As previously reported, players of Mass Effect 2 will be given the option to import completed character data from the first Mass Effect when beginning a new game. Xbox 360 users will need to be signed into Xbox LIVE to import previous character data from the Xbox 360 hard drive. Importing from a portable memory card won't be possible. PC users will simply select the ".MassEffectSave" files they wish to import.
In addition carrying over numerous character decisions and plot points from the original Mass Effect, importing a completed character from the first game yields a few other bonuses. Imported characters will receive some extra money to spend at the beginning of the game, as well as "...additional research resources for use at the Normandy's Tech Lab."
If you finished the first game with the status of either Paragon or Renegade, your imported character's alignment will also carry over to Mass Effect 2, giving you access to additional conversation options. While they're helpful, none of these bonuses will put new characters at a significant disadvantage, and the other bonuses will scale based on the imported character's final level at the time Mass Effect was completed.
A slight caveat is that players will only be able to import a maximum of eleven (completed) in-game saves to Mass Effect 2. According to BioWare, this means that "...if the player was to complete ME1 12 times, regardless of the number of unique playthroughs used, the 12th save will not be available for import, but saves 1 through 11 will be available."
Mass Effect 2 comes out on the PC and Xbox 360 on January 26. In the meantime, check out our hands-on impressions.