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Mass Effect 2 Hands-On Preview

By Neilie Johnson, 12/17/2009

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[Editor's Note: Some gamers may consider this to be a spoiler-heavy preview. Everything covered here happens in the first 90 minutes or so of the game, and much of that was already exposed by Bioware's own promotional materials as well as our E3 2009 coverage.]

2009 is almost over and Canadian developer Bioware is ending the year on a high note. Without even stopping to enjoy the success of its latest hit, Dragon Age: Origins, the company's looking ahead to 2010 and the hotly-anticipated sequel to its triple-A sci-fi RPG, Mass Effect. The last two years have been tough to endure for Mass Effect fans wanting to know what happened to Commander Shepard and crew, but with Mass Effect 2 set to release January 26th, their questions are about to be answered.

This week the press was treated to some hands-on time with the second game in Bioware's epic sci-fi trilogy, and so far, it's looking good. Real good. The game takes place two years after the first Mass Effect and continues the story of the intrepid Commander Shepard. If you played the first Mass Effect, and have your original save files, the idea of “continuing story” is quite literal. Bioware's employed technology that allows ME2 to recognize the choices you made in the first game and apply the consequences of those choices to the sequel. Meaning, if Wrex bit it on the beach in ME1, he won't be coming back in ME2. ME2's story follows the galaxy's shifting political climate post-Saren and post-Geth. Things have changed a lot since the battle of the Citadel; loyalties have shifted in unexpected, sometimes unpleasant, ways. But wait—we're getting ahead of ourselves.

At game start, Shepard (you're prompted to quickly choose male or female) and the crew of the Normandy are heading out to hunt the remaining Geth. Suddenly, they're hit by an unknown attacker, and the ship is seriously damaged. Shepard orders the crew to the escape shuttles and then runs through the burning ship, trying to reach Joker, the Normandy's pilot. Before they can get to safety, the ship explodes and Shepard is thrown into space, presumably dead, and the screen fades to black. Weirdly enough, Shepard then wakes up groggily in a lab, a successful (if involuntary) participant in Cerberus's Lazarus Project. She's put under again by a couple of mysterious figures, and the character creation screen opens.

It's here you get to customize your character, with all the expected nose, eyes, mouth and hair options. I successfully recreated the red haired, Gillian Anderson-look-alike Shepard I used in the first game, this time with better, more realistic facial detail. I then re-selected her class (Sentinel) and her back story (Sole Survivor), giggling in anticipation of engaging in more bad behavior, Renegade-style. (Note: the same classes are back in ME2: Soldier, Infiltrator, Vanguard, Sentinel, Adept and Engineer, as are the same back stories: Sole Survivor, War Hero and Ruthless.) Once this was done, the game resumed and Shepard—I—woke up again in the lab and what luck—once again, the ship I was on was under attack.

Out of the blue, the voice of Miranda Lawson, head of the Lazarus project, came to me via remote, ordering me to get moving and find a weapon. Here's where the tutorial started, teaching me to move, pick things up, take cover, run, swap weapons and use one of the new heavy weapons--a grenade launcher. I headed for the control room, all the time being blasted by mechs gone wild (Hrm...imagine that video.) until I encountered Jacob Taylor, ex-Alliance marine and talented biotic. He agreed to take me to see the “Illusive Man”, someone who could answer all my questions. Here the tutorial explained the use of abilities (which were accessed through a radial menu seemingly not too different from the one in Mass Effect) and had me use one of Jacob's biotic abilities to lift the hapless mechs up so I could shoot them. After, we continued to fight our way through the ship, snatching up thermal clips for our new non-overheating weapons, and finally encountered head medical tech (and smarmy jerk) Wilson.

