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