Preview

Mass Effect 2

Dark and brooding

The second part of a trilogy has a deserved reputation for being the weakest link: just take a peek at The Matrix Reloaded, Temple of Doom (how dare you - Ed), Die Hard 2 (there are no fourth films for either) or The Empire Strikes Back. Although Dr Ray Muzyka, CEO of BioWare, disagrees on the last one: "Empire Strikes Back was pretty cool." He's also adamant that Mass Effect 2 won't end up a saggy middle-section in an otherwise fantastic trilogy: "Having just finished a complete play-through, the intensity is just stunning."

In a new, brief demo I'm being shown Shepherd and his new team trudging into an alien nightclub. A voluminous purple light ripples and pulses in the middle of the bar, alien presumably-females gyrate against scenery and seedy male onlookers sit, watch and knock back drinks from shady corners. The scenery outside is as comparably grim, with towering skyscrapers pushing out of thick pockets of otherworldly smog and flying cars dot the sky, floating stationery in gridlock. By showing me this, I assume the point BioWare are trying to make is that Mass Effect 2 is a darker game than the original, in both tone and colour palette.

The only thing BioWare really let me do in the sequence is accept a poisoned drink from a shifty bartender, who walks away with a smirk as Shepherd collapses in the background. It's all very brief, but the area looks quite large and detailed: I'd be surprised if it doesn't act as a larger hub in the game. The abrupt dialog scene shows the large graphical boost to the character animations, with Shepherd edging precariously close to uncanny valley syndrome. His mouth is still slightly awkward in places, but there are plenty of other moments where he looks eerily real - the eyes, especially, have been imbued with a certain humanity that wasn't there in the first game.

The game fast-forwards - stuff happens to connect the two points, but nobody at BioWare is willing to say what - and Shepherd and company are in a scene with old teammate Garrus. Something's gone tits up, Garrus is worried and Shepherd is ready to bust some heads. It's a combat sequence, then. As previous demos have shown, it's all technically superb and there's now a far greater emphasis on squad tactics. One of the BioWare assistants at the booth remarks that releasing a combat-focused game in a post-Modern Warfare 2 world will require the combat to be top-notch, and that he believes the team at BioWare have definitely delivered on that front. I think he's got a point: navigating through the complex, over ledges and barrelling down corridors feels responsive and natural, entirely lacking the rote stiffness that plagued the original game's interpretation. The sequence gloriously ends with you engaged in a bombastic confrontation with a giant robot. The resulting explosion is massive, and I'm left wanting so much more.

Dr Muzyka explains that "people felt that the shooter controls and the intensity of combat [of the first game] wasn't as good as it could be, so we really amped that up in the second game. We haven't lost anything from the first game - the characterisation, exploration, progression, customisation - but we have really improved the shooter controls. I think the moment-to-moment intensity is really awesome. It feels like a very precise, tactical control of the battlefield. The tech and biotic abilities are really cool, the weapons are good, the frame rate is locked at 30fps. It's very smooth, the textures don't pop - they load in seamlessly. It feels as much a shooter as an RPG."

I'm also given a brief look at the game's new antagonists: the Collectors. BioWare have hinted in the past that entire colonies of humans are being abducted, and they're now revealing it to be the Collectors who are responsible. Despite the name, they're not a fleet of eBay-roaming bargain hunters gone mad, but instead a race of glowing insectoid nasties with four beady, lambent eyes who use a swarm of smaller, nasty insects to paralyse pockets of humanity and then scoop them at their whim. The captured people aren't kept sealed away in pristine condition, either - they're all getting stitched together into weird abominations of bits of people and machines.

BioWare neglect to mention why it's humans specifically that the Collectors are after, but do let on that they've been armed to the teeth with fancy-pants weaponry supplied by the even bigger, even baddier Reapers - you know, the ones whose invasion Shepherd managed to put a halt to at the end of the first game. And now they seem to have a major human fetish.

Then there's Legion, a sentient Geth who goes a bit Fatal Attraction for Shepherd, stalking him and going so far as to incorporate bits of Shepherd's armour into his being. Legion's motivations aren't being explained in the slightest, but he's got a rather posh British robot accent and says stuff like "Organics do not choose to fear us; it is a function of your hardware." Saucy, and it's definitely good to see that BioWare are keeping the Geth - the primary source of fodder in the first game - active in the universe: it would be a shame to have seen them go.

There's clearly a lot going on, and BioWare are understandably cagey about going into too much detail. Besides, it would be a shame to have all the intrigue ruined. Mass Effect's precise and gorgeous aesthetic has always been meticulously preened, and dangling these juicy titbits of story and the shinier, whizzier combat engine has left me with the conclusion that January 2010 can't come fast enough. But what of the handful of people who've never played the original? "You don't have to have played Mass Effect 1 to enjoy Mass Effect 2," says Dr Muzyka. Although it does help, I imagine. "We give you the context, we give you some back story, we make certain assumptions about what choices you made in Mass Effect 1. But you can come right into it fresh." And then presumably get muddied up by Mass Effect 2's darker, bleaker and more hostile universe. Yes please.

Our thanks to Dr Ray Muzyka for taking the time to talk to us. Mass Effect 2 is released for 360 and PC on January 29th 2010.

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