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Mass Effect 2
Platform: PC, Xbox 360
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: BioWare
Genre: Action RPG
Format: DVD-ROM
Release: US 01/26/10



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No more bright pink armor! Unless, you know, you want it...
 
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You're gonna make me work with a SALARIAN?!
 
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Less skills in number, but better focus and cooler stuff.
 
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No, they're not pretty, but they'll rip your head right off your body.
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John McCarroll
Hands-On Preview
12/17/09
John McCarroll

Editor's Note: This game is a direct sequel to Mass Effect. There are spoilers of the original game, as well as for the introduction and recommended first mission of Mass Effect 2 in this preview. For those who do not want to read about the introduction of the story for the second title, but would like to know about the new gameplay segments, the story sections with possible spoilers have been marked out in bold.

Last month, BioWare and Electronic Arts were kind enough to fly me to the hyper-cold (at least for my desert blood) city of Edmonton to visit the BioWare offices. There, I managed to sit down at a PC and put my hands on a preview build of Mass Effect 2, the sequel to one of the most popular RPGs on the Xbox 360. There's no doubt that the second game will be good, based on the excellent track record of BioWare, but the question really is HOW good will Mass Effect 2 be? Based on my four hours with the title, the answer is a simple one: absolutely fantastic. Mass Effect 2 takes everything that made the first Mass Effect a fantastic title and builds on top of it with more characters, superb dialogue, better graphics, and kickass weapons. If the rest of the game matches up to the segments near the beginning of Shepard's second adventure, gamers are in for what will probably be the best RPG of 2010, and released before all the rest, to boot.

BEGINNING OF POSSIBLE SPOILERS

Shepard is dead. The hero that took down Saren, that fought off Sovereign, the first human to ever become a SPECTRE has been killed in action. How, where and why? These are secrets that BioWare intends to keep for the player, and we weren't allowed to see. Shepard is awakened two years later on a base of some kind, by a female scientist named Miranda. What he's doing there and where the base is, he has no idea, but he only knows that they are under attack. This base - the tutorial for the game - is the home of Project Lazarus. The name is such for the aim of the project: Bring Shepard back to life, because there are bad, bad men in the universe that only he can take down. It's not the Alliance military that's behind the project, nor the Council, nor anyone on the citadel... it's a pro-human faction called Cerberus. Not exactly the folks you'd expect to be on Shepard's side, seeing as he killed a few hundred of their agents in some of the first game's side missions.

It's a great twist and one of the tie-ins to the Mass Effect novels and comic books, in which Cerberus was fleshed out quite a little bit and the Illusive Man, who Shepard meets shortly after escaping the Project Lazarus base, is introduced. As the leader of Cerberus, he's sunk a fortune into bringing Shepard back, but it's not in key with Cerberus' spotty past. They're just out to save humanity, according to the Illusive Man, but there's really much more at stake than that...

END OF POSSIBLE SPOILERS

Mass Effect 2 will have a fantastic plot and BioWare is endeavoring to make sure that players have more and more control over the plot themselves. Not only will Shepard's dialogue options be controlled, but there are places in the game where players can go out of their way to do a paragon or renegade action that wouldn't normally be done automatically. During a conversation, a paragon or renegade icon will pop up, along with a button (the left and right mouse buttons for renegade and paragon on our PC demo), for a short amount of time. For players who want to be good or evil, they'll click that button, otherwise things will continue as they would. It's great on top of the regular dialogue options, and it gives an even wider range of control.

That control actually means something in Mass Effect 2. While the first game presented players with choices, they were static and you knew what you were doing perfectly when they happened. BioWare hasn't pulled any punches with their second title in the series, as every single character that makes an appearance with Shepard - and even Shepard himself - could heed the Grim Reaper's call at any time and bite the bullet. It's not like the first game, where Garrus, Tali and Liara would definitely be there at the end; this time, anyone and everyone can eat it. There are certain non-playable characters who are being "saved" for the third game or are presented as NPCs in the second game, but those will just be secrets for when the game launches.

Players who have saves from the first game will have most of their choices from the first game carry over, everything from the choices that players made when choosing between Ashley and Kaidan, whether or not to keep Wrex alive, and the big choices all obviously make their way into the second game. It also keeps track of things like how you spoke to your biggest fan on the Citadel and more than two hundred choices overall. Players who didn't keep their save file from the first Mass Effect or never played it will have certain things become canon for them, and they'll also have to make some of the major changes from the first game when questioned about their past. It's a great way to solve the problem of those who haven't played through the first Mass Effect to make it to this point.