Being wounded (and a self-serving bastard) Wilson wasn't in the mood to look for survivors, least of all Miranda Lawson. I grabbed a packet of medi-gel and the tutorial reminded me of the "Unity" mechanic used to revive fallen players. Once Wilson was on his feet, the three of us moved on, shooting mechs and gathering information from laptops, datapads and safes. This was where ME2's puzzle mechanics came into play. Hacking required either the completion of a match-two “memory” game or the solving of a shape-recognition-style puzzle, both of which made for a nice, optional change of pace. We got to our destination, unexpectedly met up with Miranda, and took off in a shuttle to meet the mysterious Illusive Manvia hologram in his floaty, galactic office. He's voiced well by Martin Sheen, even if his voice didn't seem to match the character. From him I learned that colonies had been inexplicably vanishing, leaving Cerberus wanting answers. Me having a reputation as a badass, the Illusive Man revealed they'd resurrected me to find those answers and asked me to investigate a recently-vanished colony named Freedom's Progress.

After reluctantly agreeing to help this obviously shady guy, I was able to spend time with the leveling/ability interface and armor customization. The armor and weapons skills systems have changed significantly. No longer are there different armor weights; armor weight changes depending on your class. And any class can use any weapon, depending on training. This early in the game, there wasn't much to be done in that screen, or in armor customization. I declined the use of both the default helmets and after messing with the armor color and pattern options for a while (bubblegum pink armor, anyone?), I left my armor as-is. While I was at it, I also took the time to pick a “casual” costume, choosing from a range of outfits that wouldn't be out of place on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Once dress-up time was over, my team headed down to Freedom's Progress which was nothing but a snowy, desolate group of gray, concrete buildings. It was abandoned, but surprise! We ran into Tali, our old friend the Quarian machinist from the first Mass Effect. It was great to see her but she was accompanied by a seriously hostile group of Quarian soldiers who were looking for a possible informant said to be holed up somewhere in the colony. The soldiers grumblingly agreed to cooperate with me to find the guy, and we headed out to his last known location.

The minute we exited the bunker we were beset by flying mechs that chewed up the (turns out) double-crossing Quarians who'd gotten cocky and run ahead. My team continued moving toward our objective, taking down flying-turret-like mechs and near the end, faced a huge, heavily-amored mech who admittedly, ate my lunch the first try. Hey, at least I got to see the new health mechanic at work. (Health in ME2 regenerates, and when your health's getting dangerously low, the edges of the screen start to fill with red, tendrily stuff. That's when you want to find cover and wait for the tendril effect to go away.) Once we overcame that pesky 'bot, we found our informant hiding in a control room, babbling at a wall full of screens. ME2's dialog mechanics are largely the same as those of the first game, but one of its new features is the “interrupt” feature. This was used to great effect in the informant situation. The feature allows you to perform Renegade actions during conversations whenever an icon appears on screen, making conversations more dynamic. In this case, I was able to interrupt the babbling informant and bring him temporarily to his senses by shooting out one of his computer screens. Heh. Nothing like the direct approach, I always say.

The semi-lucid informant showed us a surveillance video of a creepy race of creatures called “Collectors” who had come to Freedom's Progress and appeared to be working with the Reapers to kidnap the colonists. With this disturbing new information, we returned to base to discuss things with the Illusive Man who decided this new threat must be addressed. And not by him, oh no! Naturally, it's good ol' reliable, back-from-the-dead Commander Shepard who has to risk life and limb. Not trusting Cerberus, but not having much choice, I agreed to work with the Man, on condition that I'd be allowed to get my old team back together. Unfortunately, none of my old cronies were available and so I was stuck with a list of "possible" recruits and told I'd have to hunt them down myself. This aggravating news was at least mildly mitigated by the return of Joker, my old pilot. Together we boarded the new Normandy, excitedly anticipating new battles and adventures, and--the demo ended. Gah!

So far, Mass Effect 2 bears a strong resemblance to the first Mass Effect, with a few key bits of streamlining. Dialog mechanics seem to be better but movement and combat (especially aiming) still feel a little clumsy and navigating the UI is still a weensy bit clunky. Jury's out on how the new armor and weapons systems will work; that can only be understood by playing the full game. In spite of these "ifs", the demo left me even more excited to play the full game. With improved graphics and combat, not to mention more weapon choices and dialog options, Mass Effect 2 is looking like the RPG to beat in 2010. It might have a lot to live up to, but let's face it—in terms of story, no other recent RPG (aside from Dragon Age: Origins) can touch it. Look for Mass Effect 2 on Xbox 360 and PC on January 26th, 2010.



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