I'm going to tell you some things now about Mass Effect 2, things I learned after starting a new game right from the title screen. If you're some kind of raging purist that wants to know absolutely nothing about this sequel, you should probably stop reading. But realistically, the average person isn't going to make it to the January 26 release without hearing about most of this stuff; it's all contained in the game's introductory moments, after all. It's all central to the storyline.
But! If you want to know the truth about Project Lazarus, Commander Shepard's killed-in-action status, and your allegiances in Mass Effect 2, I encourage you to keep on readin'.
Remember that initial teaser trailer from earlier this year, the one that was all "Shepard KIA" and everything? That wasn't smoke and mirrors. It wasn't the Citadel helping Shepard pull a vanishing act in order to go undercover, like I suspected. Shepard dies in the first five minutes of the game. Dead as a doornail. As the Normandy is savaged by a mysterious alien warship, humanity's first Spectre agent is sucked into the void and seemingly lost. Things look pretty grim.
The next things you see are computer displays of lab-grown internal organs, robotic arms bolting cybernetic doohickeys onto bone structures, a desperate scientific effort to resurrect a man who was nothing but "meat and tubes" when they brought him in.
That's right: Commander Shepard is Robocop. He was dead, and they brought him back. They made him better.
"They" is actually more like "he," and he is the Illusive Man, the shadowy figure at the head of the extremist pro-human faction Cerberus. You may remember Cerberus from some of the first game's cookie-cutter side missions, in which the group's agents opened fire on you mercilessly in defense of their morally dubious experimentation and take-no-prisoners philosophy of human advancement. The rebuilt Shepard finds himself working for Cerberus and for the Illusive Man, who looks and sounds an awful lot like Martin Sheen, if Martin Sheen had cyborg eyeballs and communicated from a secret location only by hologram. He shares Shepard's apparently unpopular belief that the Reaper menace you defeated in the first game is only in hiding and not actually vanquished, and he's at least ostensibly bent on nothing but stopping it. The Illusive Man apparently poured infinite resources over two years into what he called Project Lazarus, an effort to revive not just any soldier but the only soldier he considers capable of both galvanizing humanity's spirit and beating back the threats to its liberty and its existence that are lurking in deep space.
That was the biggest surprise to me about the setup in Mass Effect 2. Not that Shepard is some sort of bizarre cyborg zombie--which is evident by the fissures in his face through which you can see the faint glow of machinery. That part is a little creepy to me, but the people involved in the project like the scientist Miranda and the biotic soldier Jacob assure you early on that you're as much Commander Shepard as you ever were (other than the cybernetic bones and all that). For all I know, the resurrection story was just an excuse to let you completely remake your appearance and class (which you can) when you import your save from the first game. The surprise for me was that Shepard is working for Cerberus, a largely reviled organization he finds personally repugnant but that, at least for the moment, seems to share his goals. No more Spectre, no more Citadel. Shepard's original team is scattered to the four corners of the galaxy. The Normandy is lost. After the relatively upbeat ending of the first game, this isn't where you expected the big hero to end up.
For a little visual reference, here's Shepard and Jacob, escaping from the Lazarus facility as it comes under attack by unknown forces.
Game-changing setup or not, though, it's not long before you start to settle back into Mass Effect's old rhythms. Jacob and Miranda respectively make for biotic and engineering squadmates that are every bit as effective as their counterparts from the last game. The Illusive Man refuses to give you orders, but he does provide guidance, guiding you to a deserted human colony called Freedom's Progress, the latest settlement to be stripped of its inhabitants but otherwise remain seemingly undamaged. It's during your investigation that you run into Tali, the first familiar face from the first Mass Effect you'll encounter. She doesn't join up with you immediately, but there's some great tension (and the chance to gain renegade or paragon points) between Miranda's drive to find out what happened at all costs, and Tali's desire to protect her own people.
Hey, let's look at some of that!
Once you return from the Freedom's Progress mission, the game goes about as Mass Effect as it can get: You get a new ship. And it happens to look an awful lot like the Normandy. And the Seth Green-voiced Joker shows up to pilot it, and hey, he's walking on his previously useless legs! It's like a big old happy family reunion. This is the point where BioWare wrested the controller from my hands, but i can tell you before they did that Shepard's new ship has an advisor artificial intelligence called EDI (read: Edie), and the "Uncharted Worlds" music you hear while you're navigating the galactic map is almost exactly the same. Man, I loved that track.
My short time with the game shed a little bit of light on how the save-importing feature will work, though I wasn't provided with a sample save to try importing myself. That at least made it clear what the game's default history will be, if you don't import a save. It assumes that you allowed the Citadel high council to die at the end of the first game, for instance, allowing humans to take control of the highest positions of government. It also says that you allowed Kaidan Alenko to die, sparing that space bigot Ashley Williams for the sequel. Of course, the reverse might be true in your game, depending on how you played. After your hasty departure from the Lazarus facility, these answers are provided to you as a nice refresher course when Miranda and Jacob grill Shepard on a few "random" facts to test his cognitive functions. So if you're like me and have no recollection of some of the less significant choices you might or might not have made when the first game came out two years ago, this is a good way to get you back up to speed on the nature of your personal version of Shepard.
You might also have spared the life of all-star Krogan badass Wrex in the last game, and BioWare let me see a non-interactive presentation indicating one example of how the game will differ depending on who's dead and who's alive. At some point, you'll travel to the Krogan homeworld, and if Wrex is dead, you'll understandably meet with an icy reception. But if he's alive, you'll find that he's united all the Krogan clans under the banner of Clan Urdnot to combat the genophage and strengthen the Krogan race. That Wrex... what a guy. Shepard.
At this point, Mass Effect 2 is looking like a better version of Mass Effect with a way more mysterious story and a steadier frame rate. All the touches I loved before, from the '70s sci-fi synth soundtrack to the film-grain visual filter, are still in place. I think I'm warming up to this new crew of misfits Shepard has gotten involved with, and the Illusive Man/Cerberus/resurrected Shepard storyline is such a curveball that I really can't wait to find out where it goes. I hope no one at BioWare takes it the wrong way when I say I'd rather not see anymore of Mass Effect 2 until I can sit down with a final copy and play through it for real.