Most previews tell you about the game as a whole, with limited information so nothing’s spoiled. They describe gameplay mechanics, graphics, characters, essentially everything you see in a demo or trailer, but in greater detail. It’s a look at what game developers and publishers want the consumer to see, not necessarily what ends up being sold on the market.
This isn’t going to be a typical preview. I had the opportunity to play the first hour of Mass Effect 2, to which I’ll describe utterly and entirely. In doing so, I will spoil that entire hour, give my thoughts on everything, from gameplay to storyline and dialog to weapons. If you don’t want Mass Effect 2 spoiled for you, don’t bother reading this article. If, however, you want to know more about 2010’s first blockbuster RPG, read on at your own discretion.
Mass Effect 2 begins on the Normandy, the player and Commander Shepard’s ship, where Shepard is looking for clues on the Reapers, the main enemy in Mass Effect, and a sentient robotic lifeform which has been literally reaping biological organisms throughout the galaxy. Yet before you even need to use the controller, the Normandy is attacked by some powerful alien vessel. The crew escapes, Shepard stays to save Joker’s life (can’t let Seth Green die, now can we), and ultimately ends up screwed. His space-suit is cracked, he has no ship, and he’s hurtling towards the nearest planet.
What’s immediately clear is that Shepard dies within the first five minutes. From what (either lack of air, the cold of space or burning on his descent planetward) we don’t know, but later on in a conversation with Mass Effect: Galaxy’s Jacob Taylor, it’s revealed that Shepard was found on the planet as nothing but pieces of burnt flesh, scattered over a large area.
Waking up on an observation table, Shepard is told to put on some armor and grab a nearby pistol, which is intended to be a sort of tutorial/opening action sequence to play through. The first thing I noticed was that the pistol has limited ammo. No more shooting up until the heat is on, I need to conserve ammo and shoot smart. In the next room are a few robots, and I easily wipe them out, shooting off arms, lets, and even their heads as if they were toys. Mind you, robots are not the only enemies whose limbs can be shot off.
The story stalls briefly as a woman’s voice guides you to understand the basics, meant to be an in-game tutorial that likewise makes sense with the plot. It feels a little cheap and inneffective, but having played Mass Effect for easily over 100 hours, I’m clearly biased here. I spent more time adjusting to the slightly different controls than actually paying attention to simple instructions, like how to open doors.
Once I took control of Shepard, the true adjustments to the graphics set in. Previous trailers and screenshots that had Shepard’s face look damaged are indeed true, from his rebuilding. Scars, facial movements, flickering eyes and many other simulated effects are done well, and all of them subtle. While Mass Effect may have felt a little behind graphically, Mass Effect 2 fits right at home with today’s games.
The British-sounding woman gets cut off and we run into Taylor, and have the previously mentioned discussion after a quick tutorial on Biotic powers. For this preview, our Shepard was a Sentinel, meaning a mixture between biotic and soldier. The trailers showed how biotic powers have been significantly improved, and having played with them just a little, the improvements are clear. They feel like power, and make guns feel secondary. As they should.
I learn that Taylor works for Cerberus, the secret organization of human loyalists, and that it’s been two years since the Normandy was destroyed. We’re on a secret base, and some unknown force has attacked in order to kill Shepard, while Cerberus has invested billions into literally rebuilding the Spectre back into his human self. A few minutes later, we find another crew member who joins us.
At this point, the ammo limitation really starts to kick into high gear. While I didn’t play on a hard difficulty setting, I was constantly watching my ammo reserve. The entire first sequence I was in single digits, and while I understand the need for ammo, one of the fundamental parts of Mass Effect was the lack of it, the fact that it wasn’t something players needed to worry about. I was worrying about it, and that became bothersome.
Somewhere in between travelling from the infirmary to the shuttle bay to escape, I played two mini-games to gather information. These mini-games are in place of the button pressing sequences in Mass Effect. Both were matching games, though one was to match identical icons together while another was to match small, unreadable texts together. This is a very brief description of the mini-games, but both are more enjoyable than simple button mashing.
