Screenshot courtesy EA
Hot on the heels of this fall’s Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare is releasing another AAA RPG. This time, instead of medieval fantasy, Mass Effect 2 will take us back to the future for another sure-to-be classic interactive action/RPG space opera.
Mass Effect 2, the second entry in the planned Mass Effect trilogy, takes place two years after the first game. It’s 2183, and we still don’t have the hoverboards Back to the Future Part II promised. Commander Shepard, the game’s human protagonist (who is male or female; your choice), is patrolling for evil automatons known as the geth in his spaceship, the Normandy. An unknown enemy destroys the ship, leaving Shepard floating through space without a breathing apparatus. He quickly succumbs to suffocation and dies. The credits roll as his body floats through the blackness of space.
A five minute cutscene, no matter how captivating, would be a big waste of $60. That’s why we were pleased when Shepard’s body was recovered from space by the Shadow Broker, a sneaky information dealer. There will be no resting in peace for Shepard, whose body is sold to the highest bidder. The Shadow Broker has been employed by The Collectors, who will serve as the game’s main baddies. We know from reading the Mass Effect: Redemption comic book that Liara T’Soni intercepts his body before The Collectors can get their hands on it. For this, she is paid by the ruthless pro-human organization Cerberus. If the name Liara T’Soni sounds familiar to you, it’s because she was one of your companions in the first game (remember that blue gal at the center of all those misinformed virtual sex scandal reports on Fox News?). Since she was a possible mate for both male and female Shepards (interestingly, Liara’s race has only one gender), you may be able to continue a romance with her in this game.
Now that Shepard’s body is in the hands of the Cerberus, the group works for two years to bring him back to life. This project is known as “Lazarus,” presumably named for the man Jesus restores to life in the Christian tradition. Shepard does awake two years later in a Cerberus space station under attack. After helping others to escape, he meets the “Illusive Man,” who explains that Shepard has been upgraded (a la The Six Million Dollar Man). The Illusive Man wants Shepard’s help to take down the Collectors, the insect alien race that has been abducting humans whole colonies at a time. That’s a lot to ask from a guy who was literally born yesterday, but Shepard agrees and the game unfolds.
As in the first title, you’ll be able to build a team to support you from a list of potentials. At the outset, you’ll have human Cerberus operatives Miranda Lawson and Jacob Taylor at your side. You meet the two as you help them escape from the Cerberus station under attack as you awake from the Lazarus project. Jacob is a human biotic, which means he has the ability to manipulate objects telekinetically. Sexy Miranda is Jacob’s informant and a potential love interest for a male Shepard (no word on whether or not she’ll go both ways). If you played Mass Effect Galaxy on the iPhone, these were the two protagonists.
Two characters from the original game will be back as potential squadmates (many more familiar faces appear in this game). The hotheaded Garrus Vakarian is back regardless of your feelings about him. Tali’Zorah nar Rayya, the young woman from the Quarian race who was born aboard a starship, brings her technical genius back if you want her on your team.
Six brand new characters (one downloadable) will be made available for your crew. Thane Krios (the yellow-faced alien from the box art) is a highly skilled Drell assassin. The Drell are a new species introduced in ME2 who bear resemblance to fish and lizards. If you find gills attractive, you will be thrilled to hear that Thane is reportedly an available romantic interest in the game. Grunt is a Krogan mercenary (he shares the same racial background as Wrex from the first game) with an itchy trigger finger. Ex-convict Subject Zero, the self-proclaimed “bitch”, is a tattooed, female human biotic. A Salarian named Professor Mordin Solus never hesitates to share his opinions. The doctor and scientist has the smarts to back it up, too. A 600 year-old Asari (hey, she looks pretty good for her age) is the final comrade the game ships with. Her name is Samara and her fighting skills are practically unmatched. Zaeed Messani, a feared human bounty hunter, will be available via DLC.
If you’d like to download Zaeed, make sure to buy a new copy of the game. Enclosed will be a one-time use code for the Cerberus Network, which will allow players to access DLC as well as free news and daily messages related to the game. The Cerberus Network comes with a DLC pack (available free on day one of the game’s release) that contains new missions, including one that introduces the rugged Zaeed and makes him available for your team.
Unprecedented continuity and welcome changes
If you played through the original Mass Effect and have your save game, prepare for an unprecedented level of story continuity. Many decisions you made in the first game may come back to haunt or reward you, as Mass Effect 2 has the ability to read your old save game and build itself around it (provided you’re playing on the same Xbox 360, otherwise you won’t be able to import your save file—not so for PC gamers, thanks to the Mass Effect Configuration Tool). If you haven’t played the first game, don’t worry: you’ll be able to create a new Commander Shepard and start the game from scratch with no penalty to gameplay or your understanding of the story. If you did make the wise decision to play the first game, hold on to your space helmet. Several of these choices have been made public, and if you haven’t finished the first game and do want to do so someday, you may not want to read on. First off, anyone you killed or left to die in the first game won’t be back in the second. Apparently, the Lazarus project only had room for one, so if Wrex’s blood is on your hands, don’t count on him reappearing in this game. Same goes for the choice you were forced to make between Kaiden and Ashley. Neither will return as potential teammates in ME2, but they will make appearances. You will be able to change Shepard’s appearance and class at the beginning even if you import him or her from the first game. Be careful with your choices in this game, too: don’t kill anyone you want to keep around, including yourself. Mass Effect is a planned trilogy, and this feature will be present in the third game as well.
