Mass Effect 2 Hands-On Preview
Mass Effect 2 isn't just a sequel to the award-winning 2007 Role Playing Game (RPG) from the talented minds at BioWare, it's a continuation in every sense of the word. Recently Ten Ton Hammer had a chance to play Mass Effect 2 at BioWare's studio in Edmonton, Alberta, and learn about the game from three Mass Effect originals: Product Director Casey Hudson, Lead Designer Preston Watamaniuk, and Mass Effect writer Mac Walters.
Note: To see Mass Effect 2 in action, also check out our video Q&A with Casey Hudson, which includes over five minutes of in-game footage plus Casey's thoughts on a wide array of topics.
Persistence and Ties to Mass Effect 1
We began our demo at the beginning of the game. Well, almost. "There's some spoiler-y stuff right at the beginning, but we'll drop you in within minutes of the beginning so you can play through the tutorial and into the next level." Casey Hudson wasn't dropping any hints about what the introduction spoiler held for us, either. "Mass Effect 2 is really the only game where you can load your saved game from the end of the previous game and keep playing with all of your decisions intact and all of those things affecting the ongoing story threads. The fun of that is that is that we get to think about how all of those things can impact this story and all the interesting twists and turns. That also makes it pretty difficult for us to talk about what's going on in the story. "
That level of persistence is unknown in single-player RPGs, but BioWare has made its name off of taking story to a whole new level. And as in all great stories, not even the protagonist, is safe from death. Characters that died in your Mass Effect 1 experience aren't coming back, and Casey hinted that that's will only more true in looking ahead to Mass Effect 3. "People are going to die in the end, as the result of your decisions... it's unlikely that you'll get through the game with all your favorite players, and in some cases, if things go really bad, even your character - Commander Shephard - will die a permanent death. That's actually meaningful, because there's a post-game where you can finish the story and go back out with whoever survives and just keep playing. "
Mac Walters added, "Every death is due to a decision you made, but that decision might have been a while back. Some of those decisions are that you decided to do something, and five hours later, x dies, because you failed to prepare or you made a bad leadership call. The consequences are spelled out, it's not like we ambush you. In some cases, we were worried that we were being a little too heavy-handed, but I don't think so."
That level of grit and dynamism in the game's story means that every action and interaction - from love interests to favorite squad mates - may have sweeping implications, and because BioWare wanted some characters to survive for Mass Effect 3, some players aren't recruitable in ME2.
A few old friends will return to the series, but with ten character slots you'll meet some new recruits along the way too.
With that said, will players joining in without playing Mass Effect 1 miss out on some of the depth of the franchise? The answer seems to be yes, but not in ways new players will easily recognize. "If you haven't played Mass Effect 1, there are certain things that are canned for new players. There are certain moments that wouldn't be meaningful for them, so if we brought back a beloved character from Mass Effect 1 and your character remembers them, that wouldn't make sense for new players. So in those cases, those characters won't be there, there'll be something else in their place. But other things, as part of the introduction, through conversation and certain things you choose at character creation, that becomes your choice in how you set up the world."
Whatever choices you make, you shouldn't feel like you need to play the original game again to get a handle on what's going on in Mass Effect 2. " If you have played before, those same conversations will clue you in about what happened... We wanted to make sure we remind you of where things left off, because it does start right after Mass Effect 1. The beginning of the game is designed to dovetail everybody back into the fiction. "
The New Normandy, Captain's Cabin, and Customizability
Though the hands-on portion of the game didn't include a tour of the new Normandy, Casey demoed the ship's successor for us in a combined session. "Without explaining how it happens, there is a new Normandy. You get to walk around a new Normandy; it's very similar but we made a lot of improvements to it, mostly in usability, and it's just a much more alive place now." Joker is still at the helm, cracking comments like, "Yea, this is 98% of my job, watching buttons flash. Sometimes I press one."
Casey pointed out a number of new features on the ship culled directly from feedback to Mass Effect 1. "Part of the whole suicide mission concept is that you're building up your team and your crew, and you actually do upgrades to the Normandy as part of getting ready for the mission. It's all optional, but it really adds to the survivability in the final mission." Casey pointed out an elaborate hologram of the ship and noted that these upgrades will appear here. Another new addition is a "personal assistant" that will clue in your character to all the new interactions available before or after each mission.
