Mass Effect 2
18th Aug 2009 | 11:42
Morality. It's a tricky thing in games. When you're called on to make some kind of ethical decision in a virtual world, the choices are usually black and white. Kill or arrest. Gift or steal. Rescue or abandon. In the original Mass Effect, the choices were rarely so easy, partly because of the ambiguity of the characters, and also because you weren't sure what the consequences might be.
In Mass Effect 2, the choices are only going to get tougher. This time you're fighting for your own species, and the survival of your Commander Shepard and his or her crew. "Mass Effect 2 is about a suicide mission that Shepard faces," explains project director Casey Hudson. "It's not so much about making it really hard for people to keep their character alive - I think most people will be clear on what they need to do to survive. It's more about having a real sense of consequence, so that players who ignore the whole point of the game (building a tough and loyal team) will experience a spectacular final mission; a bloodbath from beginning to end and one that results in their character not making it out alive."
This is something Bioware has been hinting at since they released the very first teaser trailer for ME2. 'Is Shepard really dead?' was the question lighting up fan forums and community sites. At E3, Hudson and the team finally revealed what the teaser was getting at - that Shepard could die if the 'wrong' choices are made.
But what if you're new to the series, and you don't have the history of an entire game's worth of explosive choices and charged dialogue behind you? What if you have no Commander Shepard on your Hard Drive? "Mass Effect 2 is designed to bring in new players, so for them the story will stand alone from the first game, but they will also get a good idea of what happened before," explains Hudson.
"For them, there will be a certain 'canon' of events that happened previously, as though this is the first game in the series." So, a generic storyline with the decisions already made for them. It's great to see Bioware isn't just catering for the die-hard fans - after all, although Mass Effect did well on the shop shelves, it isn't the biggest exclusive on 360. However, the best advice for potential newbies is: go and play the first game. Sure, ME2 will fill you in on what is happening, but it will have to gloss over subtleties, and you don't want to miss them.
And what can we expect from the sequel? Hudson fills us in on the basic premise of the plot: "In the first game, you stopped an invasion of Reapers, gigantic and ancient machines that want to harvest organic civilization. But, the Reapers are still out there somewhere and Shepard knows they're coming. In Mass Effect 2, humans are being abducted in their thousands from all over the galaxy, and Shepard is working with a shadowy pro-human group called Cerberus to find out why. You realise that you're going to have to launch what everyone tells you is a suicide mission, if you are to find out what's happening to the missing humans. And to give yourself the best possible odds, you set off to recruit a team of the most dangerous and powerful individuals in the galaxy."
Without wishing to put words into the mouths of sensationalists, it sounds to us like Shepard is going to be mixing with interstellar extremists. It's an example of Mass Effect's rather smart morality system. Sure, you can build the toughest team and breeze through the finale of the game, but at what cost? What are the choices you'll need to make in order to get the biggest bad-asses on board the Normandy? And - rather critically - will if effect the way you end the trilogy? It's a hand that Bioware is playing very close to its chest.
One thing the developers are keen to be very transparent about is the way they've beefed up the combat. The original, despite being brilliantly paced and scripted, faced criticism for its gunfights and this is something Hudson and the team have worked hard on. "Pretty much everything has been improved," he tells us confidently. "First, the overall movement and cover system has been redone, so that movement and aiming is smoother, plus you engage cover much more fluidly than before."
The demo we saw at E3 proved how far the cover system has come. It looks and feels incredibly natural - very much from the Gears of War school of animation. This makes a huge difference to the way fights play out, as you can react to what's happening with much more ease. We saw Shepard dashing between piles of space crates, ducking in and out to take pot-shots at enemies, and switching between weapons on the fly. Next to the stilted single-animation cover fights of the original it looked like a huge leap forward.
Hudson continues, "You have much better real-time access to your powers since you can map your favourites to controller buttons. This means you set yourself up for battle then generally play it without ever pausing." So, ME2 can be played as a pure action game, although Hudson assures us that you can pause the combat and manage your attack at any time if that's how you want to play.
