Posted Thu, Dec 17, 2009 by Ethec
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.
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."