The Making of Mass Effect 2

“The mining?” asks BioWare dev Christina Norman, “everyone hates the mining.” Yep, the mining was Mass Effect 2’s one mistake, and even then it was a small one, made worse by the sheer bloody amount of probing you had to do just to become competitive. In every other way Mass Effect 2 was an improvement on its predecessor, but it took a series of gutsy decisions to take it in its brand new direction.

Above: BioWare's office

“In Mass Effect 1 we had a successful game,” Norman – ME2’s Lead Gameplay Designer – explained to us. “What do you generally expect in a sequel to a successful game? Usually, you’d expect polish and building on a lot of the features that were already there, but we did something radical with Mass Effect 2.” Where Mass Effect was what Norman calls an ‘action RPG’, ME2 is an all-out shooter RPG and has left a handful of forumites complaining that BioWare had stripped the RPG out of Mass Effect altogether. “We had thread titles like ‘Mass Effect 2 is not an RPG’ and ‘BioWare ruined Mass Effect’ on our forums. It was a small percentage but we noticed,” says Norman. “But we forgot labels and made a great game. Forget about shooter and RPG balance. Let’s just make a great game.”

The changes started with the combat system. Norman’s team turned the RPG systems off completely and spent 81 calendar days tuning how combat would work in Mass Effect 2 using the original Mass Effect as a foundation. In the first outing, careful aiming was largely irrelevant – if your crosshair was over a character the game would do some RPG math and work out if you had scored a hit or not. For the sequel, combat was overhauled with some specific goals in mind – it had to be playable in real time without any need to pause, cover had to matter, and weapons had to be useful from the moment you picked them up without ever needing to level up.

Norman explains, “We decided to build shooter combat first – not in priority, but in order – it needed a lot of improvement and BioWare aren’t experts on shooter combat. By focusing on it first we figured we’d remove a lot of uncertainty about other features. We wanted more satisfying combat and a big part of that is making weapons more accurate and powerful at level one – basically saying ‘let’s take the RPG out of the shooter.’ We look like a shooter so that aspect of our combat should play like a shooter.”

“I wouldn’t say that ME2’s combat system is radically different,” says Project Director Casey Hudson. “It’s still a third-person shooter with the ability to give orders to two squad mates. What’s really different is the overall feel and quality of combat, but that results from a series of small changes versus a wholesale, radical redesign and the result is something that plays so much better that it actually does feel like a radical change.

“One of the most controversial changes to the combat was probably how ammo works,” Hudson goes on. “It was something that wasn’t part of the main game design but instead was implemented as a test by a gameplay programmer. The Lead Designer was against the idea, but tested the ‘ammo’ version of the game for several weeks in total secrecy before concluding that it made a huge improvement to the tension and pacing of combat. Then when he pitched it to me, I was against it until I played it for a while and was convinced as well. Some of the best ideas in ME2 happened that way, where a passionate member of the team took their own time to try something they thought would be great, and it eventually passed harsh scrutiny to become part of the experience.”

Norman has a number of obvious reasons for the change to the ammunition – speed, pacing, making it more like other shooters – but there are reasons which aren’t so obvious. In Mass Effect 1, bullets were ‘free’ which led  to players running down corridors holding the trigger down in the  hopes of scoring a single lucky hit – sure, they wouldn’t score many hits but they had nothing to lose by it either – which led to some pretty silly combat scenarios.

Similarly, Mass Effect 2 abandons individual recharge times for biotic powers in favour of a unified system so players can’t spam lengthy chains of biotic powers – something which made the combat ridiculous and the endgame easy. Those controls changed, too, specifically aiming to match other shooters to make the experience feel natural and immediate. But if BioWare’s team thought fiddling with combat would be controversial, their inventory overhaul would be considered a slap in the face by RPG fans of old.

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  • Psylockerules - May 12, 2010 11:36 p.m.

    i kinda liked the mako aswell, more for the aspect of driving around and killing baddies as opposed to minerals. liked the hovercraft thing in ME2 but preferd the mako speed it up,better armour and let it climb any mountain, sorted! great article by the way but was hoping for more in depth to the characters like why they chose miranda/samarah etc. but still a great read, hopefully because theyre working on ME3 they wont stop doing DLC and faster release!
  • RebornKusabi - May 12, 2010 9:50 p.m.

    I've FINALLY gotten around to playing this and honestly, aside from the badass story and incredibly deep and interesting characters, I completely prefer everything that was in the first Mass Effect... Mako planet hoping was far superior to anal probing planets to upgrade weapons. The combat is lackluster to me; I've played plenty of shooters so the fact that the game handles like everything else now doesn't faze me. Also, WHY ARE THE RPG ELEMENTS GONE? Wow! Let's make the game handle and play like every other ****ing mainstream game out there >_> I'm loving the story; completely engrossed in finding out more and more about other people and I love that several of the returning characters have had some character development between 1 and 2, but the game-play itself is seriously very lackluster to me and I'll probably only be playing through this to get the achievements and move on. Hype Backlash FTL...
  • gilgamesh310 - May 12, 2010 6:26 p.m.