Another problem with the shooting in the first game was the AI. Your team-mates weren't the sharpest tools in the shed, despite wielding some kick-ass biotic abilities and weapons. They didn't react when enemies flanked and gunned them down, so the easiest thing to do was to ask them to hang back while you handled the fight yourself. Thankfully, that has all changed too. "You also have better control of your squad, with separate squad movement orders so you can place each squad member exactly where you want him or her. And you can fire their powers in real time as well, using context-sensitive buttons." The actual make-up of your squad is still something Bioware is keeping under wraps. Some of the characters from the original will make a return - in the demo we spotted Liara, Joker and someone who looked a lot like Ashley - but they won't be in your team. The smart money is on them appearing as NPCs to flesh-out the backstory and to keep key plot points from the original rolling.
To compliment the improved action, several other item options have been tweaked. The inventory system has been given a complete overhaul, although Hudson was cagey about how they've done it. Providing we don't have to wade through every new item and weapon upgrade, reducing each one to omni-gel individually, we'll be happy with whatever has been altered. Similarly, although many of the weapon mods from the original will return, the way you use them had changed. "It's still a heat-based system so there's no need to find ammo clips," reassures Hudoson. "But instead of overheating the weapon and having a forced cool-down, the player is able to actively eject a heat sink to choose how and when the weapon gets reset." This is great news - the old weapons simply wouldn't work with ME2's more fluid combat.
However, what this does mean is that all the weapons and items you amassed in ME1 can't come with you. Hudson explains, "The systems have been greatly improved to support better combat, inventory, etc. So while things like weapons and stats don't convert directly, you will get certain benefits from your play style and accomplishments in the first game."
Similarly, you won't be able to hop right into a fully levelled up Shepard:. "The character classes are the same, and some of the powers are still there (even though they're more functional and more powerful). But we have made improvements that make each of the classes a lot more balanced and fun, so you'll see some new progression mechanics and powers."
Another aspect that has seen quite spectacular improvement is the dialogue, now handled in a more dynamic way. Instead of characters stood talking at each other in standard poses - something that shattered the illusion of authenticity in the first game - they will chat on the move, or framed by more cinematic camera angles. One example we saw was Shepard and an Asari ally flying through a city in a hover-car. The two chatted while Shepard weaved through the traffic, making their conversation feel far less forced and wooden; more like it belonged in an epic sci-fi movie.
That's not the only way the dialogue has been made to feel more 'natural'. Later on, the pair find themselves questioning a guard inside an enormous sky-scraper. Shepard wants to get to his boss, but this grunt isn't playing ball, feigning ignorance and fobbing our hero off. A QTE prompt appeared in the corner of the screen giving Shepard the opportunity to interrupt the conversation, booting the crony straight through the nearest window and onto the street below (That'll be a fistful of Renegade points, then). You'll be able to talk while fighting too, although Bioware hasn't shown off how this will work. Chances are, it'll involve a mini cut-scene in the middle of certain combat sections, but again, it adds a level of realism absent from the series to date.
Planet exploration is another thing that has been evaluated and changed. Although tackling the various side-missions in the first game was far from a chore, the limited number of planet types was disappointing. "The planets themselves will be much richer and more diverse, since they're each based on a unique 'hook' of their own," says Hudson. "They will each feature visuals and gameplay that you can't get anywhere else in the game." The way you explore them has changed too, and during the E3 demo, Bioware showed a clip of the player choosing where they wanted to land on a planet.
We're assuming that the Mako will return - how else would you cover large distances? - although this is yet to be confirmed. The new exploration system will also mean more and better DLC. Bringing Down the Sky was the only DLC offering we had for Mass Effect until recently, but Hudson assures us that "ME2 has been enhanced in ways that will make it easier for us to build DLC content and release it more frequently. It's a more integral part of the game and our plan for the whole experience." One thing we'd like to know is, if your character does die at the end of the story, will you be able to play DLC without restarting the game? This is something Bethesda had to deal with when fans complained about Fallout 3's ending, and they responded by releasing the Broken Steel DLC, which let you play beyond the end.
Ever since the credits rolled on the first game, we've been hungry to know how the story continues, and more importantly, to know if there are going to be any nasty consequences following our dubious moral choice to, er, 'go interspecies' with Liara last time. We confess our sexy adventure to Hudson, and he rather cryptically tells us: "Relationships and human stories are central to the Mass Effect experience, and the decisions you made regarding relationships in the first game will carry into ME2 and beyond as some of the most important aspects of the ongoing story." Do we hear the pitter-patter of tiny half-human, half-Asari feet? Is that so wrong? Morality. It's a tricky bugger...