Preview

Mass Effect 2

Massively effective

Arriving as an award-winning new IP for BioWare and Microsoft, epic sci-fi RPG Mass Effect is on the verge of receiving a barnstorming sequel that promises to significantly expand the game's narrative universe. And, lucky you, we're right here on the GamesCom frontline to outline exactly what to expect from the continuing adventures of heroic protagonist Commander Shepard.

More pointedly, the playable GamesCom demo, which is reassuringly familiar in terms of initial delivery and presentation, attracted a steady stream of media representatives during Wednesday's hectic preview day, and certainly did all that was necessary in working to bolster expectations for BioWare's eagerly awaited action follow-up.

Mass Effect 2 appears to retain much of its established player association thanks to visceral and strategic fire fights in grandiose surroundings and the same in-game Biotic and weapon-based navigation wheels first applied in the original Mass Effect. However, while the sequel carries a distinct 'if it ain't broke' flavour, it also introduces slight tweaks in order to emerge as a standalone production that pushes the proposed trilogy in all the right directions.

Those tweaks were instantly noticeable during the showcased assassination demo mission, which, as a snapshot of the game's lengthy gameplay path, threw a steady stream of human mercenaries before Shepard and his accompanying duo of squad mates as they moved toward a showdown finale with newly introduced character Thane, a lizard-like alien assassin with an unsettlingly watery voice and black lifeless eyes.

At first glance - viewed on a generously sized LCD high-def display - Mass Effect 2 looked every inch a worthy action/RPG sequel, thanks, in the main, to its easy cover-to-cover gameplay mechanic, truly dazzling city vistas, impressive particle atmospherics, and convincing wind effects that rocked Shepard, his trailing team, and also the game camera while navigating a heavily defended bridge.

In the brief demo, Shepard's A.I. assistance was provided by characters Miranda and Jacob, who, while ever-willing to embrace a firefight without player direction, were also prepared to adopt defensive, cover tactics during especially frenetic engagements and wait for the player's application of attack and move orders best suited to the given situation.

Specifically, A.I. allies peppered by enemy fire won't merely rush headlong into battle like headless chickens, with BioWare keen to place focus on Mass Effect 2's improved player direction mechanic. Accessible through the Xbox 360 controller's digital pad, players are able to simply and quickly distribute squad orders on the fly, which involves using the in-game cursor to direct allies to new locations and to also select and isolate targets that should be fired upon once they get there.

In terms of improvements and enhancements introduced to Mass Effect 2, the game's existing 'duck-and-cover' system seems slightly less twitchy and inaccurate when gauged against the standard laid down by BioWare's original series release. In-game gunplay feels reassuringly heavy, more authentic, and slightly more accessible as a result. Sadly, aiming through a zoomed scope remains a somewhat unwieldy and unreliable in-game element, and weapons such as the assault rifle or sniper rifle (still) feel a tad twitchy and slightly gamer unfriendly.

Quickly becoming something of a quality cornerstone connected to BioWare products, Mass Effect 2's exceptional graphics boast a depth of scope hitherto unseen in sci-fi RPG titles, which is a plus point perfectly encapsulated during the demo thanks to its sweeping city vistas, sense of scale and height, beautifully produced atmospheric lighting, and much improved character and environmental textures.

The demo's succession of cover-to-cover battles provided plenty of action, which was padded in terms of choice by access to the trusty combination of assault rifle, shotgun and sniper rifle, and enhanced by a first taste of Mass Effect 2's fearsome missile launcher. Capable of delivering multiple rounds of ordnance in quick succession, dispatched missiles home in on any nearby enemies if individual targets are not specifically picked out by the player through the zoom scope. In short, it's fabulous and provides a tantalising glimpse at the expanded arsenal of weapons promised for Mass Effect.

Battle atmospherics were also enhanced by more authentic blood spatter, fantastic localised explosions and billowing clouds of shield resonance that erupt into the air when characters are under attack. And any Mass Effect fans unhappy with the first game's overheating weaponry will be pleased to note that overheating has been completely removed for the sequel.

Beyond the obvious appeal of its action, Mass Effect 2 will also provide somewhere in the region of 30 hours of total narrative gameplay time, which BioWare has said will also include improved side-quest exploration thanks to 360 degree planet scans that enable the player to select exactly where to land the Mako. That said, try as we might we couldn't extract any concrete information as to whether the new planetary scans and selective Mako landings will lead to improved secondary content once on the surface.

Ultimately, personal quibbles and concerns aside, BioWare really hasn't needed to change its proven Mass Effect blueprint too much in order to craft a convincing sequel that's likely to garner critical and consumer applause and set checkouts ringing around the world. There are few alterations, just a selection of structural and aesthetic improvements and enhancements more akin to performing a maintenance check and tightening screws on a purring, well-oiled engine.

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