Mass Effect 2 – hands-on

Improved combat takes this RPG even more into shooter territory

Nobody can accuse BioWare of being lazy. They’ve just knocked out a 100 or so hours worth of dragon-slaying in Dragon Age: Origins, are working on a huge Star Wars MMO, and this month sees the release of the second chapter of the Mass Effect trilogy. It’s the latter that we’re here to talk about and we’re joined by co-founder of BioWare, Dr Ray Muzyka, who’s a big deal, even in a state of jet-lagged autopilot.

As he explains for the umpteenth time, “It’s the dark second act of the Mass Effect trilogy, and you play the role of Commander Shepard. He’s a hero or anti-hero depending how you want to play him, but he’s charged with solving the mystery of human colonies being abducted by an unknown menace that threatens all life forms in the galaxy.

“It’s even more ominous than the threat you faced in the original Mass Effect, so to overcome the challenge you have to build a squad of some of the most badass operatives from across the galaxy.” The specifics of those bad-arsed operatives have been drip-fed to the press, beginning with a deadly assassin called Thane, a violent and unpredictable Krogan by the name of Grunt, and some bald woman with a load of tattoos, otherwise known as Subject Zero. She’s a rebellious sort who claims to have “been around, ran with gangs, wiped out some gangs.” Like we’re dead scared...

BioWare games have always involved moral decisions and their consequences. Intriguingly, the decisions you made in the original Mass Effect will have some bearing on the sequel. As the good doctor explains, “If you import your save games from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2 you’ll have a different experience. Decisions you made will have an impact in how the story unfolds. In fact, the choices you make in Mass Effect 2 will have an effect on the outcome of the trilogy. We’ve always planned for that story arc.”

Don’t worry if you didn’t play the first game though, as ME2 is “a start-to-finish new experience. You don’t have to have played Mass Effect, you start afresh, there’s a tutorial, we make certain assumptions about what choices you made in the original game and bring you up to speed to give you the context of who you are.” Save games or otherwise, who you are is Commander Shepard, who in our brief hands-on demo is wandering into a nightclub and taking a long hard look at the exotic dancers, reassuringly affirming the series’ adult-oriented status.

Following a chat with a barman we wander down a few corridors and find ourselves involved in a shoot-out. Utilising the game’s location-based damage, we gleefully take someone’s leg off. It all seems fairly tight, and as Muzyka says, “It’s really as much as shooter as it’s an RPG. We’ve listened to the feedback from the fans and press on the first Mass Effect about the action elements, the emotional intensity of the characterisation, and exploration, the uncharted worlds. The shooter intensity is really high, the controls, the framerate, the textures load really smoothly. I think the shooter experience is going to feel as tight as the best shooters.”

This shouldn’t scare off the RPG purists though. “I think it’ll broaden the audience,” says Muzyka. “But the RPG fans are going to love it to because you’ve still got a lot of the things that they love about BioWare games and Mass Effect 1 in terms of choices, emotional intensity, characters, the narrative and story flow and the progression, customisation, exploration. But the game’s new shooter elements will enable us to reach a new audience that maybe haven’t played RPGs before.”

As for that all-important narrative, Muzyka says, “We use characters and companions as a mirror of your choices and a lens through which you see the world.” Throw in an art style that doffs its cap to ’80s sci-fi movies, and Mass Effect 2 is shaping up to be one of the key releases of the year. As Muzyka says, “It’s a galaxy on a disc.”

Jan 13, 2009