Perhaps the biggest change from Mass Effect 1, at least on the Normandy, is the new, much more streamlined inventory system. "We wanted to make sure we didn't change any of the depth, but we tried to think of how items could make more sense in the context of the universe." Jacob, a character who doubles as a weapons expert, has an armor locker that allows you to set each of Mass Effect 2's ten characters' loadout prior to or during a mission. So while you can still only take 3 characters with you on missions, comparing and upgrading your crew's armor doesn't require having each member in your party. As Casey noted, with ten characters "it had to be a lot more streamlined, or else it would have become cumbersome."
Level-up decision making has become somewhat more streamlined.
While outfitting your characters has become somewhat simpler, the array of equipment to choose from will become much larger in Mass Effect 2. Instead of the one piece armor and helmet that players might recall from Mass Effect 1, armor will be subdivided into shoulder pieces, gauntlets, helmets, and body armor. Every piece includes its own bonus. Material type, colors, and patterns (like camouflage) are all customizable as well, meaning players will be able to have the custom look and bonuses they want as the game progresses. Certain missions allow for a casual set of clothing, from a bounty hunter look to a dress uniform, as well.
The glut of customizability options, to me, seemed like overkill for an offline single-player game. In fact, one of the most interesting things for me in Mass Effect 1 was seeing how the various armor sets looked on my characters. I understand the impetus to allow players to control their looks apart from stats - no one likes wearing an ugly piece of armor just for a scant margin of bonuses. But a more streamlined way of handling customizability without getting into a rut of fashionista decision making with every armor upgrade might have been to allow players to have an "appearance" set of armor along with a "stats" set of armor. This is an idea increasingly popular idea among MMOs like Lord of the Rings Online and EverQuest 2.
Back to the tour. The research station, manned by Mordin (the acquisition of whom was the centerpiece of our second hands-on session), allows players to upgrade items in a very straightforward manner. Research projects, including weapon and ship upgrades, can be found by hacking computers during missions, then gathering the appropriate resources (like iridium and other hard-to-find elements on the periodic table) for Mordin to work his magic. Additionally, it's worth picking up even characters you probably won't bring along on missions because each one comes with their own research project, some of which were said to be immensely powerful.
Mordin is one of the most useful recruitable characters, since he unlocks research upgrades.
Casey then took us to the captain's cabin, which will be your very own customizable apartment space in Mass Effect 2. Decorations that you loot and buy, music of your choosing, and even an aquarium you can stock with your own sea creatures (and feed) will all be part of your cabin. At your "private terminal", you'll be able to receive messages (which point players towards emergent subplots) and check on the status and loyalty of your crew members. As in Mass Effect 1, loyalty will be extremely important for the final missions. I was also particularly happy to see one captain's cabin extra that we rarely see in any games despite its importance in real life: a toilet that actually flushes.
Decorations and customizability may be fun, but Casey insists that none of it takes away from the core gameplay experience. Instead, the original game proved to be such a solid foundation that the team can also focus on certain aesthetics designed simply to draw players in. "With Mass Effect 1, we were crushed by the scope and size of just getting the core game done. Now that we have that, we're able to think of tons of just fun things to do."
Movement throughout the Normandy and places like Citadel also feels faster. The elevator scenes common in ME1 were used to share crewmate impressions of the events and circumstances surrounding you, yet these scenes sometimes felt drawn out. Casey noted that this wasn't something BioWare anticipated since the developers knew how far you were actually travelling, and this extra time was needed to stream in content for your new location. But in Mass Effect 2, players will instead see a schematics screen for the Normandy, for example, indicating travel progress and providing a sense of place and distance. If you're a storyline purist that likes the elevator banter, however, there's no need to fret - BioWare has a few elevator scene segues lined up for you.
Missions, Combat, and Gameplay
According to Casey, BioWare takes fan and media feedback very seriously. "We read every review, we looked at all the comments on all the open forums we could get to, from our stuff to YouTube. We literally made a spreadsheet where we took every positive comment and every negative comment and started throwing them into categories . In the end, we had about 40 things we wanted to do differently with Mass Effect 2. That became the initial blueprint for what we wanted to do."
One important change we found right off the bat was an autosave that the game performs right at the beginning of the mission, meaning that if you mess up too many hacks or burn through too much medi-gel, you'll easily be able to restart the mission with perhaps a different squad or loadout.
