Maybe they did it for me. If not for last month's surprise release of the Pinnacle Station expansion to Mass Effect, I may not have been able to appreciate what I just played in Mass Effect 2 this morning.
At the Penny Arcade Expo today, I played a demo sequence of Mass Effect 2 that had series hero Commander Shepard and two squadmates, biotics specialist Jacob and soldier Miranda, shooting their way down a long, narrow outdoor walkway.
Our mission was to storm a building and, ultimately we would be attempting to recruit Thane, a member of the game's new Drell race. Imagine this all happening on a city of clean, congested high-tech skyscrapers, all bathed in the dark blues and purples as flying cars filled the skyways all around.
I didn't come to a noisy BioWare booth to judge the the story or scenery this time. I came to feel the combat.
The demo I played presented the same mission McWhertor tackled last month at Gamescom, but he's a self-confessed Mass Effect neophyte. With the combat system of Mass Effect fresh in my mind thanks to Pinnacle station I noticed the following differences:
-The game plays more like the shooter it resembles. I took aim and hit what I thought I should hit. As I shot my way through the demo sequence I didn't feel like calculations under the game's hood were determining that I didn't have the right stats to score those direct hits I knew I was making. I agreed with the BioWare rep standing beside me. Targeting an enemy accurately and firing in this demo was more likely to result in accurate damage.
-Combat is still strategic, but swifter. The basic mechanics of strategic combat are unchanged. You still have to hold down your Xbox 360 controller's right button or left button to pull up menu wheels that display all of your and your squad's weapons and powers — while the combat freezes behind them. The speed of the transitions into and out of those views, however, was improved. I didn't feel the action stutter as I activated the wheel or chose a command. The flow of combat didn't feel gummed down by my need to click, open menu, select power, close menu, and see the result of my choices commence. The mechanics of what occurred appeared to be the same, just smoother. In the first game I didn't enjoy using the combat wheels. The streamlining in this demo changed that. I wound up using the menus more. It also seemed that my squadmates more swiftly executed my orders. No sooner did I leave the menu, having commanded one of them to use the "Pull" option, then the targeted enemy was flying past me, a victim of my strategic decisions and choice of powers for three characters to wield in concert.
-The reticle is more useful. You couldn't have a much simpler targeting reticle than the first Mass Effect's light blue circle. The new game's reticle, which is scrubbed out of released screenshots for the game, unfortunately, is a superior green crosshairs that contrasts more clearly against enemy bodies. Just below the green crosshairs is an arc of bullets that represents your ammo count. The prominence of that arc frees of you of the need to check the periphery of the screen to deduce when you need to reload. In a frantic battle that involves you managing two squadmates as well, that little efficiency helps.
-Squadmates are improved followers, improved doers. I felt as if I had more control of my squad in the Mass Effect 2 demo, thanks to left-and-right d-pad options that allowed me to command one or the other ally to move to specific positions in the area. I could also order them to advance or fall back as a group, which I could in the first game as well. A subtle interface adjustment now presents small portraits of your two active ally characters in the lower left part of your screen, right next to their health meters and the button icons that remind you about those movement commands. This all makes commanding the squad a more efficient and clearly represented process. These allies might be smarter too. When I left them to fight on their own, they seemed more capable than the allies of the first game.
I left my Mass Effect 2 demo feeling like the shooting had improved and that the strategic combat was less of a pace-killer than before. Does that make it more a shooter and less an RPG? I'm not sure, but it looks like it'll make for better gameplay.
The interactive dialogue sequences that bookended the battle I fought may have been more the hallmark of a Mass Effect. The quality of the combat in between suggested that the game's action may be rising to the level of the series' storytelling.
That's the progress of a sequel.
Mass Effect 2 is slated for release in 2010.
UPDATE: Given the feedback regarding two parts of this post, I reached out to BioWare for some clarification.
1) Some commenters took issue with my description of the sequel demo's increased emphasis on accurate aiming, particularly how I compared that to a more stats-based system of the first game. The word back from the same BioWare rep who showed me the game today is that the Mass Effect 2 demo does indeed offer a more accuracy-based targeting system. The new game's system allows for location-based damage on enemies and that therefore deals appropriate damage to an enemy depending on where you land your sots on them. The rep contrasted that with the first game's system, which used character levels to determine part of the accuracy of a shot.
2) Some readers were confused by my description of what appeared to be an ammunition counter under the targeting reticle, something they felt was inconsistent with the unlimited ammunition and overheating mechanics of the first game. The BioWare rep told me that I did not miss an overheating mechanic today; it's not in the demo. That doesn't mean it won't be in the full game, but for this demo the reticle does indeed show a depleting amount of ammunition that then refreshes — a replenishment which I described as reloading.
I hope that clears things up and proves that my eyes weren't playing tricks on me. It sounds like we still all have plenty to learn about how combat will work and the extent to which it will work differently in Mass Effect 2.