Spoilers are a weird thing when it comes to sequels. Especially sequels which promote themselves by throwing out mysteries and sly hints about the deaths of major characters. BioWare told us some answers today regarding the very beginning of Mass Effect 2. The very beginning. I'm going to share them, okay, but don't say I didn't warn you.
You play as Shepard. There, it's out. He/she's not dead (for the sake of this article I'm going to call Shepard a "she", since the One True Shepard (my one) was). Quite why there was all that promotional material saying she was remains a mystery, and one that will presumably be resolved when the game appears. But this of course means we have an answer to the questions about whether your Mass Effect 1 character carries over.
It very much does. And more than you might imagine. Traditionally giant compromises have had to be made when letting you pick up the same character in a later game. BioWare promises this time will be quite strikingly different. When you import your save game, you'll not only bring across the look of your Shepard, but also all the decisions, actions and relationships she formed. This seems an enormous task, meaning their stories for the recurring characters will have to have multiple beginnings each, to match up to however they might have ended in the previous game. Oh, and of course if you killed that character, they won't show up at all. It's tempting to suspect this means the roles of previous characters will have to be somewhat diminished, if the story is to survive their complete absence. BioWare made it clear that having played the original game was not necessary, and apparently the sequel will still work as an entry point for new players.
The only aspect that seems unlikely to make the transition complete is your skillset. Although the impression we got - and it was an ambiguous one - is that this is less to do with trying to reset things for the beginning of a new difficulty curve, and more to do with the sizeable changes they have planned for how skills will work.
Humans are going missing all over the galaxy, you'll be concerned to learn. Shepard is tasked with finding out why. Which requires her to fly around many planets attempting to recruit a crack squad of team mates into her pro-Human group, Cerberus, necessary for a climactic final battle.
We saw one such character's arrival into the team, a new alien called Thane, known to be the greatest assassin in the galaxy. To get to him we saw Shepard and her team perform some of the vastly improved combat on their way. Using cover much more intelligently, the direct control combat seemed far more sturdy (although of course we were watching BioWare play, rather than at the controls ourselves).
Combat can still be paused at any time to access your skillset. However, crucially it doesn't need to be this time. Arranged on the wheel that appears on screen, you can assign skills to three shortcuts, and then deliver them on the fly. These abilities now include some that exploit physics to perform some pretty decent attacks. We were shown one in particular where enemies were lifted up from their hiding places, and cartwheeled in slow motion through the air, trapped in a blue stasis field, through which Shepard fired lots of lovely bullets.
Squad members can also be controlled independently (although we didn't see this in action), which should also make for more involved battling. Nine new weapon classes are added to the mix, along with the ability to use heavy weapons. We saw a wrong-faced male Shepard using a rocket launcher to take out cartwheeling baddies (although it seemed to launch pretty weedy rockets - it doesn't seem quite right that people should get up again after being hit by such things).
Finally for the fighting, the enemies have not had the rather unfortunate (for them) upgrade of having their bodies divided into regions. So you can now shoot out a leg, or more practically, a face.
Conversations see a new ingredient, too. The Interrupt System is a briefly appearing icon on screen that provides an opportunity to change up a dialogue moment quite dramatically. You may be chatting with someone who's stood near the ledge of a tall building, for instance, and then as you're going to pick your next dialogue option see the exclamation mark appear in the bottom left of the screen. Hit one button at this point and you'll do something drastic and horrible. Like push him off. Hit another button and you'll do something drastic and heroic. Although I've no idea what that might be, since BioWare chose to push him off the ledge. You can, of course, just play the conversation out without making these impulse decisions if you'd rather hear what someone has to say.
The cutscenes look spectacular. They are absolutely phenomenal to watch, not only because of the luscious character designs and gorgeous backgrounds, but because of the direction, the framing, the artistry. And that's just the dialogue. We saw one scene showing a space battle, resulting in the destruction of a large ship, that was just breathtaking.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of the original Mass Effect was the paucity of exploration on non-plot-critical planets. Again none was shown, but we're promised that this has been overhauled, and that all planets will now be completely unique, and far more interesting to poke around.
BioWare went out of their way to make it clear that Mass Effect 2 will be a far darker game than the original, with much more serious consequences to your actions. They say that it will be possible to reach an ending - not a game over screen but a proper game ending - in which Shepard dies. Now, let's see them carry that save position over into Mass Effect 3.