December 8, 2009 - While I absolutely loved Mass Effect (one of my favorite games this generation), the title was plagued by inefficiencies and hurt by a somewhat lackluster combat mechanic and a lack of post-launch support. That's why I came away from my E3 2009 sit down with Mass Effect 2 Project Director Casey Hudson so jazzed. It appeared that all of these issues were going to be fixed in the game's dark second act: Mass Effect 2.
Apparently, not all gaming journalists came away with the same sense of relief and excitement that I did. In fact, many have questioned whether Mass Effect 2 will even be considered an RPG - maybe it was losing its identity in order to please the more shooter-oriented Xbox 360 players the game has obviously been tailored to. While in-game conflicts won't be resolved with D20s and fun-size candy bars, Casey Hudson assures us that the character interactions and the highly adaptable storyline that reacts to your actions makes for one of the most role-playing-heavy video games ever created. After participating in the roundtable discussion with him, we're inclined to agree.
The format of this conference call had select journalists (including us) posing about five questions to Mr. Hudson ahead of time via email. This gave him time to prepare his responses, but it also allowed him to avoid a couple of my key questions. Most importantly, whether DLC would play a greater role in Mass Effect 2; a question to which I think I've been able to infer the answer, but I'll save that for the end, as some crucial spoiler info (already widely reported on) helped me put the pieces together. Nevertheless, a lot of good questions posed from by peers were also included that helped clarify what we can expect from Mass Effect 2.
Thankfully, the questioning opened up with the query I was most interested in having answered: "In what ways has combat substantially changed since Mass Effect?" The short answer is: in every way. Mr. Hudson made it clear that Mass Effect 2 is a far more stable game, and it has benefitted greatly from a big budget with a strong foundation. As such, the developers were able to build a sequel that improves upon the original in nearly every facet. In other words, rather than focusing on building the setting, the team could now concentrate on smoothing out the rough edges, such as the frame rate and improved texture loading. This new, ultra-smooth Mass Effect makes it possible to vastly improve the camera and combat controls as well as speed up load times. The hugely improved camera and aiming system is something of which the devs seem to be particularly proud. Furthermore, the infamous elevator segments are more interactive now, and they are accompanied by mapping schematics so you can see where you are headed - think of it as a glorified progress bar.
Another area where players will notice great improvement is in the feel and function of weaponry. Weapon aiming and feedback are far more responsive, and there are many more weapon classes from which to choose. Hudson sees players picking weapons that feel the best to them, rather than just getting railroaded into a specific firearm because of class selection. Also, instead of players becoming proficient through the use of arms over time, you'll be able to jump right in and score headshots due to the new location-specific targeting. This is where many of the RPG-minded players out there might get worried, but we were assured that combat is far more intuitive and rewarding this time around, and that the tactical elements of the original have actually been enhanced and made more user-friendly; they haven't been done away with.
I am a little worried about the change to the overheat system. In Mass Effect, you never had to worry about running out of ammunition, because each gun was actually a miniature mass accelerator - overheating was the only issue with which you had to deal. This time around, the devs have actually included an ammo system, so you'll be looking around the environments for thermal heat syncs - essentially clips of ammo. I hate doing that, but Hudson says that ammunition economy makes for far more edgy combat and that it was important to include this ammo system this time around. I'll take his word for it for now, but the jury is still out.