Mass Effect 2 Impressions: Looks Better, Shoots Differently, Doesn't Overheat

Freeze-bullets. Framerates. Interactive cut-scenes. Even old friends from other Mass Effect games (yes, plural). These are some of the things, new or improved, that I recently saw in Mass Effect 2.

Just three months before the January 2010 release of BioWare's second Mass Effect, there is an intriguing bit of, well, intrigue about what's going to be happening in BioWare's science fiction sequel to its hit Xbox 360 and PC role playing game Mass Effect. The more I've seen of Mass Effect 2 over three showings in June, September and then last month, the more mysterious its adventure seems.

The more I play it and talk to those involved in making it — including during a recent Xbox 360 demo of the game in New York of a new mission on the planet Omega — the more it appears that the flaws of the game's acclaimed predecessor have been addressed as the game assumes its identity as a shooter-role-playing-game hybrid.

Scrubbed, at least in the demo missions, are graphical imperfections: Slowed framerate, texture pop-in and bland backgrounds. All remedied, it seems.

The mission I saw brought Commander Shepard to the planet Omega and a nightclub called Afterlife where flames flashed in the background of the club and graphical textures didn't pop in a few seconds too late. Dancers and bartenders prowled a scene that bustled with more commotion than anything I'd seen in the first Mass Effect.

Graphical upgrades were desired and expected. Did you foresee that cut-scenes could benefit from some user involvement? After meeting some seedy folks at the bar, Shepard ran into an old friend from Mass Effect 1 — I'll only spoil his identity in the last sentence of this article. A cutscene started, but not the idle type of an older game. During a climactic moment, the player's of the trigger let off a rifle round, leaving fewer enemies to fight in the subsequent post-cutscene battle. This is similar to a moment during a cutscene in a level shown at E3 that let Shepard shove a man out a window, supposedly when prompted by a button cue.

Better graphics, interactive cut-scenes… how about an ammo upgrade?

This is the change I'm less sure all Mass Effect fans will like. As the Penny Arcade Expo demo of Mass Effect 2 led me and our readers to believe, the new game will arm the player with ammunition-based weapons that need to be manually reloaded.

Gone is the first game's system of infinite-ammo weapons that overheat if used to much too quickly. Reader feedback to that possibility was mixed during PAX. The EA representative who showed me the Omega mission couldn't tell me what the narrative justification was for abandoning the series' no-reload-needed ballistics technology. He could tell me, however, was that the game's developers felt that the old system for regulating player's use of guns — an overheating mechanic that enforced slower shooting and mandatory cooldown — disrupted the flow of a good firefight. Players would run for cover and wait until their weapon was ready to fire again. Not anymore. Hopefully.

After some tense conversation in the bar, the meeting with the old Mass Effect character and a bad sip of a dangerous drink, Shepard got into a firefight. He had a Krogan names Grunt and the human character Jacob from the recent Mass Effect iPod Touch game, Mass Effect Galaxy, at his side. I played this part, trying the refined combat system.

BioWare is clearly trying to improve and deepen the Mass Effect shooting experience. Gunplay is still third-person and real-time. The action can still be paused as the player activates a wheel of optional powers and weapons, which can be wielded by Shepard and whichever two partner characters are with him. Added to that is the ability to arm special ammunition types the freeze enemies or blow them up.

The demo level being shown ended with a mech battle, but I didn't get that far. I was off to play other games.

As combat heavy as the back part of the demo was, though, people curious about Mass Effect 2 shouldn't worry that story is being neglected. It is more obscured in these demonstrations of the game, partially, I'd wager, because there are more surprises there worth holding back. Even the nature of Shepard himself (or herself, if you've played as a female) is in question. As close to release as this game is, a mystery remains as to even the nature of its lead character's existence. Is he alive, dead, reborn? Why, in this demo, does another character not believe Shepard is Shepard and then snidely say, "That could be anyone wearing your face"?

This week's release of Dragon Age was BioWare's testament to not abandoning its classic role-playing game roots. Mass Effect 2 is the branch extending further away. These demos reveal the growth of a gameplay style that feels ever closer to a shooter, shaped, at least, by the player's strategic decision-making and ability-management. There's little hiding the active evolution of this gameplay style.

The gameplay may be more clear — and the graphics too — but it still also feels like Mass Effect 2 is hiding something: What are the dark secrets of its narrative? Why might someone else be wearing his face? And, hey, if they're going to explain that, why won't his weapons overheat?

Finally, as promised, here is your SPOILER ABOUT THE RETURNING CHARACTER…

It's Garrus who is back.