Despite having chosen to remain on the ‘safe’ side as far as the selection of romantic partners was concerned–Liara is the only alien option, but looks pretty much like a blue human, and her bisexuality has a lore-based explanation–, the game still weathered a completely unjustified snafu because of its romance content. So let’s just spell things out: there’s a single sex scene with your Shepard’s chosen partner towards the end of the game, it takes place in a cinematic (i.e. you have no direct control over the proceedings), and it’s perfectly tame. All you see is a brief glimpse of FemShep/Ashley/Liara’s bum and breast in profile–and, in Liara’s case, an additional blurry view from the back of her standing naked–just as things get started, then the scene fades to black. The entire sequence, discounting the conversation leading up to it, lasts less than a minute. I won’t get into why the risqué shots only involve the female characters (apparently man bum would’ve been scary?), but there you have it. There are more explicit scenes in mainstream films, and other games have been further than this before (e.g. the justly infamous Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy). There’s one other encounter that Shepard can choose to initiate with an NPC early on in the game, but that takes place entirely off-screen and is completely optional. Incidentally, so are all the romances. Be that as it may, BioWare decided to err on the side of caution for a while after this: all of the sex scenes in ME2 and most in ME3 (except for Liara, once again) feature clothing and/or underwear, even if it looks ludicrous.
Anyway, Shepard has two romance options per gender: FemSheps can choose Kaidan or Liara, MaleSheps can choose Ashley or Liara. Before you ask, no, a threesome is not an option: Shepard can try, but the human partner will refuse (Liara, however, doesn’t seem to mind…). This isn’t Jade Empire, folks. In Kaidan and Ashley’s case, their interest will be hinted at early on, but Shepard can only start building the romance properly once the Normandy leaves the Citadel after her/his Spectre induction. In Liara’s case, she’ll clearly express her interest during her second conversation on board of the ship. Most of the time, it’s pretty obvious what Shepard has to say to get into each character’s pants good graces, and there are certain cues to indicate that s/he’s on the right track. What’s less obvious, however, is how to let them down easy–particularly Liara–if your Shepard is not interested or would prefer to wait for one of the romance options in ME2 or 3. This has caused some discontent among fans, who have found their Shepards ‘ninjamanced’ because they didn’t pick the right responses. So, without further ado…
Kaidan: I have the sneaking suspicion that the developers tried too hard to make Kaidan appealing. It’s like they went through a list of ‘What Women Like in a Man’, ticking boxes off one by one. Sensitive, caring and responsible? Check. A bit shy, but eventually grows bolder? Check. Romantic? Check. A gentleman, but a little flirty? Check. Has a tragic past and/or a dark side? Check. Handsome with a sense of humour? Check. The result is that both the character and the romance feel rather bland. Mind you, he has legitimate reasons for his reserve, and there’s nothing actually wrong with him. As a matter of fact, it’s probably the romance that has the most natural progression in the game, as Kaidan and Shepard already know each other at the outset, meaning that a preexisting interest may have had time to develop. Kaidan has the ‘tentative flirting’ technique down pat, and there are plenty of sweet, moving and even hot moments over the course of the conversations. It’s just that, once ME2 rolls around, and you see who else is available, well…he may feel a bit too vanilla. However, Kaidan is also difficult to turn down diplomatically, especially if Shepard isn’t romancing Liara either. The earliest option she has for telling him she’s not interested results in an outright rude response, and if she turns him down later, it feels like she’s been leading him on. The cue for telling that Shepard is on Kaidan’s romance track is that conversations will end with her saying that they’ll speak later, and Kaidan responding with “I’d like that.” If Shepard is not on the romance track, he’ll respond with “Commander.”
Ashley: Where Kaidan is all caution and restraint, Ashley is feisty, cocky and stubborn. She also feels much less like a checklist of everything men could want, for which I am grateful, even if I’m not a fan of hers. She feels like she has real flaws, rather than flaws-that-are-actually-qualities (c.f. her inexplicable distrust of aliens). Due to her difficult history, she has learned to push her limits and to rely only on herself, and she’s also mindful of the ‘no fraternisation’ rule, so she will be slightly diffident with Shepard at the beginning, despite her gratitude. She does have a sensitive side, however, as her stories of her family and her (misguided) love for poetry show. Conversations with her are a mix of teasing and bickering, due to her touchiness about her self-worth. But showing her that she’s welcome and appreciated gets her to open up. Again, there’s nothing wrong with the relationship per se, and Ashley is certainly a more colourful character than Kaidan, but, once again, ME2 is brimming with even more colourful options, and, unfortunately, her romance in ME3 suffers from cut content. Still, if your Shepard likes his girls tough and independent with a touch of softness and a dash of spice, then she might just be the one for him. The cue that Shepard is on the romance track is that she will call him “Skipper” when conversations end (i.e. it’s the last word she’ll say). Otherwise, it’ll be “Commander”. Mind you, she will also call Shepard “Skipper” during conversations, but that happens for both genders and is unrelated to romance. Moreover, should Shepard want to turn her down, there’s a legitimate reason for doing so early on without him sounding like a total arse.
Liara: I strongly dislike Liara, and the same applies to her romance. Given her inexperience, her lack of social skills and the fact that she’s from a different species, the romance should take more time to develop. As things stand, she’ll express fascination with Shepard almost from the get-go, despite being unfamiliar with humans, and spontaneously provide ample details about asari reproduction and romantic customs, which…feels rather awkward. If Shepard confirms reciprocal interest, however, she’ll suddenly be hesitant to rush things. It’s basically: “I dig you (get it? archaeologist, dig…*bricks thrown*), and, by the way, we can totally mate…oh, but let’s wait a bit, shall we?” It feels stilted, artificial and gives no sense of growing intimacy. And yet, she’s clearly the default romantic partner for the series: her final romance scene is slightly longer than the other two, and subsequent games establish her as a developer’s pet. She has her own DLC in ME2, is strongly implied to be Shepard’s best friend even if they’re not lovers and can’t get killed until the final minutes of ME3, and then only if you voluntarily screw up. This is very annoying, as I don’t like having a character forced upon me in a game about choice. Despite the fact that she’s available to both genders, Liara also embodies a cliché male fantasy: young, virginal, fragile (repeated fainting spells included), star-struck to the point of idolatry, in need of guidance and protection (despite being older than all of the human teammates combined), yet with a hint of naughtiness. In fact, the asari species as a whole is pretty much a straight male fantasy made pixel. But I digress. The cue that Shepard is on Liara’s romance track is that she calls her/him “Shepard” at the end of conversations (again, it’s the last word she says). But here’s the trick: this will happen after Shepard’s first private conversation with her, even though it has no actual romantic content. S/he needs to talk to Liara again after that to clearly turn her down, as it’s the only way to preclude her romance from starting, especially if not romancing anyone else. And make sure to pick the middle-right response: the bottom-right one is bugged. If Shepard is not on Liara’s romance track, she’ll call her/him “Commander” when conversations end.