Lending to the game's prequel friendliness, the original classes are the same in Mass Effect 2. Soldiers can carry all weapons and can learn all of the weapon powers, the Adept controls the battlefield with biotic powers, and the Engineer makes use of the omni-tool and tech abilities. The remaining three classes are hybrids of the original three: Infiltrator (Soldier & Engineer), Sentinels (Engineer & Adept), and Vanguard (Soldier & Adept). Some classes have a twist, for example, the Adept can now do directional throws to, for example, toss enemies off a bridge. Soldiers have some new heavy weapons options, like the grenade launcher, that have limited charges but should help their squads get out of tight spots.
As with the original, your class choice matters little since you'll always have the opportunity to form a squad that complements your abilities. You can control their decisions and actions individually at any point, or sacrifice group tactics and rely on the game's more than adequate AI.
Mass Effect 2's six classes, like the Adept (left), Engineer (middle), and Sentinel, return from the original, but with a few tweaks to their powers.
Even though each class is accounted for, the character level up screen evidenced a much more streamlined progression path. Gone were the weapon specialization buy-ins in favor of more tactics-based abilities, including old favorites like the enemy-dangling Singularity. But why are weapon specs no longer part of the equation? In Mass Effect one, pulling the trigger with an enemy in your reticule was essentially a dice throw. Your weapon skill, stats, and other considerations were measured against your enemy's, and the result was either a hit, with a variable degree of damage, or a miss. In Mass Effect 2, your digital marksmanship is much more of a factor and skill, not random numbers within a discrete range, separate your headshots from your head slappers.
The power wheel is still in full effect for pausing combat and plotting strategy, and X360 controller users will especially like the new interface, whereby you can set locations for your squad mates by aiming with your reticule and hitting left trigger for one squadmate and right trigger for the other. They'll move, fire, and take cover at the locations you specify. Players will also be able to map squadmate powers to the d-pad, meaning you can have a squadmate warp or throw an enemy in your reticule in real time. All in all, these changes meant less pausing and more fighting in real time, which suited the game's more shooter-esque feel perfectly.
Having played Mass Effect 2 and the original on both PC and Xbox, the "precise aiming" change made with Mass Effect 2 made a big difference, especially on PC where the mouse and keyboard, to me, are still the only way to play a shooter. For console players, your mileage may vary, and had I tooled around with sensitivity settings and been able to scoot back to a living-room sized distance from the 42" TV I was playing on, the playability might have approached what I enjoyed on the PC. As it was, playing on the X360 controller made me feel like I was kung fu fighting inside a telephone booth - all elbows. Fortunately, my controller-inept bacon was saved by the fact that combat difficulty could be adjusted to one of six levels (from casual to insanity) in mid-fight, a nice feature that seems to have become a BioWare standard.
Other important changes include the end of the heat buildup mechanic and a return to ammo, or rather "thermal clips" which store and eject heat. All weapons of roughly the same type utilize the same thermal clips, meaning prudent players shouldn't have to do the usual FPS weapon shuffle to rebuild ammo inventories for their preferred weapons. Location based damage (headshots, dismembered limbs) are now in the game, and one of the more enjoyable aspects of combat, for me, was disarming droids (literally dis-arming) and watching them try to continue to attack before finishing them off.
Weapons, especially the sniper rifle, are much more balanced than in ME1. "Players would use [the sniper rifle] and not even think about it," noted Mass Effect writer Mac Walters. "Now we can actually make it more powerful, because there's a limit on it." Unfortunately I didn't come across a sniper rifle in the playable demo to check this out firsthand.
Two new minigames will challenge players trying to hack their way into various systems in the gameworld, and they both took a little getting used to. Both were matching games, the first being a hidden pair matching game with a pesky timer, and the second required matching three key portions of "code segments" to three scrolling columns of code that occasionally had red code that would cause players to fail. Also, choosing incorrectly three times also resulted in a fail. .
RPG Roots and Storyline
Despite its new shooter bent, don't be quick to conclude that Mass Effect 2 is moving away from its RPG roots. Casey addressed this fear: "One of the questions people have is that if the combat is so much better is it now more a shooter and less an RPG. I think you'll find that the balance is the same. You'll have a really good, interactive, cinematic story that you take wherever you want, but you have lots of exploration, a lot of character progression you develop in your skills."
