Going to let me nerd out even more than I did on the OMG The Walking Dead on TV?! post.
I've had an XBox 360 for a bit over 3 years now, and one of my favorite (if not THE favorite) games I've played on it was Mass Effect by Bioware. An incredibly rich story, it expertly blended RPG and action elements with a fantastic story and branching structure. Of course there were issues. Some side missions got pretty repetitive, what with the whole "Land on planet, drive around, kill a few things, take off again" structure. The inventory management system was one of the worst I've seen in a game. But those weren't problems that kept it from being one of my favorite games of all time.
Now the second chapter of the planned trilogy is out, and wow... Bioware has some stones. Apparently you can finish the second game in a trilogy with your main character DEAD. You'd have to play ME3 with a newly created character.
But the big things that stick out as ballsy changes are some of the changes that Bioware made to the gameplay mechanics. Risky, for a game that did so well in its first iteration. I'm going to use Paul Lukas of UniWatch's system for sports uniform change criticism of "Is it good, bad or stupid?"
Caveat: I'm only about 6 or 7 hours into the game, which will probably stretch 50, 60 or more hours. These are all first impressions.
Gone is the terrible inventory system. In fact, gone is the inventory at all. It's a good thing and a bad thing. No more giant inventory, juggling weapons, endless time figuring out what to sell and what to keep. Now, you just have the weapons you are equipped with. You can choose your weapon loadout at the beginning of a mission and you go. But gone with the inventory are the items you can add to a weapon, swap to different weapons, etc to enhance them.
Verdict: Good. That inventory system was terrible. But it allowed me to make ALOT of money for my character*. This is simpler and better.
*I'm lucky I imported a character from ME1 that was deemed 'rich', as it gave me a $100,000 start on cash.
The upgrade system. This is interesting. You have a scientist on your ship that can research upgrades, or you can purchase upgrades. These get applied to most of your weapons and armor (I think, I'm still pretty early in the game) of a given class. I have seen at least one upgrade that just effects Shepherd's [your character] health. So there's probably other upgrades that are more specific. But they're very general and not swappable among weapons and armor.
Unfortunately, you need resources to research and build your upgrades. And resources are a pain in the ass to find [more on that later]. The upgrades look great, and could have some neat effects but it looks like you're going to have to be much more careful and think about what you want and the team members you use most before you research/buy an upgrade.
Upgrade system verdict: Good, so far but the potential to become bad because of resources.
More on resources. Getting resources happens in one of two ways. You can find them while going through your missions [easy] and you can scan unexplored planets to get them [tedious, lame]. Scanning a system basically entails going into orbit around a planet marked 'Unexplored' and running a circular cursor over the planet while pressing your RT trigger and watching for signs of a resource you want. This is a slow and tedious process. Then, once you find it you have to launch a probe to mine the resource.
Problem is, probes cost money. And flying to planets within a system costs fuel (which costs money).
Verdict: Upgrades are going to be very important in this game to make your characters more effective against escalating difficulties of enemies. Forcing the player to go through the tedious process of scanning planets for resources that is just plain boring. But at leas you don't have to drive around annoying landscapes in that stupid truck from ME1 anymore? Stupid.
I'm lucky my imported character from ME1 was a top level guy that gave me a decent amount of resources to start with* (10k each), although I'm already finding upgrades I can't even begin to afford yet.
*See a pattern here? I sorta feel sorry for ME2 players that don't have a strong and complete ME1 player to import.
Fuel and probes are both essential to exploring uncharted planets and finding your resources. They cost money. Fuel is also needed to fly between planets within a system and fly between systems within an area. There goes being able to freely explore the rich universe ME1 and ME 2 have built. I'm playing this game to have fun, not to replicate stopping at the gas station before my commute to work.
Verdict: Bad. Also stupid.