In such a dangerous world, however, BioWare hasn't left their hero out in the cold - he's got much more in his arsenal than he did when fighting Saren and Sovereign. All four of the weapon classes from the first game - assault rifles, shotguns, pistols, and sniper rifles - have returned, alongside sub machine guns and heavy weapons. Submachine guns fall somewhere between pistols and assault rifles, and are a weapon that some of the biotic and tech characters can use so that they're not restricted to pistols. Heavy weapons - well, they do the big boy damage in the game. I had the chance to fire off a rocket launcher in the game and they're great for taking out masses of enemies, but the ammo is scarce. Ammo is something that's brand new in Mass Effect 2. Rather than having the overheat meter in the first game, guns in Mass Effect 2 take thermal clips which can be picked up from enemies, caches of ammo, and the like. On the plus side, this makes the game play much more like a shooter and there's much less downtime for the user, since there's no overheating.

Also improved from the first title is the targeting itself. The first title left its targeting as being simply cursor based - if you had your reticule over the target, the game rolled some dice behind the scenes and decided if you hit or not. Mass Effect 2 simplifies it and makes it play much more like a shooter - but those who aren't twitch oriented won't lose a thing. After all, in the first game, you still had to have your reticule over the opponent to make a hit. With this improvement in targeting comes position-based damage. You can shoot the heads off your opponents, the legs and arms off of geth, and cripple your opponents mercilessly. Have a mass of enemies headed straight toward your position? Pray and spray at their feet to make as many of them crawl as you can. It makes the combat in Mass Effect 2 that much more visceral, and it's a fantastic improvement.

That's not all that's been added to the combat, however, as the biotic and tech powers have been significantly improved for the second game. Mass Effect was more difficult the more you put your skills into biotics and tech powers, as mowing down enemies was the easiest thing to do. The way that BioWare has improved these powers by allowing them to combine with other powers - as well as streamlining the system so that there aren't quite so many choices for each individual character - has made the combat much deeper. The indivudal characters may not have as many skill slots as they did in the first game, but there are also many more allies to choose from, so certain people are better for certain missions. It's a great way to balance things out, and I'm sure that I'm not going to have my "Soldier main character, Wrex, and Ashley" setup from the first game just to use assault rifles on every enemy in every mission.

Players will have much more control over improving their loadouts - each character comes with a research project that they can complete on the ship. By collecting raw materials out in the world, Shepard can give himself an his allies a bevy of improvements. It gives players a reason to explore the universe and do additional missions. While I didn't get a chance to explore the world, BioWare has stated that exploration minigames will be significantly better than driving the Mako around in the first title. Now, with an actual reason to go exploring, the game will be much longer for those who aren't the find-everything exploration hounds, which is good for me, since I hate side missions.

There are some great aesthetic changes in Mass Effect 2 as well, and the biggest of which will affect Shepard in battle: his armor. Fans of the first game know that sometimes you just got stuck wearing the pink armor sometimes because it was the best around. Shepard (but, unfortunately, not his allies) has a closet in his bunk on the new Normandy. He can customize individual pieces of armor on his person as well as his "casual" appearance on the ship. One of the options we were shown had Shepard dressed pretty much like a cowboy on the frontier while he was onboard the Normandy - it was very humorous, and I hope there will be more than just the four costumes in the demo, as they were very good. There are also new aesthetic things like a fish tank in Shepard's room, which he can go out and collect fish for. There's better character models, better animations, better sound effects, better everything on the aesthetic side of things. There are voice actors like Martin Sheen taking major characters like the Illusive Man, and everything is absolutely fantastic graphically and aurally - I couldn't find anything here to complain about.

Even more of the changes that BioWare has made that are great are tiny, but have a big impact - adding automatic saves for the beginning of a mission so that players can change their allies and loadouts, making sure that the elevator rides in the game are not nearly as long, the ability to map powers to the d-pad (or keyboard, for PC players), the ability to issue separate orders to individual allies, new hacking mini-games, and a Call of Duty-like health system (your shields will regenerate like in the first game) all have fantastic effects on the experience. The developers at BioWare had a big spreadsheet of things that players thought were wrong with the original game, and have taken great strides to make sure that these things were improved in the second game.

What it comes down to is that I am heartbroken that I only had a few short hours with Mass Effect 2. If I had my choice, I'd probably still be in the cold Edmonton weather playing this game, but I have to wait for its release as well. Fans of the first game have nothing but improvements to look forward to in the second game. Those who never played the first game should take the month between now and the release to play it, then pick up Mass Effect 2 when it drops on January 26, 2010. I know I'll be in line.



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