BioWare may be venturing into the MMO space shortly with Star Wars: The Old Republic, but thankfully, they haven't given up on single-player RPGs just yet with both Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2 in the works for console and PC, helping to remind us that the name that brought us Baldurs Gate and Star Wars: Knights of the old Republic is still representing.
I'll readily admit that Mass Effect 2 was my most anticipated game to check out going into this year's show, and I'm extremely happy to report that it's now just my plain most anticipated game. It was being shown in a controlled demonstration off the show floor, helmed by Project Director Casey Hudson and sheltered from the chaotic bustle of EA's packed out booth. Needless to say, the 20 minute presentation that AusGamers was privy to was extremely impressive.
Gameplay kicked off with a dialogue scene in a flying car, speeding along with stunning visuals, the kind that would be pre-rendered cut-scenes in many a game, but this is all real-time. The conversation and its consequences are steered by the familiar set of shortened cue sentences on a dialogue wheel, all as a space-age city rushes by on your way to a mission destination. Oddly they haven't released any screenshots of character close-ups - which, due to the cinematic camera angles and pans, you see a lot of during conversation sections - so you'll just have to take my word that they look even better than the images you can see here.
For the newcomers, Mass Effect 2 is the sequel (and the second part in a planned trilogy) to the 2007 hit sci-fi role playing game that put you in the shoes of a motley crew of humans and aliens led by one Commander Shepard. The game was highly regarded for it's epic storyline, gorgeous graphics and ground-breaking dialogue system. It plays like a cinematic Choose Your Own Adventure
book and is no slouch on action-packed gameplay, either. For more on that one, check out AusGamers in-depth review
So what else is new for number 2? Well the big one - and just trust me, this is not a spoiler - Shepard dies in the end. Don't worry too much though because depending on how you play, you could also get an ending where he (or she, should you create a female character) lives on to fight another game. BioWare offered this consequence of choice as an explanation for the teaser trailer
that ended with [Shepard's] "status: Killed in Action".
Also interesting is that Mass Effect 2 allows you to use your existing saved games from the first Mass Effect to continue on where you left off, with the impacts of your choices in the previous adventure living on (or staying dead, as the case may be) in the new chapter. This presumably means that if Shepard ends up toast, he'll be absent from your party when the third game rolls around and one of the other members will step into the primary role.
When quizzed they confirmed that character levels won't be transferred over, which is a little disappointing, as given the way that they dynamically scale opponent difficulty it didn't seem out of the question. There's not much indication on what other character variables will make the transfer from game to game yet either.
The storyline element and engaging dialogue is still key and has actually been improved upon in that there are now scenes where not only does background action continue on while you're chatting, but you can now physically interrupt dialogue at key points. In the example we were shown, an interrogation style swapping of words ended abruptly when a left-trigger icon appeared, giving the player the choice to push the opponent out of the high-rise window behind him.
There have also been some modifications to gameplay elements, specifically to combat and the weapons system. Whereas in the first game, you had to pause the game in order to access biotic abilities and special attacks, these can now be mapped to elected buttons and activated on-the-fly - the pause option is still there of course, just no longer compulsory and you can conceivably play through the entire game without ever having to halt gameplay. The game's level progression system is now more focused on abilities you gain and as a result, weapons are more accurate from the start - you just won't be hitting as hard until you gain the damage modifiers that come with levelling up. These also serve as a replacement to the different ammo types.
As for equipment, BioWare tells us there're now nine weapon classes all told with pistols, shot guns, sniper rifles etc, as well as a new heavy weapons class which includes a missile launcher.
This preview is glowing because what we saw was amazing but there's admittedly still much left that we can only take their word on. One of our few gripes with the original was that level design while generally good-to-great around the main quest areas, became sparse and mundane when you ventured into side-quests. Hudson made mention that this has been addressed with unique environments and points of interest having been scattered around the cosmos. Further, although he didn't go into detail Hudson assured that they have "added interactivity to every step of space exploration" which promises to make that experience "richer and more fun".
Of course everything hinges on the story and character development which given such lofty expectations might not live up to the original's, but given BioWare's track record it's difficult to be pessimistic so for now, I can only affirm that everything we saw in this preview points to another great adventure. Oh, and for those wondering, that sweet synth sci-fi music is back in full effect!