    I loved the first ME but thought there was some serious problems with the combat. Ive yet to play the second one but im glad to hear it dramatically improves the combat and inventory selection. Mass effect is in many ways the only true role playing game. In final fantasy games and most other so called RPG's you aren't actually playing a role in the story at all ,you just watch your character do as the script dictates without having any input at all. Deus ex is perhaps the only game to match it in terms of dialogue choices. I can't wait to play ME 2.
  • Tomkins - May 12, 2010 8:25 a.m.

    I love my MAKO. Gimme it back! Sure at times it didn't make much sense but I really enjoyed driving around.
  • Spybreak8 - May 12, 2010 5:48 a.m.

    ^ meant to say you could find resources
  • Spybreak8 - May 12, 2010 5:46 a.m.

    @Kouin On the N7 missions, where you would find anomalies and scan for that spot, you can found resources scattered around the level.
  • McSpermie - May 12, 2010 4:36 a.m.

    for the love of god get rid of those fucking lost planet videos, I don't need to see it every time I open a page.
  • n00b - May 12, 2010 4:02 a.m.

    i say they replace the mining minigame with a platformer minigame. like a cave story type thing to mine for stuff
  • Samael - May 12, 2010 3:36 a.m.

    "finally, it’s the player’s story, not BioWare’s" a point, until you try to play a gay male Shepard. Then it becomes their story. Hopefully that's finally fixed in 3. My big worry for ME3 is how they're going to bring the surviving characters back. I can see, maybe one squad member (Thane) not being able to join you in ME3. If they turn them all into NPC's or emails...I will not purchase the game. I agree with pretty much everything else in this article though. Combat, ammo and inventory can stay the way they are.
  • TURbo - May 12, 2010 2:44 a.m.

    What I want from Mass Effect 3 is 50 + unique endings. All the choices are stupid if the game boils down to good or evil, and no grey.
  • LordUberDowzen - May 12, 2010 2:29 a.m.

    Good article, GR you should do more post game wrap ups they're very interesting.
  • MisterAdequate - May 12, 2010 12:38 a.m.

    I can understand why the inventory was trimmed for ME2, but I felt that it went too far. Contrary to ME1, you could go quite awhile without actually progressing in ME2 in terms of kit. Upgrades were too generic. The armor was essentially non-existence. I felt that that hurt the game, and I have always thought that the ME1 system needed to be streamlined rather than disemboweled. Aside from that and mining being tedious, I can't think of a single meaningful complaint about ME2 though. It is an absolute masterpiece.
  • cyanide4suicide - May 12, 2010 12:30 a.m.

    Mass Effect 2 was good, but it could've been better. The gameplay was really taken into consideration, but some RPG elements just weren't there. I still have hope the third installment will be pefect.
  • Spartan523 - May 12, 2010 12:02 a.m.

    @jacko seconded, also reintroduce some rpg elements
  • Kouin - May 11, 2010 11:56 p.m.

    I would've preferred if they had you land on the planet from time to time after finding a rich node or vein and exploring the area and fighting off creatures or mercenaries to get a mother lode of resources. That'd be cool if they pulled an MGS: Twin Snakes on Mass Effect 1 and implemented the new system to it. That would be awesome. Trying to play through ME1 to establish a new character is painful after going through ME2, lol.
  • Jacko415 - May 11, 2010 11:51 p.m.

    Mass Effect 2 is fucking incredible. but for Mass Effect 3: More weapons More customization (especially with armor) More explorable planets More stuff to do after the main campaign is finnished (especially relationships... seriously... whats with talking to a crew member that acts like you havent even gone on the final mission yet? do they forget that they just saved the galxy or what?)
  • JADENkOTOR - May 11, 2010 11:44 p.m.

    Tronto you are in for a treat I only wish i could go back and play this one through for the first time.
  • Tronto13 - May 11, 2010 11:14 p.m.

    I bought this a while ago after loving the first one but have been saving it till my exams are over so only 10 days to go!!
  • Spybreak8 - May 11, 2010 11:14 p.m.

    "It was a small percentage but we noticed" - wow now that's a shocker. So many times do the 1% of the people that play the game get noticed because they bitch on online forums. Sure the mining was tedious but It was waaaaaay better than driving around and trying to scale a mountain to get to the minerals you needed to extract. It's odd to see a ME2 article at this time but it was an enjoyable read. The morale choice and the branching decisions which it creates gives us a better oh you make the story by flying around the universe picking what mission you want to do "non linear" method that many other developers use in their games. They added depth and most importantly just streamlined everything with ME2. I think they figured out a lot of things and the mining might be one of the small things they would need to tweak for ME3.
  • JADENkOTOR - May 11, 2010 11:04 p.m.

    I don't care what anyone says ME2 is one of the best if not the best game ever made and Bioware is without a doubt the best developer out there