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Hands-On Preview

Scott Jennings Posted:
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I'm part of a small group, in a small room in Edmonton, Canada, throwing black holes at people.

Why? Why not, you should ask. Pocket singularities are fun. Watching cannon fodder gang members pinwheeling wildly through the air while you take potshots at their limbs is fun.

There is, of course, a reason why I am shooting at gang members, involving a plague of some sort and finding a doctor and saving the universe, and this being a Bioware game, it won't be trite or hackneyed. But give me a minute, I'm still making people dance to my singularity's will.

Welcome to Mass Effect 2, a Bioware game with headshots.

That's the first thing you notice about ME2 - it's as much a shooter as a role playing game. We're assured that it's still story driven, there's still a bewilderingly deep level of character development, but player skill is much more of a factor (or to be blunt, it actually *is* a factor now) - unlike the first game, which was completely stat-driven in whether or not you hit an enemy, if you can hit the enemy onscreen, you hit it, first-person shooter style. Headshots, shooting off limbs, all the usual standbys of first person shooters are present. Like ME1, you get some feedback when you are near death - but this time, it's a lot more feedback, as your vision turns red and you think finding cover while waiting for your shields to recharge might be a good idea.

Gaining levels and skills instead give you (in addition to the biotic 'magic' skills and espionage-style skills of the first game) additional damage types (such as freezing or burning enemies), unlocking the ability to use heavier weapons, and "buffs" that benefit your entire party. Weapons now have ammunition requirements - excuse me, "heat sinks" (in an attempt to explain why your ammo-free weapon in ME1 suddenly ran out of juice in ME2), so your sniper rifle will need to be reserved for a few important headshots.

This being a shooter, let me be very blunt - you're going to want to play this on a PC. Unless you really, really play a lot of Halo, you're going to be better at things with a mouse and keyboard. Luckily, unlike ME1, the PC and Xbox360 versions are coming out at the same time. (Sorry, PS3 owners. No word on love for you.) We were given opportunities to try builds on both PC and the Xbox360, and it is certainly playable on a console - as playable as any other shooter on a console. It's just - like shooters in general - MORE playable on a PC. Unlike Dragon Age, however, there's no plans for editors or modding support of any sort, if that guides your PC/console buying decision.

Much of the story was left unexplained for reasons of preserving spoilers (some of which we were told happened at the very beginning of the game, such as the destruction of the original Normandy as seen in Bioware's E3 demo). However, what was obvious is that the story of ME2 is much grimmer - much like Empire Strikes Back to ME1's Star Wars (and it was explicitly stated that a ME3 was already planned). As Casey Hudson, ME2's project director, told us several times, "This is a suicide mission. People are most likely going to die. Your character can possibly die, a permanent death." The loyalty of your NPC party members are tracked (and explicitly displayed) as you move through the game, since inspiring your crew to die for your cause can be a bit difficult. Speaking of NPCs, most of the characters (at least the ones that survived in your imported save game) from ME1 appear in ME2, though they aren't recruitable NPCs. The reason given for this was that, quite simply, most of your henchmen in ME2 are probably going to die. Yes, this is definitely, consciously aiming for a darker experience.

Although we weren't given a hands-on tour of the new Normandy, we were shown some of the highlights. Your home in ME2 is streamlined, with more crew members, more activity and feeling more like a busy ship of war. The endless elevator rides from ME1 are a blessed memory, replaced with a simple, and much shorter loading screen - the NPC banter while waiting bored for a level to load has been moved into the game itself. The Normandy can be upgraded, much as characters can, which will help make missions easier. Character customization extends to what the character wears as well; players can define separate outfits for armored combat and lounging about bars. There is even a fish tank in your quarters and, of course, fish of various types can be purchased.

The inventory has been revamped as well. The confusing and somewhat meaningless array of "guns with random letters and names" has been changed to a more familiar RPG rules system. Like ME1, weapons can be customized - in ME2, upgrades (weapons, ship, etc) can be earned through "research projects", which are funded through resources mined through the galaxy or found while on missions.

Minigames have been vastly improved as well. Gone is the abstract unlocking/hacking minigame, along with the concept of just spreading futuristic goo on everything and having it magically unlock - instead you'll have more traditional minigames. Unlocking doors involves popping open a schematic and matching icons to "open circuits", similar to lockpicking minigames in other RPGs. Hacking computers in particular is much improved - this time, you'll actually be shown scrolling code (Unrealscript, from the looks of it), and have to identify a particular code snippet on sight quickly while avoiding scrolling "bad blocks". The effect is properly futuristic, and more hands-on.

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Scott Jennings