Mass Effect 2 Preview

I may be drunk, krogan, but you’re ugly. And tomorrow I’ll be sober.

Mass Effect 2 listens. This may not be surprising – even if a company as dominant and awe-inspiring as EA, Ubisoft, or Activision says they don’t care or flat-out rejects the rants of fans and critics, somewhere deep inside, they all want to develop that one special game that is universally beloved, and most importantly, shuts everyone up. But Mass Effect 2 takes listening to another level, by altering the original Mass Effect to the point that its internal organs can be classified as cybernetically alien. Of course, in this case, that’s a good thing.

[image1]Chances are that if you’re reading this preview, you’ve completed Mass Effect and are wondering how this darker second part in the trilogy will handle the life or death decisions you made in the original. True to its word, the characters who survived through the first game will have a direct impact in Mass Effect 2, and anyone who died isn’t around any more. Most of your old crew, though, won’t be joining you anytime soon; two years have past and they have gone their separate ways. I won’t spoil much more than that.

Trust me, it’s hard when the first fifteen minutes alone has at least eight pivotal events, detailing the mysterious Lazarus Project and what the hell that has to with you. So let’s just say that Shepard must, befitting his name once more, gather together a team to take down a new threat against humanity by any means necessary.

Nothing aside from those decisions and your facial appearance and gender will carry over, not your experience, skill points, weapons, armor, or paragon/renegade alignment points. You can change your class, though, if you’d like – the six classes remain the same with differing proficiencies in armor, weapons, ammo types, and powers, with the exception of the engineer who can now create combat drones. Players without any import data from Mass Effect will have to create a new character with pretty much the same options for facial tweaking, class, and personal history as before. But if the demo we were given is any indication, you will probably have to play with some decisions in Mass Effect already made for you. So I suggest shooting your way through the original title first to shape the story to your liking.

Don’t get too comfortable with the shooting system from the first game, though, because Mass Effect 2 reconfigures everything to incorporate more traditional third-person shooter elements. Drawing inspiration from the likes of the Halo and Gears of War series, weapons now require ammunition and frequent reloading in addition to heat sink swaps for overheating. Characters also now have shields as their primary health gauge. Once their shields are depleted, their armor and bodily health will only protect them from one to three shots before they become ragdolls on the floor.

[image2]Thankfully, their health and shields regenerate after a while, which places emphasis on the improved cover system. Boxes and jutting walls provide their usual bullet-blocking purposes, catering to the more methodical approach than to a blistering action run-and-gun strategy. The cover system is a bit sticky at the moment, though, since taking cover and sprinting – yes, you can finally sprint outside of battle – use similar button combinations, but the system should still please players who want a shooter as much as an RPG.

Better yet, the general flow of combat and level progression has been kept intact. Most of the time, you’ll advance forward, find cover, shoot some enemies, use a few powers, open the occasional wall-safe or hack a computer system for credits, survey some minerals for resources, and then continue down the path to your goal. If any of your squadmates fall in battle, which hopefully won’t be often as their A.I. has been improved and their squad power usage can be toggled between aggressive or defensive, you can use the medi-gel’s new function with your Unity ability as a quick pick-me-up.

Instead of gaining experience for every trivial thing you do, you will earn experience after every mission (and I surmise after every side-quest as well), detailed by an end-of-chapter status report that summarizes all of the important plot points and decisions you made. Some fans of the original who have an addiction to experience points (remember, the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one) might be annoyed that bonus experience isn’t handed out like digital confetti. But this does streamline the action, so that you don’t have to stop halfway through a battle just to level up.

The radial interface for dialogue options and menus have thankfully been kept, though everything from the skills trees to the equipment screen have been greatly simplified. Skill lists and ranks no longer go on forever, focusing instead on about six skills, each with four tiers that cost more squad points as the skill tree progresses (1 point for Level 1, 2 points for Level 2, and so on). When you master a skill by reaching its final fourth level, you have a choice between different special enhancements for that skill like a lower recharge time or stronger effect bonuses. The only gripe I have so far with the new skills is that the now projectile-based Singularity can get stuck behind walls (are you reading this, BioWare?!).

[image3]Also, the Charm and Intimidate skill trees have been condensed into a class-specific tree, with any ranks awarding a substantial boost to both paragon and renegade alignments. Most of your morality points will be awarded through dialogue choices as usual, and now, you can interrupt conversations with a paragon or renegade action. So as a hypothetical example, if a shady Turian is talking bullshit, you might have the option to ram a gun into his face.

The first thing you’ll notice about the equipment screen is that there isn’t one. Not only won’t you be looting crates and wall safes for weapons, armor, and upgrades, but changing armor is also now done through a walk-by module. There, you can change into any armor pieces you’ve purchased from head to toe and even change the color and texture of your armor as well as the appearance of your casual clothing. (I strutted around in a jet black exoskeleton with a matching helmet and neon blue lights, so I guess I was just a walking gaming laptop, but I was expensive, damn it!) You can apparently upgrade and craft weapons and armor more extensively using credits and resources like iridium and plutonium, but no specifics have been revealed yet.

As far as credits are concerned, you will earn a small chunk of change at the end of the mission, but most of them will be earned through hacking and bypassing systems with two new mini-games, which are much better than pressing buttons in a specific sequence like before. Bypassing has you pair covered symbols together, whereas hacking has you find a given block of shrunken code in a scrolling library of text as fast as possible. The faster you complete them, the more credits you transfer to your account.

Even after a two-hour demo, much about Mass Effect 2 remains a mystery – the new vehicle that will replace the insufferable Mako, which of the characters are romance-able, the elevators, the level cap, whether there is a New Game+ option as in the original, the rumored upgrades for the omni-tool, and how planets will be scanned and explored for riches and side missions. But with extremely gorgeous hi-res textures, a revitalized combat system, and voice actor talent with the likes of Martin Sheen and Seth Green, Mass Effect 2 looks to be a two-disc odyssey through the galaxy that is well worth the trip. Look for Mass Effect 2 to launch in stores on January 26th.

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