People didn't really respond all that well to the unveiling of the new Mass Effect character Subject Zero. A troubled lady with attitude and tats, she looked like the kind of person you'd rather have blasted out into space through an air lock than get stuck in a lift with - a particularly poignant worry given the original Mass Effect's excessive elevator-based predilections.
Well, that's one fear you can put aside anyway: the lifts are long gone this time around, replaced with deeply stylish glowing wire-frame models of the building you're currently rocketing through and speedier loading times. But that still leaves Subject Zero, knocking about the interior of the Normandy, banging on endlessly about life's hardships, and probably sticking up Katy Perry tour posters in her sleeping quarters and doing that funny metaller hand gesture, which makes you look like you've just had your middle fingers bitten off by a horse.
What does BioWare's Dr Ray Muzyka make of all this fuss over his game's latest recruit? Unsurprisingly - as you might expect, the "Dr" part of Dr Ray Muzyka suggests the man is pretty smart - the company's co-founder and general manager has an interesting take on the whole thing, and rather than reach across the table and perform an unnecessary tracheotomy on me just for asking, he smiles, and answers at length: "I think it's interesting that she - and actually some of the other characters - provoke a really strong emotional response," he says.
"I think it's really good that some people really dislike her, actually. Some people really like her, too, but the important thing is that there's not a lot in-between. Characters like this, you can choose whether to have them in your party or not, but we want you to have an opinion about these people and, hopefully, throughout the course of the game, come to understand why they are the way they are."
Dr Ray's in town to suffer from jetlag and drink endless plastic tumblers of Coke, while telling us a bit more about the game he's happy to suggest is "perhaps the best title BioWare has ever made". Here's what he has to tell us in particular: The first Mass Effect was just the beginning, an introduction to BioWare's massive universe, which barely had time to introduce the main players and set out the battle lines for what was to come before you were fighting your way through that last boss encounter and sleeping with charming blue ladies.
Mass Effect 2 is where things get a little more serious, and a lot more moody. Humans are disappearing in droves throughout the galaxy, and it's up to Shepard to find out why, by pulling together a team of suicidal glory-hunters and heading off on his most dangerous mission yet. So far, so E3, but Muzyka has new information (can I call it intel? That would make me feel a bit more like a space captain) to unveil, namely that the disappearances are, at least in part, due to an alien race called the Collectors.
If the name is anything to go by, the Collectors have presumably been taking humans back to their smelly bedrooms where they keep them in a homemade trophy cabinet in their original packaging. Actually, they haven't: they've been sending in swarms of nasty little bugs to subdue any human colonists before spiriting them away to some creepy glowing hive-like structures where they perform truly horrible experiments on them.
The results, stitched together muddles of body parts and sewage, which appear to spend a lot of time hobbling towards any would-be rescuers before exploding in fleshy chunks, are enough to make you ponder exactly what kind of medicine Dr Ray specialised in - and, actually, doctor, that rash seems to have cleared up by itself so I think I'll just be off now if that's okay cheers - and they provide a queasy jolt of grisly horror to Mass Effect's fairly calm and grown-up universe.
Typically, for a series which has already proved itself to be pretty strong when it comes to alien design, from the controversial I'll-wear-my-skull-on-the-outside-thanks look of the Turians, to good old Wrex the Krogan, who resembled a cross between a large frog and one of those chicken Tandoori skewers you often get given at upmarket barbecues (at least he did until I shot him for an Achievement), the Collectors are another memorable piece of deep-space evolution. They're ugly, angular insectoid types, their spindly little bodies capped by sharp, flinty wedges of head set with rather too many glowing eyes. They look, in short, like they plan on doing you harm.
They're not to be seen in the latest hands-on demo, however: a slightly lopsided number, with a short first section providing Shepard with a breezy jaunt through a nightclub followed by the opportunity to be poisoned by the alien barman, while the second part throws you into a dazzling shootout in the network of offices beyond.
The nightclub section appears to have been included largely to show off the darker world: the skyscraper canyons lurking outside the bar seem grim, industrial, and thick with luminous clouds of pollution and passing space traffic, while the club itself is filled with seedy-looking aliens lounging on benches, and shot through with red lighting, dancing...girls (?), and holographic fire displays moving in time with the booming dance music.
It's also a chance to foreground the improvements in character modelling, as a stubbly Shepard keels over at the bar and gets a very convincing case of the sweats. The results are pretty astonishing actually, with brilliant texturing and only the slightly awkward mouths continuing to give the game away: most importantly, the creepy dead eyes of the original Mass Effect are long gone, and Shepard looks canny, devious, hunted, and rather ill, given the circumstances.
The second section is there to prove that BioWare is taking guns seriously this time around - and it is, by the looks of it. It's hard to point out a single specific improvement given the speed with which events unfold, but the whole business of blowing people away simply seems a lot more refined, and a lot more immediate. Shepard and his squad-mates move about with more elegance, the targeting is a lot twitchier, and snapping in and out of cover - and subsequently vaulting over it - now seems entirely natural.
"We literally did a post-mortem of Mass Effect 1, and reduced it down to a category of things the fans really wanted us to look at," says Dr Ray. "One of the big items for us was the shooter experience: we really wanted to improve the combat intensity. So, moment-to-moment, when you play it, you can see it's far more intense in terms at how fast things are coming at you, the controls are now really precise, and the whole thing's locked and loaded at 30fps. We took a long look at squad AI, and how the Biotics and weapons work together for them, and we've really stepped up the range of enemies. The shooter experience is now really good, we think."
And there are new guns to try out, too: a lethally enjoyable sniper-rifle that zooms in close and pumps out single rounds with a satisfyingly definitive thwack, and a rocket launcher that sends waves of Eclipse troopers falling through the air in flaming pieces. The encounter's final boss - a no-nonsense robot with a strangely lovable head - requires disruptor rounds to chip away at his shields, and then there's just time to fire up the Adrenaline Rush power to slow down Shepard's enemies, before switching to cryo ammo, which freezes the giant mechanical beast into ice, all ready to be pulverised by the rest of the squad.
Dr Ray refuses to be drawn on details of the Cerberus Network - although there it was on the screen when we logged into the demo - which allegedly handles the game's DLC, but he does promise that BioWare is taking post-release support far more seriously this time around, with regular and sustained updates providing players with a reason to come back to the Mass Effect universe for months ahead. He also suggests that the team is paying a lot more attention to the extra-curricular planetary exploration of the game, bolstering side-quests, and making the worlds themselves more interesting and varied.
All of which suggests that Mass Effect 2 is shaping up to be a real treat for those people who are always complaining that no good games ever get released on 29th January. The first Mass Effect was a surprisingly good match for the makers of Baldur's Gate: it was seeped in rich alien lore, riddled with interesting species and ideas, and, if truth be told, the developer's slight tendency towards wooden dialogue only enhanced the Kubrickian chic of the whole thing. With fresh worlds to explore, new nebulae to criss-cross, and some really ghastly bugs to splat, next year can't come around quickly enough, frankly.
Mass Effect 2 is due out for PC and Xbox 360 on 29th January.