Mass Effect 2 Preview: Hands On with Shepard

By Garnett Lee, Dec 17, 2009 9:00am PST With the January 26 release date looming, EA and BioWare recently pulled back the curtain at a press event, providing a detailed look at Mass Effect 2 (PC, Xbox 360). Some might actually feel that what was shown goes deeper than they'd like. I share that concern and accordingly have carefully considered where to draw the line on what to include in this preview. In the end, though, even the full wealth of info only served to make me that much more eager to finally get to play the game.

Much has been made of the strong connections being forged between this sequel and the original game. Don't let that put you off from playing the game, though, just because you haven't played the original Mass Effect. This next chapter begins in a middle ground after the first game. It's timed just far enough out that the dust has settled and an intro movie can easily catch you up but still recent enough to maintain the bond for those picking up where they left off.

One of the big features for those continuing the series is the ability to carry over their save from the conclusion of Mass Effect. Project director Casey Hudson explained how it works. Each save from the first game gets profiled as it's loaded into Mass Effect 2. The important data points can then be reviewed to help in deciding which save to start from. And yes, that means it will be easy to check out a number of different options. Hudson said managing all the permutations of character interactions presented one of the biggest challenges in the development of Mass Effect 2.

The team faced another big challenge in improving on some of the tech shortcomings that they felt detracted from the original. In his opening remarks Hudson cut straight to promising that framerate would not be an issue this time around, regardless how intense the action got. From what I played, the game lived up to his claim. Even in larger environments with all three party members using powers that filled the screen with special effects, there was never even a remote distracting flicker in the action.

Achieving that smoothness was critical in obtaining their goal of Mass Effect 2 being received as a good shooter. That's right, shooter. Hudson said that based on feedback collected across all sources they felt the game had to succeed as a shooter to play the way it was intended. Primarily that means if you have the crosshairs on an enemy's head and pull the trigger you get a headshot.

Before panic sets in, succeeding as a shooter and being a shooter are two different things, as my time playing Mass Effect 2 proved. While I could run-and-gun in stretches, I settled into a very enjoyable rhythm of using powers, issuing orders, but still maintaining a relatively brisk pace to the fights. It stems from little touches like being able to put powers on controller buttons so they can be used without bringing up a menu every time, and the completely simple introduction of an ammo system with disposable thermal clips that get used up as they absorb the heat generated by firing a weapon. All in all it was not unlike playing a tactical shooter with cover and squad commands.

But the sequel maintains the classic role-playing elements as well. Specialization from developing the characters builds a personal connection with them. And the story naturally carries a significant amount of the load in keeping Mass Effect 2 firmly in the RPG ranks. As the screens and videos had hinted this middle chapter in the trilogy veers into a darker, seedier atmosphere. Where the first game centered on the sleek Citadel space station, Mass Effect 2 introduces its polar opposite: station Omega. This unruly place is a collection of anyone and everyone from around the universe living in fractured wards under the control of various gangs.

On the political front, lines have blurred further with the emergence of the Cereberus faction that advocates human ascendancy in the universe. Shepard finds himself wrapped up in their schemes as the result of a dramatic twist at the start of the game (be forewarned, some previews may reveal this spoiler and in my mind it's big). Along with learning the new balance of power, all of the decisions from the first game come into play here with how returning characters relate to Shepard in the new scheme of things.

The potential for seeing this evolution from basically choosing dialog responses in Mass Effect to their impact as the relationships mature has me more excited than ever for Mass Effect 2. As I played through the two areas I got to demo a second and then third time, the game showed me refinement of a sequel ready to upstage its predecessor. Now I just have to wait a few more weeks to see if it can pull it off.

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