NEWS - Thursday, June 4, 2009

Mass Effect 2 Preview

  BioWare played with our emotions quite a bit in the lead up to E3. The gaming world was left in limbo as the company teased us with rumors of Commander Shepard’s death, only to finally let us know that your character started in the first Mass Effect will carry through as the main protagonist straight through the entire trilogy. Well, it will if you manage to keep Commander Shepard alive. This darker entry into the Mass Effect franchise will find Shepard making decisions that will ultimately build together into a web of your creation that can mean life or death by the end of the game. You’ll only get to carry your Shepard on to Mass Effect 3 if you manage to survive Mass Effect 2. And as we saw at the end of the E3 demo that closed with the Normandy in flames and Shepard drifting off into the gravity well of a nearby planet, survival might not be the end you find in Mass Effect 2.

 The E3 demo was lead by Mass Effect 2’s Project Director, Casey Hudson. He opened by talking a bit about the background of this second chapter to the sci-fi RPG franchise. If you’ve completed the first Mass Effect, the sequel will recognize your save -- and all of the decisions you made -- and adjust the continuing adventure accordingly. If you let a character die in the first game, they’re gone. If you made certain decisions that might alter the future of the human race in the galactic community, well prepare to bear witness to the consequences. Of course, if you haven’t played the first Mass Effect game or lost your save somehow, you’ll still be able to pick up Mass Effect 2 and start playing.

 What we know of the Mass Effect 2 story so far involves Commander Shepard taking on what’s considered a suicide mission. Apparently humans across the galaxy are mysteriously going missing. Shepard decides this isn’t something to be taken lightly and so he accepts the mission from a pro-human group named Cerberus. In order to solve the mystery, Shepard must recruit a new team and tackle impossible odds.

 The demo picked up with the same cinematic BioWare showed at the Game Developers Conference back in March, only this time it was in a near complete state. The group is flying across the city towards a housing complex in search of an assassin named Thane. The tricky part is that the assassin is on the hunt and in order to find Thane, Shepard and his crew must fight through the hired guards and find Thane’s target before he does.

  This, naturally, gave us a great look at the improved combat Mass Effect 2 sports. Though the approach is largely unchanged, subtle tweaks have been made to improve the flow of battle. The heads-up display is streamlined and while the power wheel has returned, you don’t have to pause the action to start dishing out powers. The coolest change to the combat is that enemies now have individual hit boxes on all of their body parts. Shoot a robot in the arms or legs and you can watch them slowly tear to bits as they’re ripped limb from limb. Shoot one in the head and watch the machine brains go flying. The same location sensitive damage also applies to human and other living beings. Head shots here we come.

 Of course, we all know what made Mass Effect’s combat so fun was the ways you could mix and match the different weapons and skills. That same formula is returning in an expanded form. Nine new classes of weapons are being added including those of the heavy nature. We saw a missile launcher combined with a force pull power. The result was an enemy being pulled out of cover and then being blasted off of the raised walkway by the concussive blast emanating from the missile that hit nearby.

 Once the group fought through to Thane’s target, we were treated to another interactive cutscene. In addition to the conversation wheel that Mass Effect brought to the table, the sequel adds a prompt that flashes in the lower left corner of the screen. Hit a button at the right time and you’ll affect cutscenes as they play out. In this case, Shepard punched a guard through a window and then watched him fall about 100 stories to the ground below. I put in my notes after this point, "Shepard is a badass." I can’t think of a better way to describe him now, so I’ll leave it at that.

 And then Thane made his entrance. This guy is a new alien species with a look that is somewhat similar to Saren’s Turian race. His leathery face was covered with a heavy shell mask, his eyes sunken, hollow and black in a manner that was both sad and fear-inducing simultaneously. Thane made his entrance by taking out his mark and then praying for his soul before confronting Shepard’s crew. We didn’t get a chance to see how the scene would play out, but we were told that once again important characters can die.

  BioWare is promising improvements in all areas of Mass Effect 2 including the exploration aspects. Most of this was kept under wraps for now, but we were told to expect new levels of interactivity and richer areas to explore. For a brief moment, Hudson teased one such area. It was a lush, jungle planet that looked just like any typical main planet from the first Mass Effect.

  Mass Effect 2 is a visual stunner. The city vistas that showed the sun filtering through the building are awe inspiring. The cinematic cutscenes are better than ever. And, best of all, I didn’t notice a single bit of slowdown or texture load issues through the entire live demo. From what I saw, there is no reason to believe that this sequel won’t surpass the original in just about every way.


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