Mass Effect 2 was originally shown off at E3 2009, and although it was only a hands-off demonstration, it was enough for us to award the game the E3 2009 Best Role-Playing Game award. So when we got a chance to go hands-on with the game for the first time at GamesCom today, we could hardly contain our excitement. The session gave us a chance to try out the new combat mechanics, which developer BioWare claims is its biggest improvement, as well as ask some more questions of producer Jesse Houston.
"One of the biggest improvements we've made to the game is the combat," said Houston before we sat down to play the game. "We're not trying to make this an action game--it's still an RPG. But the combat is much better than before." While the combat wasn't too bad in the original game, it's certainly more refined in Mass Effect 2. Running and taking cover with the A button will be familiar to Gears of War fans, while swapping weapons by holding the left bumper and moving the left stick is very intuitive. You can still order your squad members to attack by using the D pad, but everything feels more responsive than before, and the allied AI is smarter. The heat-seeking missiles also help, as they curve around objects and other cover to take out their targets.
The dialogue system has also been improved, although we didn't get to see this particular feature in our action-packed demo. "A lot of players repeatedly hit the button to get through the dialogue in the original game," says Houston. "[In Mass Effect 2] we want to give players the option of flying through." He then explained how you'll be able to pull the triggers to throw someone through a window if you're done with them. You'll also have to make split-second decisions that will have a real impact on the rest of the game, but we'll have to play more of the game to find examples of these sorts of events.
Split-second decisions and throwing people through a window feed into the overall darker feeling of Mass Effect 2, and BioWare is keen to emphasise that is the Empire Strikes Back of the Mass Effect trilogy. There's an impending sense of doom that Houston says will be revealed from the off, and by the end of the game, you'll be leading your team into a suicide mission. How the ending plays out will hinge on the relationships you've forged through the rest of the game, according to Houston, so it's probably not a great idea to screw too many people over.
We're also impressed with how dedicated BioWare is in its original vision for Mass Effect as a trilogy. If you somehow missed the original game, then you might want to pick it up now, because Houston says there will be little in the way of story recap at the beginning of the sequel. You'll also have the added benefit of being able to bring your saved game and character into the sequel, with the actions you made in the first game having an impact on what happens in the second.
Mass Effect 2 is looking absolutely stunning in terms of visuals, and BioWare claims to have improved the motion capture, added more polygons to the characters, and overhauled the lighting system. The results are spectacular. That said, we couldn't leave without quizzing Houston about one particularly sticky issue: Will the long lift sequences be making a return in Mass Effect 2? "Absolutely not," he says, claiming that the team has become much more efficient at streaming data from the disc as you're playing.
While our play on Mass Effect 2 was all-too short, it certainly whetted our appetite for the full game, which is set to launch in Q1 2010. According to BioWare, the Xbox 360 and PC versions of the game will launch within days of each other, and the developer claims to have learned lots from its development of the PC version of the first game. We hope to bring you more on Mass Effect 2 in the very near future, so stay tuned to GameSpot.com for more as we get it.