The Codex, an extensive library of lore, will make its return to Mass Effect 2.
While a few hours playing part of the tutorial and Bactrian plague mission hardly got me into the meat of the story, the performance elements of the game - voiceovers, emotive NPCs, and facial expressions right down to eye movements and wandering glances as a character speaks - are much improved even as the conversations became more to-the-point. The Mass Effect moral spectrum is as present as ever (cold, hardened pragmatism earns you Renegade points, while going out of your way to act with empathy pushes you toward Paragon). But there are plenty of gray shades between those extremes, characterized by at least one WTF moment during the tutorial.
"It's not just information," commented Lead Designer Preston Watamaniuk, "it's scenes. We think of each conversation as a scene, and work closely with the cinematic designers." Mac Walters noted that references to the Mass Effect novels and upcoming White Wolf comics abound in Mass Effect 2, and that the Blue Suns (from the comics) is actually one of the main enemy groups that you'll fight in the game.
While no arch-nemesis figure like Saren emerged during the demo, the storytelling seemed more grim than what we experienced with the dashing Commander Shephard during the first part of Mass Effect 1. The Reaper threat is now well-known, lots of people have died, and the body count appears to be on the rise. During the tutorial, we wake up in Cerberus's hands (Cerberus being a pro-human paramilitary group who did some pretty heinous things in ME1). Cerberus apparently sustained Commander Shephard's life at great expense after some sort of incident, but as the facility is now under attack by its own security bots, it seems clear that someone wants to terminate the project. Fleeing the facility with longtime friend Jacob (now a Cerberus operative) and the no-nonsense Miranda (the Cerberus officer who put my character back together) we flew off at Miranda's insistence to meet the mysterious leader of Cerberus.
That was the first hands-on session. For the second, we were to locate Mordin and convince him to join us. Upon entering the Bactrian plague mission, piles of burning corpses were everywhere and one sick Bactrian minces no words in blaming humans like your character (who are suspiciously immune). Around the Omega settlement were disturbing signs that humans had become the scapegoat, and as you advance toward Mordin's clinic, gain the cure, and then attempt to disburse it through the ventilation system, you'll face scores of hard-hitting gang bangers vying for control in the wake of the plague. Enemies take firing positions, utilize cover, and use heavy weapons, meaning ME2 is still not a run-and-gun style game. I needed to position my squadmates and have them use their wide array of powers in order to get past the climactic ventilation repair scene.
Hopes and Fears
Mass Effect 2 will also bring more customization options and equipment piece slots for your character.
Mass Effect 2 is clearly the most ambitious sequel ever produced, part of perhaps the most ambitious RPG series ever created. I wish I could have seen what sort of tools the story team uses to keep the hundreds or thousands of decisions a player makes (and their consequences) straight - I picture a Vonnegut-esque roll of wallpaper with more branching lines than the average state forest. This holds either tremendous promise for what could be the most personalized RPG experience the world has ever seen, or a train wreck of divergent choices resulting in forced outcomes in the making, as BioWare tries to hold the center through three sweeping installments of a continuous game.
Given BioWare's reputation, Mass Effect seems more likely to be the former - a gaming legend unfolding before our eyes. My chief fear is really that mainstream gamers might not be ready for the game's core premise and most brilliant feature- that the decisions you make not just earlier in the game, but earlier in the prequel, can matter. Since players might have extremely divergent experiences with the game depending on the decisions they make, the Mass Effect series won't engender the same sort of word-of-mouth that games-on-a-rail - the Halo, Gears of War, and Call of Duty franchises - do. Players might feel they have to play Mass Effect 1 to get the full experience and get bogged down with the outmoded pause-riven combat gameplay.
That said, treated alone, the graphics, gameplay, dialogue, and sound are all the kind of top-notch quality we expect from Bioware. The combat changes were appreciated, especially as a PC player, and the story, ever the bane of sequels, seems to have the potential to rise to Mass Effect 1's sheer intensity. Everyone at the even agreed, however, that we would have liked to see more of the game than the roughly hour-long segment of gameplay we were treated to, especially since ME2 is slated to release barely a month from now on January 26th, 2010. On the plus side, we won't have long to wait.