You may remember the atrocious land vehicle sections in Mass Effect 1. Simply put, the wonky arcade-style and imprecise handling of your tank-like M35 Mako on planet surfaces were one of a few blemishes on the otherwise-sparkling title. You’ll then be happy to know that this vehicle is being replaced entirely because many others shared your frustration. Details are forthcoming, but at this point I’ll take a partially-deflated bumper boat in a pool of alien molasses. Because BioWare has such a strong game engine that they are deeply familiar with, expect the vehicle to handle (and look) a little better than that, as the development team has more time to devote to making the game great than fixing bugs and glitches.
Another improvement I'm looking forward to is the replacement of medi-gel (an item players needed to collect and then apply when health was low) with regenerating health, taking the game further into traditional action territory. Though the game maintains its wonderfully-executed RPG attributes, changes like this will help bring shooter fans who may not have played RPG games before feel right at home.
But the biggest change ME2 has in store will please fans of both RPG and action games. Rather than the four weapon types available in ME1, ME2 boasts a total of nineteen different weapons, including, for the first time, heavy artillery. The pistol from the first game is now two weapons: a heavy pistol and a machine pistol. The heavy pistol, known as the M-3 Predator, can penetrate armor at a brutal 120 rounds per minute.
Submachine guns sacrifice power for rapid fire: how does 925 rounds per minute grab you? The M-9 Tempest can’t do much damage from a distance, but up close, it loves to get personal. Brother to the submachine gun is the assault rifle. Assault rifles are a terrific all-purpose weapon with accuracy at great distances. We look forward to getting our hands on the Avenger. If you choose the soldier class, you’ll also have access to light machine guns like the M-76d Revenant. They have less accuracy than assault rifles, but bring new meaning to “spray and pray.” Shotguns like the M-23 Katana pack a lot of punch up close. They’re bad at a distance and take awhile to load, but get one off at point blank range and nothing’s sweeter.
Sniper rifles can take most targets out from an insane distance, making up for its slow rate of fire. The M-92 Mantis makes all that sniper rifle training worth it. Grenades won’t be back, but did we mention heavy weapons? All players will have access to these, which include the M-100 Grenade Launcher, the ML-77 Missile Launcher, the Half-Life Gravity Gun-inspired M-490 Blackstorm Projector, the M-622 Avalanche freeze ray, the lethally precise Collector Particle Beam, and the M-920 Cain, which is basically a gun that shoots nuclear bombs.
The playing field has been leveled in another step away from RPG towards traditional shooters, as armor and weapon points will no longer be required. Any player at any level will be able to use all weapons and armor to their full abilities.
A heap of new talents (which are now called Powers) are yours for the picking in Mass Effect 2. If you choose to go the biotic route and fight telekinetically, you’ll have access to the following new abilities: Pull (levitating enemies into the air and making them float towards you for easy killing), Shockwave (a series of explosive impacts), Charge (sends you hurtling across the battlefield to bowl over enemies), and Slam (no additional information known).
New tech powers are available for players of multiple classes. Engineers and Infiltrators will be able to use Incinerate, an explosive plasma round that causes enemy health regeneration to cease. Only Engineers will be call on a Combat Drone, which spawns a drone that can damage enemies and absorb fire. Both Sentinels and Engineers can Cryo Blast to fire their omni-tool and flash-freeze enemies. Finally, Sentinels will have access to Tech Armor, which generates an armor suit that boosts your shields.
Instead of the ammo upgrades from the first game, players will have access to ammo powers. Disruptor Ammo charges up your rounds, making them more affective against shields and synthetic enemies. Incendiary Ammo, as has been the case with so many video games before ME2, sets enemies ablaze. Cryo Ammo freezes enemies in place for a short while.
Two new combat abilities will be available. Soldiers will have access to Adrenaline Rush, which slows time around you, and Concussive Shot, which gives players a single powerful round that stuns enemies.
Talk nerdy to me
The dialogue in the original Mass Effect had a style and depth that changed the way the industry saw in-game conversation. We’ve already played plenty of games that have clearly drawn inspiration from the revolutionary conversation wheel. Rather than choose written-out dialogue that is then merely repeated verbatim by your character, Mass Effect allows you to choose from a few phrases that convey certain moods or feelings. Your character then speaks all-new dialogue, with results you may or may not have fully anticipated. Five types of dialogue choices are represented, though not all five options are always available. Investigate lets Commander Shepard neutrally inquire about various topics. On the right of the conversation wheel are Paragon and Renegade responses. Choosing between these two affects your character’s development and influences what kind of person Shepard turns out to be. Paragon responses are compassionate, easy-going, and heroic, while Renegade responses are often rude, apathetic, and aggressive. On the left side of the wheel are Charm and Intimidate options, which become available as you continue to elect Paragon and Renegade responses, relatively. If you’ve gone through fifty conversation wheels and chosen Paragon responses each time, Charm options become available and can lead to extra bonuses, fortuitous events, and new assignments. Alternately, the same can be achieved with Renegade responses and Intimidate options.
The conversation wheel will be back in ME2, with a couple significant improvements. First of all, rather than merely showing a static screen and an unmoving character, the camera will now move, granting the fully cinematic feeling that these dramatic scenes deserve. Your ability to influence the conversation won’t only center on the conversation wheel this time around. As shown in a trailer humorously titled “Negotiation Skills,” a button prompt gives players the option to shove an uncooperative character out of a high-rise window. Again, it’s up to the players whether or not they want to choose these tactics in conversation, but I look forward to seeing what other options BioWare will present.