Upon reaching the shuttle bay, it becomes clear that the attack on this installation was an inside job, and the crewmember we picked up was the man. The first moral choice came up, whether to shoot him myself or to let Miranda Lawson, the voice over the intercom who was in charge of rebuilding Shepard, do it herself. Either choice will show on-screen after a decision is made as a +score morale, where the score is a number and morale is essentially good or bad. The paragon and renegade system has been updated so it’s not so simple, but I didn’t have time to delve too deeply into how the new system operates.
After leaving, a stat table literally pops up and exclaims that the level is over. It details where all the gained points go, and what you have to spend for new abilities. Shepard is subsequently taken to another base, where I got a chance to play around with the new inventory system. Inventory can’t just be changed at any time now, though it of course can be collected and used at any time. Changing the paint job on your armor, shifting through weapons and ammo types, all takes place at a special base site. To what extent this can be done off-site remains unclear.
Done fooling around, I went to go speak with the Illusive Man, voiced by Martin Sheen. He explains why so much was put into rebuilding Shepard: his status in the galaxy, his expertise, and his dedication to ensure the safety of humanity, to stop the Reapers. In the last two years, little has been made public about the attack on the Citadel, and the Council has not pushed forward to prepare the galaxy for a possible invasion, counterattack, or anything.
So the Illusive Man gives Shepard a choice: go back to being a normal Spectre, guarding the galaxy from criminal activity and serving the Council, or to investigate the Reapers and find a way to beat them. The only thing asked of Shepard is to do one mission, to see what the Reapers do for himself.
I start the next mission which takes Shepard, Lawson and Taylor down to a barren, snowy planet. A city complex is dead quiet, until defense robots attack my team. They prove easy to kill, this time with a full weapon load, including assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, and even a grenade launcher.
A pair of robot dogs pops out of nowhere and nearly ravages my team, but the biotic powers prove to be supremely effective, both at close and long range. The cover system is much more smooth than in Mass Effect, and it can be used effectively for tactical maneuvers. Squad commands, while still limited, are more accurate. Single characters can be moved at a time, so no more teams bunching up behind cover only large enough for one.
During the mission to discover what’s wrong and where all the inhabitants are, Shepard runs into Tali, the Quarian Engineer from the past game, along with several other Quarians. They are looking for a Quarian on the planet who sent a distress signal, so the two teams work together (against the other Quarian’s demands), in order to save him and gather any intel. Within minutes, Tali’s rag-tag team of Quarians is decimated by a giant mech, the first boss battle of Mass Effect 2. My team trudges in, and I die in my first encounter because of poor movement. The game loads just before the battle begins, and this time we utterly destroy the mech with superior firepower. Shepard finds the sole survivor on the planet, the Quarian who sent the distress signal, speaking to himself, watching hundreds of camera feeds.
It becomes clear that he’s gone insane, but also that he saw the people living on the planet willingy be taken. It’s surmised that an unusual and small species of aliens is responsible for the “attack”, for reasons unknown, and that they may be another tool of the Reapers.
At this point, I ran out of time. I found three main things about the game that are crucial for all players. First, no weapons have infinite ammo anymore, but enemies also have weak spots and no longer simply keep fighting until their health completely dissipates. I don’t believe that excuses it, but it’s a start.
Second, everything looks cleaner, simpler, and crisper. Dialog, from what I’ve played thus far in this 60 minute demo and on previous occasions, is to the point but also genuine. The graphics are realistic enough to enjoy and believe. The sounds take a darker tone which matches the new look of the game.
Third, the story feels right. I didn’t want to stop, and the controller literally had to be taken from me. I didn’t necessarily like all of the changes, but overall I didn’t want to put the game down. I am equally pleased and upset that I spent so much time going through different dialog trees in this demo, because I got to see how it is firsthand, but I also missed out on what comes next.
Mass Effect 2, based on my several playtests, feels like an absolute must have. It’s on my Christmas wish-list, and it should be on your must-have for January 2010 list. Mass Effect 2 is set for release January 20, 2010. And yes, it’s understood that Tali will be a returning character who will be part of Shepard’s team.