The original Mass Effect proved that not every new installment in a three-part trilogy needs to conclude with an unsatisfying cliffhanger ending. With Commander Shepard and his crew having taken care of Saren and the Geth, players were able to wrap up that first chapter in a way that left them feeling as though their actions had already left a lasting mark on the galaxy. But at the same time, the galaxy in Mass Effect was a big one, and it was still easy to walk away from the game with the sense that you had only begun to scratch the surface of the world (or worlds) around you. Mass Effect 2, due out in January, will do its part to flesh out the universe and denizens that made the original story so compelling.
Our previous looks at Mass Effect 2 have included a run through the "seedy den of scum and villainy" known as Omega, as well as an introduction to the improved combat system. In our latest hands-on with Mass Effect 2, we were introduced to a new character that appears ready to add some depth to one of the galaxy's most important races. If you look back to the original game and conjure up an image of the Asari race--those mysterious blue-skinned humanoids--it's likely you'll either think of them as pure-hearted scientists (your squadmate Lisari) or biotic-wielding villains (Matriarch Benezia). In Mass Effect 2, one of the new party members is an Asari named Samara. She's essentially a lawless vigilante who operates under a strict code outside of government rule--what the game calls a justicar--and she's someone whose motivations are far more mysterious than others of her ilk.
The demo we played focused on Commander Shepard's quest to recruit Samara into his squad. As someone with a reputation for ruthless efficiency when it comes to bringing down the scum of the universe, her skills are just what Shepard needs for the task force he's assembling. Things began with Shepard arriving on the Asari homeworld of Illium, a dark planet whose sleek-but-cold look made it clear that the race inhabiting this world was among the most technologically advanced in the galaxy. Shepard began by chatting up a merchant named Pitne For, who was one of the chubby little Volus aliens that you might remember from the original game.
When asked where to find Samara, Pitne For played dumb, so Shepard quickly left this fellow in the dust and sought the assistance of a nearby Asari police detective. She referred Shepard to a nearby crime scene where Samara might be found--what with her penchant for vigilante justice and all. Shepard rolls up on the scene and finds Samara violently interrogating a member of a notorious mercenary group whose clan had just whisked off the would-be criminal on one of its ships. Things go sour and Samara winds up killing the merc, only to be apprehended by the local police.
Being the gifted conversationalist that he is, Shepard steps in to offer some assistance to the mysterious Asari he's looking to recruit. Just as in Mass Effect, conversations and dialogue play a huge role in the sequel. Facial animations during these moments seem a good deal more lifelike, while the camera angles appear to be more dynamic. The other thing we noticed here--as with the rest of the conversations in this demo--was that the lighting seemed a lot gloomier, which gave the game's conversations a much darker feel. (There's also an interesting new dialogue mechanic we'll get to in a moment.)
After offering Samara some assistance in handling her newly handcuffed situation, she told us to find out more info on the mercenary force and the aforementioned ship it used to steal away the person she was trying to find. We could have set off on our own right then, but we asked for some leads. Samara told us about a short little merchant with access to the mercenary base--a fellow named Pitne For.
Needless to say, we approached old Pitne quite angrily after finding out that he'd lied about knowing Samara. We began a heated conversation with Pitne, and after a few attempts at getting him to help us out, we were shown a quick icon on the screen during one of Pitne's evasive responses. These represent the new conversation interruption mechanic in Mass Effect 2. BioWare wants players to feel more invested in these conversations, to go beyond choosing the subject of discussion. With this interruption system, you can cut someone off midspeech and change the entire mood of the conversation. In our case, we abruptly pulled a gun on Pitne that shocked the poor little merchant into giving us a key card to the merc base. Had we missed this interruption cue (a sort of quick-time event button prompt), the conversation would have become drawn out, with Pitne weaving around our questions just as he had done before. But because Shepard was angry and unwilling to put up with all of that, the game offered us the ability to get right to the point. And we'll admit, doing that made us feel pretty damn tough.
From here, our demo shifted from dialogue-heavy plot exposition to a more action-oriented focus. These mercenaries weren't terribly happy to see us infiltrating their base, so we had to deal with them the violent way. One of the biggest changes to combat in Mass Effect 2 is the introduction of heavy-grade weapons, such as the grenade launcher--a gun with which we immediately fell in love. Using this thing to blast through groups of enemy vanguards was quite thrilling, but with its limited amount of ammo, we still had to be smart about when we used it.
Other changes to combat include the ability to swap out ammunition types from the midfight radial menu, a more responsive cover system, and added effectiveness to headshots. We were quite pleased with these changes, but there was one that struck us as a bit odd: the way you deal with an overheated gun. No longer does your gun overheat from being fired for too long without a rest. Instead, it will overheat after a set number of rounds are fired, at which point you need to pop in a cooling rod (which works on all nonheavy gun types) to lower the gun's temperature. It's a neat idea, but functionally speaking, it seemed just the same as the standard ammo-reloading system seen in most shooters out there. While there's nothing wrong with that on its own, it's a weird technological downgrade to go from infinite ammo in Mass Effect to what's essentially limited ammo in the sequel.
Small issues aside, we were very pleased with the improvements made to the combat system. The radial menu ammo switching made it worlds easier to adjust to different enemy types on the fly, while the improved hit detection made picking off enemies from afar quite thrilling. A number of these improvements coalesced at the end when we got to take on a boss using a combination of the grenade launcher and the more responsive cover system. That boss? A very angry gunship firing rockets at us. We're not sure how we did it, but we must have got lucky because our quick flurry of grenades managed to land right in the cockpit to take that thing down pretty quickly. All told, it was a pretty startling and fun boss.
In a lot of ways, Mass Effect 2 looks like the game everyone wanted from the original. Its glaring bugs appear to have been taken care of, with texture pop-in mostly out of the picture and an inventory system that's said to have been greatly improved (here's hoping for a "mark as junk" feature like in Dragon Age). But more than that, it's a game that's going to offer a deeper look at the galactic conflicts and lingering tensions that made the original so interesting. A much darker game, Mass Effect 2 looks like it will carve out its own unique place in the series so far. We'll see how it all comes together when the game is released on January 26.