Morality. It's a tricky thing in games. When you're called on to make some kind of ethical decision in a virtual world, the choices are usually black and white. Kill or arrest. Gift or steal. Rescue or abandon. In the original Mass Effect, the choices were rarely so easy, partly because of the ambiguity of the characters, and also because you weren't sure what the consequences might be.
In Mass Effect 2, the choices are only going to get tougher. This time you're fighting for your own species, and the survival of your Commander Shepard and his or her crew. "Mass Effect 2 is about a suicide mission that Shepard faces," explains project director Casey Hudson. "It's not so much about making it really hard for people to keep their character alive - I think most people will be clear on what they need to do to survive. It's more about having a real sense of consequence, so that players who ignore the whole point of the game (building a tough and loyal team) will experience a spectacular final mission; a bloodbath from beginning to end and one that results in their character not making it out alive."
This is something Bioware has been hinting at since they released the very first teaser trailer for ME2. 'Is Shepard really dead?' was the question lighting up fan forums and community sites. At E3, Hudson and the team finally revealed what the teaser was getting at - that Shepard could die if the 'wrong' choices are made.
But what if you're new to the series, and you don't have the history of an entire game's worth of explosive choices and charged dialogue behind you? What if you have no Commander Shepard on your Hard Drive? "Mass Effect 2 is designed to bring in new players, so for them the story will stand alone from the first game, but they will also get a good idea of what happened before," explains Hudson.
"For them, there will be a certain 'canon' of events that happened previously, as though this is the first game in the series." So, a generic storyline with the decisions already made for them. It's great to see Bioware isn't just catering for the die-hard fans - after all, although Mass Effect did well on the shop shelves, it isn't the biggest exclusive on 360. However, the best advice for potential newbies is: go and play the first game. Sure, ME2 will fill you in on what is happening, but it will have to gloss over subtleties, and you don't want to miss them.
And what can we expect from the sequel? Hudson fills us in on the basic premise of the plot: "In the first game, you stopped an invasion of Reapers, gigantic and ancient machines that want to harvest organic civilization. But, the Reapers are still out there somewhere and Shepard knows they're coming. In Mass Effect 2, humans are being abducted in their thousands from all over the galaxy, and Shepard is working with a shadowy pro-human group called Cerberus to find out why. You realise that you're going to have to launch what everyone tells you is a suicide mission, if you are to find out what's happening to the missing humans. And to give yourself the best possible odds, you set off to recruit a team of the most dangerous and powerful individuals in the galaxy."
Without wishing to put words into the mouths of sensationalists, it sounds to us like Shepard is going to be mixing with interstellar extremists. It's an example of Mass Effect's rather smart morality system. Sure, you can build the toughest team and breeze through the finale of the game, but at what cost? What are the choices you'll need to make in order to get the biggest bad-asses on board the Normandy? And - rather critically - will if effect the way you end the trilogy? It's a hand that Bioware is playing very close to its chest.