Travelling between planets and systems has also obviously changed a bit, given the addition of fuel. No longer do you go to your map and say "I want to go here now." Now you have to 'fly' there, using fuel. If you want to move out of an area containing multiple systems to another, you have to fly (using fuel) to the local system that has the Mass Effect Relay, then fly to it, then use it to travel between systems. Why? What does this add to the game? Nothing. What does it take away? The freedom to travel easily and explore without worrying about your gas tank.
Verdict: Bad. Also stupid.
Weapon 'powers' are a pretty neat feature. At least for my character class, you can specialize in powers for your weapons themselves, so you can make your bullets cryo or fire bullets on the fly (and I'm sure others as I go one). I love this. Ont he fly you can hit enemies with different sorts of attacks from one gun. The only problem with this is for bigger enemies you have to switch multiple times in one fight to get through their layers of defenses. It gets a bit annoying since it takes time to switch powers. But overall, I like it.
Terminal hacking and overrides have also changed. Gone are the button mashing 'minigame' that also depending on the skills of someone in your party. Enter are two different minigames for hacking and overriding that aren't dependent on any skills. The hacking minigame basically makes you match little colored bits that look like text to other ones that look the same in a scrolling interface with a timer. Hard to describe. It's pretty easy, but a little tedious. Overrides are done by matching 'circuits' on a circuit board, again timed. They are both relatively easy, but not any less tedious than the simple button mashing minigame.
Verdict: Stupid, but no harm done.
Your actions in the game also act more like streamlined missions than freeform exploration. Maybe BioWare doesn't WANT players to just explore and take it easy. Maybe they are trying to force players into a feeling that they need to get moving. That shit is going down and there's no time to waste. When you complete a mission, you get a mission report and then you are back on your ship. I kind of like it. One problem though - when you have multiple missions on a plaet/station, and you finish one it's stupid to have to re-dock/land just to do another mission. It should be smarter and just leave you there if you have more to do.
Verdict: Good. But if they really wanted to get the player to feel the urgency of the story, you shouldn't have to slowly scan planets for resources.
Of course, what made the original Mass Effect so good was the story. So far, it's amazingly good. The import of your ME1 character is seamless [although one friend of mien did have some trouble with it, not sure what] and you are instantly dumped into the action. I cant' say much more about the story because I don't want to give away any spoilers, but the part where you meet[character from ME1 name redacted] is really cool and for people who used [him/her] alot in ME1 it feels like you've met up with an old friend right when you need [him/her] the most. I look forward to more moments like that.
Reading the above, it sounds like I've got lots of bad things to say about it. Mostly, I think it's just nitpicking a game that I love. ME1 blew my mind. I hold any sequel to a high standard. There are some elements that seem pointless or against the feel of the game they tried to make. But it's still Mass Effect, with great voice acting, plot, character development and everything.
And I know it's a good game when I sorta wish I could just go home early from work and play more.
For a MUCH better review than this schmuck can do, see Ars Technica's Opposable Thumbs review.
Update after playing for another 4 hours
- Resources: If you play ME2, safe up all the iridium you can for the ship upgrade to your scanner. It makes scanning go a little quicker. Also, focus just on planets that are deemed 'Rich'. It's still stupid that I have to spend so much time just manually scanning an entire planet's surface, but those two things have really increased the amount of resources I was able to get. My verdict is still Stupid though, because it really slows down a game that I think they tried to make more tense and fast paced.
- Upgrades: By increasing the the speed (even if just by a bit) resources I took in, I was able to afford alot more upgrades. Still Good. I think. For now.
- A specific mission complaint: there's a mission I got pretty early to recover some supplies form a planet. I land, and apparently have to fight off three heavy mechs before they destroy 20 crates. I can't remember the name of the mission but it's a side 'N7' mission. Don't even try it until you've leveled up your squad quite a bit and can take out all their shields quickly. It's a BEAST. No way should a mission that difficult come so early.
- Needing to gas up your ship for traveling between systems is still monumentally Stupid.