Space. The final frontier… Sorry, wrong interstellar saga. Mass Effect might not be the voyages of the Starship Enterprise and it’s continuing mission to, yada, yada, yada (you know the rest), but with just one game in the can, BioWare’s epic sci-fi franchise has already shown the potential to branch out into a universe every bit as rich and densely layered as a Star Wars or Star Trek. Art books, novels, comic books and more have all hinted at a vast and intricate world far beyond the confines of the game, which is why it’s utterly futile to try and resist the powerful gravitational pull of Mass Effect 2.
Picking up where the first game left off, Mass Effect 2 sees Commander Shepard return to face not just one, but several threats to the very existence of mankind. The parasitic Reapers and mechanical Geth are now joined by the malevolent Collectors, a race of fearsome insect-like beings hell-bent on wiping out all of humanity. Utilising advanced alien technology, the Collectors have captured entire colonies of people for harvesting, causing the human population to drastically dwindle.
A well-aimed grenade to this robot’s head ought to sort him out nicely.
The Asari are back and as enigmatic as always. This one is pink. Ooh.
Working in league with the Reapers who supply the Collectors’ with superior tech that extends to their advanced weaponry, they’re able to hurl explosive projectiles at will and transform into hulking Leaders able to dole out devastating damage. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Reapers have learned a few new tricks too, the most frightening of which is the ability to combine a group of three individual Husks into a larger, more evolved unit known as a Scion.
Still not convinced Mass Effect 2 has enough new villains? Then how does Legion grab you? An entirely different breed of Geth, Legion is obsessed with you, fashioning his own bespoke shell from remnants of Shepard’s armour (check out the telltale ‘N7’ motif). Legion is a twisted stalker, who will hunt you relentlessly throughout the game. Sounds very intriguing indeed.
Anyone worried that all of this new attention from numerous threats will make playing Mass Effect 2 an impossible task needn’t worry, since Shepard is not only packing heavier weapons such as the grenade launcher, but he’s also keeping much tougher company these days, like hard-bitten badass alien Thane and psychotic, tattooed mental case, Subject Zero. Shepard’s new crew are shrouded in mystery for now, so expect plenty of twists and turns to occur in a similar vein to arguing with Wrex in the first Mass Effect.
During EA’s November showcase, we managed to fight our way through the throng to get some precious hands-on time with Mass Effect 2 and found Shepard and his motley crew hanging out in a seedy bar, complete with sexy, pole dancing alien chicks. We’re told that the aesthetic of this particular area is heavily influenced by seminal sci-fi movie, Blade Runner, with an abundance of pulsating neon lights drenching Shepard’s surroundings in lush violet and tangerine hues. The visuals are simply stunning, with character models in particular enjoying an added dose of refinement, which we admire as the lighting plays across their faces dynamically.
This is Legion, the strange Geth who's obsessed with Shepard. Why? We don’t know.
The interstellar hide and seek championship gets off to a nail-biting start.
Taking yet another stride towards achieving genuinely convincing, realistic digital actors, Mass Effect 2’s character animation is looking every bit as exceptional as you’d hope. But then, beauty is nothing without substance and in this department, Mass Effect 2 is surely certain to deliver. Promising a much darker tale than the previous game, ME2’s eclectic cast of reprobates and scoundrels join Shepard on a journey through a series of trying events that may end in the hero’s demise depending upon the decisions you make.
Shepard himself is looking somewhat worse for wear in the demo, his face scarred with luminescent blue circuitry that indicates something profound has happened to him during the time leading up to the section we’re playing through. Upon highlighting the observation to our demo guide who is watching us play, we’re told that the origins of Shepard’s facial scars are being kept strictly under wraps, but a brush with the Geth seems to be the most likely explanation.
Back to playing the demo proper, and we’re told to interact with the unsavoury looking bartender, who pours us a dodgy looking blue beverage, which Shepard necks in one gulp. The same great interaction with NPCs and the sharp dialogue happily remains intact, but is enhanced by the increase in graphical detail. There’s no more delayed texture loading to break the immersion either as you become increasingly embroiled in Mass Effect’s story, which even manages to keep us utterly hooked during the incredibly brief demo.
A revelatory meeting with an old friend later (we won’t spoil the surprise by revealing who it is) and we’re soon staring down the scope of a sniper rifle with the sights trained on the head of a hostile robot. A button prompt pops up during the cut scene allowing us to take the shot if we so wish, your actions presumably affecting the story later on. Naturally, we pull the trigger and watch the mechanised bits fly in a shower of sparks.
Getting hands-on with the combat, the action feels somewhat more immediate and consequently more intense than before. Finding cover feels a lot smoother, as does Shepard’s movement, which feels a lot less stilted than it did in the first Mass Effect. Damage dealt out by shots from your plasma weaponry affect specific parts of the enemy’s body, so using the shotgun, we’re blithely blasting the arms, legs and heads of off the marauding army of robots who have suddenly besieged the bar. But as the numbers rise and the heavier units roll in, we feel it’s time to bring out the big guns.
Geth who? Geth what? Your Geth is as good as mine etc…
We've no idea who these armoured up fellas might be. They look pretty cool though, right?
Breaking out the aforementioned grenade launcher, we lick explosive shots left right and centre, tearing the tin men into their composite parts. We were worried that huge, incendiary explosions wouldn’t quite fit into Mass Effect’s arsenal of more gentlemanly lasers, but after blowing multiple things up with reckless abandon, we can confidently report that any misgivings we had were sorely misplaced.
And sadly, that’s it. Demo over and a long wait until the game finally launches on January 26th 2010. Mass Effect 2 is predictably shaping up to be a more than worthy successor to the first chapter in the proposed trilogy – The Empire Strikes Back, if you’re looking for a Star Wars comparison. The entire experience is feeling stronger and more robust than the original Mass Effect did and indeed the little we know about the narrative so far, has us well and truly fascinated. Can’t. Wait.
Mass Effect 2 will be available January 26th 2010 as a collector’s edition with art book, extra in-game items and a bonus disc of behind the scenes content. Bring it on.