Pub: Electronic Arts
www: Official Site
Mass Effect 2 Hands-On Preview
BioWare have been drip feeding us character reveals and titbits of information on Mass Effect 2 for months now, and so it was with some excitement that I sat down for hands-on time with probably the most anticipated RPG of 2010 that isn't Final Fantasy XIII.
The demo begins with Commander Shepard and his team aboard a shuttle on the Asari colony Illium. After a brief discussion with your unnamed Asari pilot you learn that Shepard is seeking an assassin who he plans to find by being present at his next hit, an Asari diplomat. During this conversation you're treated to various shots of the planet's surface, a gargantuan city spanning as far as the eye can see. As you fly between the city's many colossal skyscrapers it looks very much like Coruscant, but with a sleek and sexy Asari feel.
The first thing the opening cut scene makes you immediately aware of is just how good the game looks, it gives any current or upcoming game a run for its money and is quite a step up from the original. The scale and detail on offer during the demo is very impressive, with crisp textures and excellent lighting. Gone are the odd stop/start loading moments and choppy frame rate of the first game, replaced with a reworked engine lacking any Unreal Engine texture pop-in and said to be locked at 30fps.
Dropped off at a landing pad, and with the chit-chat and sightseeing out of the way, the meat of the demo begins: Combat. Mass Effect's combat mechanic wasn't the most well received, with a cumbersome cover system and the third person shooting not as slick as many would have liked it's definitely something BioWare were keen to address. At first glance even someone such as myself, who's completed Mass Effect four times and change, was not immediately aware of the rather significant tweaks and changes they have made.
Gone is the need to dry hump every wall and pillar you come across before Shepard will decide to use it as cover, now you just press A, and like some magical gear of war he sticks. This makes it much easier to navigate while using cover as you no longer have to worry about inadvertently becoming unstuck, a feat which is now easily accomplished by pressing the A button again. Holding the A button still makes you sprint, and, as you may imagine, this lets you sprint in and out of cover quite easily. You can even hop over small walls and boxes. Who would have thought we'd see such wonders.
Melee attacks are now assigned to the B button as opposed to automatically triggering when at the right distance, this allows you more strategic freedom and to continue shooting even when at point blank range. Holding the B button unleashes a powerful haymaker move.
The changes don't stop there though. Health is now of the regenerating variety which allows the game to throw more at you, and remember how weapons had a heat gauge but unlimited ammo in Mass Effect? Well, weapons now require ammo and reloading, which can be achieved by pressing X. Although, it's hard to say just how this will affect the overall game as ammo was never an issue during my playthroughs.
The aforementioned certainly all help to make combat feel more engaging and tactical, but nowhere is this more apparent than with the new aiming system. The option to have insane auto aim is a thing of the past, and accurate aiming is now entirely based on player skill, not character skill. This means you'll be able to effectively use any weapons from the off, as well as no longer needing to place points in weapon skills.
The improved aiming really comes into play when you realise enemies also take different amounts of damage to different parts of their body, so going for the headshot is now worth the time. This can also work against the player because some enemies have increased shielding around their chest and head. They also react realistically to where they are hit, so you'll never again have to wonder if your shot actually landed. Certain enemies, such as robots, can also lose limbs. The robots present in the demo could have a leg or two blown off and still continue to crawl towards you Terminator style.
New weapon types also make an appearance with the addition of the Heavy Weapons category. This includes missile and grenade launchers along with some guns of a more exotic variety. The missile launcher available during the demo was a decidedly brutal device which launched blue balls of energy that could change trajectory once they were within range of a target, crashing into them with explosive force. A very powerful weapon indeed, but I don't expect ammo to be so plentiful in the full game.
Thrown into the thick of combat with all these juicy new toys to play with I didn't initially pay much attention to the two companions beside me, but the more astute fans amongst you may very well have recognised them as Jacob and Miranda from the iPhone game Mass Effect Galaxy.
As demo Shepard was your standard Solider it was nice to see that both companions possessed biotic powers, one of them being completely new at that. The appropriately named Crush slams an enemy to the floor with great force and holds them there for a time with crushing waves of pulsating energy. It's a fun power to use.
Friendly AI is another aspect to see some refinement, these guys are actually useful! They now use cover with no prompting from yourself and just like yourself, smartly. I hope to never again witness the buffoonery of Ashley's as she stands on the opposite side of the box I'm using as cover and gets shot in the back. Friendlies are more aggressive too, and I was quite surprised, but very pleased, to see them kill an enemy before I did on several occasions.
It's not just friendly AI that's smarter either, the bad guys have got a few more brain cells too. On normal difficulty they are still quite the cake walk, but ramp it up to veteran (the highest difficulty available in the demo) and they actually pose somewhat of a threat. Not just because they fire more often and more accurately, but also because they use cover more efficiently. One cheeky chappy even flanked me and got up close and personal with his shotgun.
D-pad squad commands have, as seems to be the running theme here, been tweaked too. Now you no longer need to constantly tell your dim-witted AI partners to take cover a d-pad direction has been freed up, allowing you the very useful ability of issuing individual move/attack commands to each character.
Okay, so technical stuff out the way, I'm back in Shepard's shoes, kicking ass and chewing gum. After some fierce close quarters combat and one of a more long range nature with some turrets on a bridge (homing missiles ftw) I finally make it to the Asari diplomats office I mentioned all those paragraphs ago.
“Shepard! But, you're dead” isn't the nicest of ways to be greeted, but Shepard plays it cool and replies with “I got better.” Isn't he awesome. So it seems we've met this lovely lady before, she's Nassana Dantius, the Asari diplomat from The Citadel who (possibly) persuaded you to kill her sister. Well, that's what this Shepard did, and Nassana remembers as much, believing you're the one who has come to kill her as retribution for her previous deception. Before you have a chance to explain the assassin strikes, dropping from the shadows and killing the diplomat and her three guards in a brutally fluid and quick fashion.
Thus we are spectacularly introduced to the assassin, and possible party member, Thane. He's a Drell, a species not previously seen in Mass Effect, they have a reptilian and insect like quality about them. After this badass assassin seemingly prays for forgiveness you discover that he was expecting you all along and wanted to see just how far you'd go to find him. With that my all too brief time with Mass Effect 2 came to an end. At least until I pressed the start button again.
I couldn't have been more pleased with what I played of Mass Effect 2. BioWare have taken what was great about the original and polished it to a mirror shine, they've tweaked and refined those areas that didn't quite work, while adding exiting new aspects to the mix. I personally cannot wait until January to step back into the many shoes of my many Shepards'. It's going to be shiny.