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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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E3: Mass Effect 2

Shepard's delight.

By the end of BioWare's first Mass Effect game, regardless of the gender, facial features, moral alignment and sexual predilections of your own personal Commander Shepard (ours was a half-hearted moral fence-sitter with a tendency to try and screw anything that moved, despite the fact that he looked like an ageing sixth-form college lecturer), they were blasting into space as a fully-fledged Spectre agent, ready to kick off some serious intergalactic shenanigans. They were a pretty big wheel down at the cracker factory, in other words, but sometime soon after that - according to the sequel's enigmatic announcement trailer, at least - they promptly dropped dead.

Or did they? The answer to that one's a little bit confusing. BioWare used an E3 developer presentation to reveal that Shepard's definitely who you'll be playing as in Mass Effect 2, but they also wrapped things up by showing us his death - or at least one of them. Twisting through space as the Normandy explodes in the distance, Shepard's grappling with his punctured spacesuit as he's dragged down into a nearby planet's atmosphere. Things look bad, then, and it's his own stupid fault, too, having been given a choice to flee in a cosy shuttlepod or stay behind to aid in the evacuation as his ship is lanced apart from above. It's the sort of decision that, for a player character, almost always leads to a glorious last-minute rescue in videogames - a fake-out and a rousing hurrah as you cheerily wobble back from the edge of the impossible. But here there is no rescue, and not much wobbling, except if you count your lower lip: Shepard falls and struggles and then dies. The end.

It's one potential death out of many, apparently: deadly treats liberally sprinkled throughout the campaign, all of them much more than a simple 'game over' screen and option to restart, each one an elaborate cinematic and a strangely satisfying conclusion. So, to recap, Shepard isn't dead yet, but you'll have to work extra hard throughout Mass Effect 2 to keep him alive - and you'll be doing that in a game which the developer is promising will be a lot darker and meaner, and a lot more refined, than the first outing.

Mixed emotions watching the Normandy explode: always liked flying her, but I won't miss getting lost and ending up in the elevator by mistake.

Having taken on giant sentient spaceships bent on wiping out the galaxy on your last mission, for Mass Effect 2, things are a little more personal. All around the galaxy, humans are disappearing, and Shepard wants to know why, even if the answer is that they've just popped down to Bluewater for the afternoon to pick up some Crocs. They haven't, of course - everyone in the future wears Converse sandals - and Shepard soon finds himself joining up with the shadowy Cerberus organisation to dig a little deeper, and heading off on a suicide mission.

To do that, he'll need to gather together a gang of intergalactic hard nuts to race about the galaxy, occasionally riding around in a cheeky little tank and handing out brutal justice and vague, inter-species sexy-times. A noble venture, and one that our E3 demo illustrated by sending him into a glossy skyscraper city to track down a fishy-faced chap named Thane, who just happens to be the galaxy's greatest killer - outside of unattended step-ladders, naturally.