June 5, 2009 – At E3 2009, I was very fortunate to go behind closed doors for a guided demo of Mass Effect 2 at the EA booth. From just the 25 minutes of gameplay I was witness to, I can tell you with absolute certainty that this will be one amazing game when it releases at the beginning of next year.
If you were a fan of the first title, know that “Mass Effect 2 combines the very best parts of the original with improvements in literally every single area of the game; and, of course, a stunning story.” These are the words Project Director Casey Hudson used to describe the sequel. He did so in a very matter-of-fact way; it’s obvious that confidence breeds serenity.
One huge advantage the folks at BioWare had going into the development of Mass Effect 2 is a quality game engine and an extensive familiarity with it. In other words, the vast majority of the technical work has already been pioneered. This has freed up the developers at BioWare to clean up a few of the hiccups and concentrate on the creative aspects of the title, essentially adding multiple layers of detail to all facets of the game. To top it all off, BioWare has committed the exact same budget to the game’s production as was devoted for the original. Again, whereas vast resources were committed to technical endeavors in the past, now the money is being injected directly into polishing and refining the game. Combine these factors with a lengthy development timetable (they’ve already been working on the new project for over two years), and the results are stunning.
If you played Mass Effect, you’ll remember just how important decisions were throughout the game; acting as a Paragon or a Renegade determined the way the story unfolded. Because the devs at BioWare are masters at crafting and understanding the ins and outs of RPG creation, they’re allowing players to carry over their game saves in order to provide true continuity between the first and second (and eventually the third) games. That means fallen comrades remain dead, Commander Shepard’s unique outlook persists, and the way the galaxy perceives the protagonist will also maintain.
Though Saren and the Reapers were roundly beaten in the first chapter, the Reaper threat still persists in Mass Effect 2. “Mass Effect 2 is the dark second act. It is a high action descent into the most brutal parts of the Mass Effect universe.” Hudson continued, “Humans are going missing from all over the galaxy, and you’re working with a shadowy, pro-human group called Cerberus to find out why.” The mission that Shepard takes up is considered to be suicidal, but that’s not enough to stop the Spectre. Of course, Shepard’s no dummy. He’ll have to put together a supporting squad of “the most dangerous and powerful individuals from around the galaxy. You’ll search the darkest reaches of space to find them, recruit them, and make them loyal.” After finally putting together this elite team, you’ll lead them on one final mission where your actions throughout the game will impact your crew’s success or failure at every stage.
We were shown several scenes that followed Shepard on a highly dangerous quest to wrangle up the services of the galaxy’s most lethal assassin, an alien named Thane. One thing that became immediately apparent is just how smooth transitions between cutscenes and action segments have become. Also, conversation segments are no longer static; they are dynamically introduced to the player in the form of real-time dialogue. Additionally, BioWare has instituted a new interactive conversation interrupt system to allow you to seize control of the conversation to inject a bit of Shepard in to various situations if you don’t like how things are proceeding. This will undoubtedly enhance the role-playing side of the game by ceding more control to the player. Further adding to the cinematic experience are the pristine character animations and lip-syncing. This level of polish really amps up the immersion factor – the 25 minutes we spent staring at the screen were captivating.
Of course, as pleasurable as machinima can be, the developers have not neglected combat. In fact, the third-person action has been greatly refined. The shooting mechanic in particular appears to be far more vibrant, gritty, and user-friendly. The devs describe it as being modeled on a “precision shooter feel;” weapons are more powerful and accurate right from the start. There is also a new location-based damage system in effect, so headshots are now a prized commodity in Mass Effect 2. Finally, there are several new weapons classes in Mass Effect 2, including a new heavy weapons system that allows players to tote around arms such as a missile launcher. All this refining and enhancement of the combat system should make Mass Effect 2 extremely appealing to even non-RPG players.
That being said, hardcore fans of the series need not be worried that the strategy previously found in encounters has been dumbed down in favor of a more standard combat mechanic. This isn’t just a shooter even though it plays a lot more like one; the strategic use of powers is still part and parcel of the game. In fact, it has been greatly enhanced through separate attack and movement orders for each squad member.
Players can now use the power wheel to outline orders in real-time as well as dynamically select ammo load-outs to better suit the present opposition – i.e. synthetics versus organics. Moreover, biotic abilities are incredibly devastating this time around due to the refinement of the game’s physics. Players will now be able to literally rip foes out from behind cover, hit them with a concussive blast of energy, and then finish them off with a few well-placed coup de gras shots when they’re prone and helpless.
Lastly, the team at BioWare has made galaxy and planetary exploration far more in-depth. Players will now have to find suitable regions within which they can land and explore. All of these regions on a planet will be diverse “like a science fiction painting come to life.” As pretty and lively these new worlds are, they are juxtaposed by the dark and brooding tale that is spun. Even more so than the original game, your decisions will have major consequences for not only the story, but also for the livelihood of you and your crew. In fact, we were given a sneak peak at a crucial spoiler; quite an interesting plot device, but one I’m reticent to share with you. Needless to say, you’ll want to measure your actions and be prudent in your decision-making.
BioWare’s next iteration in the Mass Effect franchise will be host to myriad improvements that should make the gaming experience unlike anything we’ve ever seen, yet still wholly reminiscent of the original game we know and love. Look for the title to release in the first quarter of 2010.