join your space posse at some point.
The cutscene with Garrus afforded me a better look at the "dialogue interrupt" feature in Mass Effect 2's cinematics, which I've come to think of over the last few months as a violence option. It lets you hit the left trigger when an icon flashes onscreen that lets you speed up the proceedings, usually by pulling your weapon on someone or, say, throwing them out a window. In this case, Shepard trained his own sniper rifle on the mechs, and hitting the interrupt button made him pick one of these enemies off, meaning I had one fewer enemy to deal with once the combat actually started.
I get the impression that using the interrupt feature won't drastically change the outcome of a given situation, just tweak it a bit and bring it about a little faster. Some interrupts, however, will move your moral alignment one way or the other. Since you can't tell what your interrupt action will be and only have a few seconds to decide whether to use the option or not, BioWare says the final game will give you some kind of indication about whether the interrupt will generate Paragon or Renegade points. So if you're trying to do a full good-guy playthrough, for instance, you won't sully your record by unintentionally acting like a bad guy.
When I ran into Garrus, I was joined by the new playable Krogan party member Grunt (who ain't no Wrex, but gets the job done in combat) and Jacob, who was recently introduced in the Mass Effect Galaxy iPhone game. We were exploring Omega, a planet that's located outside of Citadel space and is thus outside the influence of the collective galactic government. BioWare says you'll be spending a good portion of Mass Effect 2 on these sorts of untamed border planets, which certainly opens up the potential for you to run into a lot of rough characters over the course of your mission.
Speaking of that mission, I was surprised to get more background on the core storyline in Mass Effect 2. The reapers of the original game are pretty much out of the picture this time around, as are the spindly, sentient robots the Geth (though there will be at least one important Geth character featured in the storyline). The big menace this time is the Collectors, an insectoid race that's trying to eradicate humanity colony by colony. You can see more about the Collectors in the new trailer BioWare just released. I was surprised that Mass Effect 2 seems to be more of a "further adventures of Commander Shepard" sort of story rather than a direct continuation of the events of the first game, though the total number of ways in which this sequel ties back into the original Mass Effect remains to be seen.
BioWare has been touting the technical improvements it's made in this sequel, and in this demo I finally started becoming convinced the developer will follow through on its promises. Inconsistent frame rates, popping textures, and intolerably long space elevator load times were the biggest offenders in the original game, and I was able to see the first two have been pretty much eliminated in the demo I played. The game ran perfectly smoothly as I fought off mercs and mechs, and saw complex environments like the seedy Afterlife Club (replete with Asari strippers and lots of neon lighting).
It was in this club that I ran into a Batarian bartender who poisoned Shepard when he served him a drink. Batarians have a longstanding grudge against humanity, see. The four-eyed Batarians were featured prominently in the first Mass Effect prequel novel, but then failed to make much of an appearance in the original game. For the nerdier Mass Effect fans among you, those guys will be showing up a lot more often in Mass Effect 2's border planets, since they tend to operate off the grid and outside the Citadel's influence.
Mass Effect 2 is looking like simply an improved, refined version of Mass Effect. Since I thought the first game was a great RPG with a few rough edges, a new version of the same game with those edges smoothed out is perfectly fine by me. The game is due at the rapidly approaching end of January, so keep an eye out for more on this sequel in the near future.
On a not-entirely-unrelated note, we also spoke with BioWare's Dr. Greg Zeschuk about Dragon Age: Origins hitting stores and the speed with which Mass Effect 2 is coming to shelves. Watch!