Mass Effect was a fantastic game, one I personally enjoyed immensely, but it was not without its shortcomings, a fact of which BioWare is acutely aware. So while the development team is feeling pretty damn good about its sequel – Ray Muzyka calls it “our best game” – they went into its creation process knowing that they had some repairs to make. “It’s very much the same kind of game,” says executive producer Casey Hudson, “but we’ve improved every aspect as much as we could.”
I got to play a small portion of Mass Effect 2 about a month ago, and it definitely still looks and feels like a Mass Effect game should. But it’s also clear that BioWare has been listening to its audience and tweaked the game in some necessary areas, including:
1. The Combat – Remember how awesome the combat was in Mass Effect? Probably not, because it wasn’t. Though not actually broken, it was frequently frustrating and many players found it to be highly unsatisfying. Hudson lays the blame for that unfortunate truth squarely at BioWare’s feet. “There just wasn’t enough tutorial to explain the potential of the game,” he says. “We just threw you in without a full explanation of how things worked.” The result, according to Hudson, was that most players finished the game without ever really understanding or realizing the full depth of the combat.
Combat is still a very large part of Mass Effect 2‘s gameplay, but it’s been refined so that those portions of the game play more like a traditional shooter. The goal was to enhance the “pick up and play”ability, so that someone more used to, say, a Gears of War or Halo would be able to dive right in and enjoy themselves.
I hated the combat in Mass Effect and viewed it as a necessary chore that I had to endure in order to get to the fun parts of the game. Conversely, I played through several combat-heavy sequences in Mass Effect 2 and thoroughly enjoyed all of them, even though some of them were fairly difficult. Controls for you and your squadmates can either be accessed via the power wheel, which pauses the game, or by mapping them to the controller. Once you’ve mapped your favorites, you can go through fight sequences without once bringing up the wheel, which keeps the action fast and fluid. I usually just worried about my own firepower and abilities, leaving my companions up to the AI, which seemed to work just fine. The fighting feels less unique than it used to, but the more fast-paced, less frustrating experience is worth it.
To help balance the weapons a little better, guns now use “thermal clips” to keep them from overheating. Each clip has a limited amount of use – it might cool off 20 shots from a pistol, but just one from a sniper rifle. Clips are universal and can be used in any weapon, but you’re still going to have a finite number at your disposal, so you’ll have to think hard about how you choose to arm yourself going into a fight.
By the way, if you’re concerned that BioWare has turned your beloved Mass Effect into some kind of generic shooter, don’t be – all the RPG elements you loved from the first game are still there in the sequel, I promise.
2. The Sidequests – Mass Effect had plenty of side missions and quests to keep you busy, but most of them felt kind of, well, pointless. You might’ve been genuinely interested in Tali’s quest or Wrex’s personal history, but cruising one dull planet after another to find some piece of ore that seemingly counted for nothing but an achievement didn’t exactly make for gripping gameplay. You’ll still be doing many of those same actions, but according to Hudson, you’re going to be far more personally involved now. Instead of simply choosing “scan” or “land” from a menu, the way you did previously, now you’ll actually do it – or at least play a minigame representing it. Even navigating through the cosmos will be more interesting, as you’ll be moving the ship itself instead of a pointer. I did get to see two minigames in action – one for bypassing the security on a safe and another for hacking a data pad — though neither one was the finished version, both were at least mildly amusing, so perhaps we won’t mind looking for random trinkets this time around.
You’ll have more incentive to look into your companion’s personal lives, too. The action of Mass Effect 2 is leading up to a suicide mission – one in which Hudson says the question is not whether someone will die, but who and how many. Your relationship with your shipmates will play a big part in improving your collective survival rate. The more loyal they are, the more likely you are to live to see the credits roll, so chat those teammates up every chance you get. Unless you actually want them to die, that is.
3. The Elevators – The elevator loading screens of Mass Effect are practically legendary for the way they brought the game to a screeching halt – a complaint the developers BioWare didn’t actually see coming because they saw them from a completely different perspective. “People said [the elevators in the Citadel] were slow,” explains Hudson with a bit of a laugh. “We didn’t think they were slow because we knew how far you were going. You’re going from one end of Manhattan to the other in 30 seconds.”
To help you visualize your journey, a schematic will show your elevator’s location in relation to your final destination, so that if it seems to be taking forever, you’ll know it’s because you’re covering some serious distance. The loading is also much faster, leaving little time to catch up on news reports of your recent exploits.
4. The Fishtanks – As you strolled through the decks of the Normandy in Mass Effect, you may have noticed a distinct lack of fishtanks…or at least wondered how an environment populated by a crew of at least a dozen crewmen stayed so sterile and cold. The new Normandy looks much more like a ship where a crew actually works and lives. Your quarters have received quite an overhaul; they’re now less like a military bunk and more like a mini-apartment, complete with an enormous fishtank built right into the wall. Hudson mentioned that you’ll be able to collect fish for it, but didn’t specify how. In fact, he seemed a little bemused that I even wanted to know. But they’re fish. In space! How could I not want to know? You’ll be able to buy other decorations for your digs, too, though I’m not sure if you can arrange them how you like, or if they’ll just go where they go, a la Oblivion.
Your quarters aren’t just for relaxing, though. You’ll receive emails to your private terminal that may advance the plot, or simply inform you of the fallout from your previous missions. You can also change out of your battle armor into something more casual and appropriate for your off-duty hours. It won’t apparently affect how other characters interact with you, though.
5. Everything Else – BioWare took feedback from fans of Mass Effect very, very seriously when work on Mass Effect 2 began. As Hudson puts it, audience feedback and reviews essentially “became the blueprint for Mass Effect 2.” The team prowled forums, digested every last review – if it mentioned Mass Effect, someone at BioWare read it and took notes. “We literally made a spreadsheet where we took every positive comment and every negative comment and we put them into categories” says Hudson. The result was a list of about 40 things that the team wanted to do to make the Mass Effect 2 experience that much better than its predecessor. Does that mean the Mako sequences will be less excruciating? Or the inventory system less aneurysm-inducing? From the small part of the game I saw, BioWare is very serious about fixing what’s broken while polishing what works, so I’d say the answer to both questions is probably “yes.” We’ll know for sure when Mass Effect 2 is released in January.