Mass Effect 2

The real thing

We were keen to see Mass Effect 2. But after our session with Casey Hudson we could hardly contain ourselves to wait the long months till its early 2010 release. Improved conversations, broadened combat, and the stones to tell a story their own way make this mandatory for anyone with a beating heart.

We joined Casey Hudson for a behind closed doors look at the new game. It had been said before, but not with as much focus as today, that Mass Effect is a trilogy. Here though, it became clear that this project has a very specific shape and design that arches over the three phases. This is, described Hudson, about following an individual's journey through life defining moments with consequences that are bigger than he can appreciate or control.

Each game is designed to stand on its own merits, and make sense to players coming in fresh. But it was clear, although not directly said, that the strongest experience would be found by playing them through in order. Not only would they have a full grasp on the story, but their save file persists from one game to the next. Every renegade or heroic decision that shaped their journey and character in the first game is brought into the second edition.

Through the opening cinemas and selected sections we are shown that the second leg of this journey is a lot darker than the first. As Hudson put it, "this is a high impact descent into the darkest parts of the Mass Effect Universe". Not a lot more is said about this dark heart of the game, but there is a sense of weight behind this concept that obviously informs a lot of different aspect of Mass Effect 2's story (as we shall see a little later).

Moving into some gameplay sections, we are talked through some of the technical improvements. Nothing was mentioned of the load times but we have to hope this will be improved. What is focused on is a raft of interaction and story telling devices that give the narrative more ways to move forward.

Firstly, there are the real-time action conversations. As opposed to stopping an ongoing dynamic scene to let the characters talk and interact, Mass Effect 2 can interleave dialogue right into their cinemas. As the scene unfolds the response wheel is provided and reacted to by the unfolding drama. It's a simple addition but one that makes the conversations more interesting and the action more integrated.

Secondly there is a new interrupt conversation feature. This enables players to press a particular button (when prompted) to cut the talking short with a decisive move. For instance, a scene on top of a skyscraper was obviously not going the way the player wanted, they take the opportunity to tap the interrupt button when the prompt shows, and the other person is unceremoniously shoved from the roof.

Then there are some enhancements to the combat. Whereas previously you could only give group commands to your squad, now you can command them individually. For instance you have separate movement markers for each member. There are also nine new weapon classes, including a new heavy weapon system to support much larger firearms.

On more general territory Hudson talked a little about the improved visuals. Now, Mass Effect was pretty stunning already, but the new game offers another jump in graphics. This isn't so much in the fidelity or texture detail, but rather in the overall aesthetic. Characters lip sync better, move more realistically and generally convince you that this is worth watching.

Again this is a game where voice work, movement and rendering combine to happily fool the player into relating to the characters as if they are real people. Subtle glances or half movements often say as much in a scene than the more direct spoken communication.

For me, Mass Effect 2 has that quality I first noticed in Gran Turismo on the PS2, or later when watching Finding Nemo. It was a moment where I wasn't sure if it was computer rendered or photographic footage. At the end of the day it didn't matter which it was as long as I was convinced to the extent that I could forget about the technology and enjoy the experience. Mass Effect 2, even in the short 30 minutes I spent with it, achieves this by the bucket load.

But the best, they saved for last in our demo (and in the game). In fact it was so shocking I'm not sure I should be writing it. If you are sensitive to spoilers you should probably skip the next couple of paragraphs.

In a scene that was introduced with a twinkle in the eye, we watched as Shepard struggled to save his team from the burning hull of the Normandy. Slowly things go down hill and the idea dawns that he isn't going to make it. And yes, the scene ends with his death-struggle, small and alone in space, camera panning back and theme music kicking in.

It's a shock. Both that they are showing us this possible end to their game, and that this is a genuine possible (and permanent) outcome for the player. But this is exactly the point of the exercise. The knowledge that one of the possible endings for Mass Effect 2 is the death of Shepard adds the sort of weight and meaning to each and every decision that only Fable 2 has managed to conjure up previously.

Whether your Shepard survives or dies, Hudson reassures us, the ending will be a satisfying and fulfilling close to this part of your journey. But if you do die you will go on to Mass Effect 3 without Shepard. It's pretty ballsy stuff, but something that fits with the level of finesse and commitment in the other areas of the game.

This short visit to Mass Effect 2 has both reminded me of how good the first game was, and made me more than eager to play on through the story in Mass Effect 2 - but now with a little more care. This is proper grown up genius.

E3 Trailer