I made a bit of an error with Mass Effect. Going for edgy realism, I designed my particular Shepard to resemble the western approach of Kilimanjaro after an improbable collision with an aerial crocodile farm - all rugged escarpments and pockmarked, gnarly-leather skin. He is not what you'd call a looker.
I'm stuck with him now though. Ever since it was revealed that the errant Spectre would be reprising his lead role in the sequel (rather than copping the big one as the early teaser trailer suggested), I've been learning to accept that the last hope for galactic peace would frighten Lisa Riley in a dark room.
Still, for a man who's been kicked about a fair bit by most of the known races in the galaxy, he's a good fit, and my brief playthrough of the scenario available at gamescom only serves to heighten already considerable anticipation at my ugly avatar's return to duty.
As you've no doubt read in Digital Foundry's technical analysis, Mass Effect 2 seems to have done away with many of the graphical issues which marred the original, issues which no doubt lost it a few fans. I won't repeat what Rich wrote, but suffice to say the improvements are obvious during play, even to technically untrained eyes such as my own.
The section available for hands-on play is the assault on a tower block that occurs just before the attempted recruitment of Thane, the Drell assassin seen in another early video. Before anything happens we're told that whilst control feels familiar, a number of key elements have been improved. Firstly, squad control should be easier and more accurate, with mappable d-pad actions giving finer control. Secondly, the radial menus have been improved, with ammo types now selectable here rather than from within the fiddly inventory system.
I'm put in charge of a soldier-class Shepard, meaning that Biotic and Tech support options are limited to those of the squad - activated in much the same way as the first game. There aren't any new powers to see at gamescom, but there is new weapon type in addition to the already-confirmed heat-seeking missiles: the heavy pistol. Work that one out for yourselves. More weapon classes have been confirmed, although specifics are still in the realm of speculation.
Once through a brief cinematic, during which a few conversation options are offered, Shepard's squad enters the tower, loaded during the new elevator animation - a stylised neon wire-frame which has blessed little of an actual lift journey about it. Once inside, what immediately separates the style of Mass Effect 2 from its predecessor is the action focus - this is a smoother, more refined experience, one which feels much more like a squad shooter than the first game.
BioWare has made clear that this is still an RPG, and all of those elements remain, but it's undeniable that the core experience has shifted toward being more accessible, less dense. Cover is easier to use, and more effective, with a Gears-style touch of the A button snapping Shepard to it. Holding A rushes the Commander out from behind cover and sprints him forward, adding immediacy and poise to storming positions. The new context-specific hit-zones also contribute to this, with enemies no longer flying backwards in a uniform fashion no matter where they're hit, but responding accurately to targeted shots.
The level area itself is a corridor, perhaps understandably given we're storming a well-defended position, and ample cover provides plenty of tactical opportunities. First up I pull out the sniper rifle, a favourite from my first playthrough as an infiltrator class. It's just as satisfying as ever, with a believable lead-time and satisfyingly brutal results - and flicking through a few different ammo types proves that the right choice of munitions is still very important. One new feature is an increase in the wobble of the scope - a high wind blows across the catwalk that we're crossing and it affects the aiming appropriately. BioWare insists this is still under consideration, but as a context-sensitive mechanic it seems to work well.
Other weapon types are fine-tuned as well, fitting more snugly with their tactical roles. The assault rifle is a more effective suppression weapon now, and the shotgun's even better at close-range no-brainer mop-ups. Despite the extra options on offer, however, I still manage to lose my biotic squad member pretty early on. Well, I don't lose him - it's just that I'm unlikely to find all the bits needed to put him back together again, since I've taken the back of his head off with a sniper bullet as he dodged into my line of fire after a pounding from several Asari bodyguards.
The squad AI needs a bit of polish judging by a few similar problems elsewhere, somewhat reducing the sensation that these troops are the very best that the galaxy has to offer, but I'm also suffering from the sniffles at the time of playing, so it's possible that dropping a high-velocity round into an ally is my fault after all. Plus, the game's not out for ages, so they're undoubtedly tweaking things as I type. No great shakes either way - downed squad members are out of the picture for the rest of the engagement, but make a miraculous recovery afterwards.
Popping off a few HE rounds at some troublesome turrets is exhilarating without being overly simplistic, the missiles offer a satisfyingly meaty bang without feeling overpowered. I'm endowed with a much bigger allocation of these than you'd expect in the game proper, but it isn't tempting to use them willy-nilly to dispatch troopers; the range of other weaponry on offer is just too apt and satisfying.
Once I've proved Nassana Dantius' security to be woefully inadequate, Shepard's straight into another cut-scene as my squad storms the office of the assassination target. Knowing that our interviewee is about to get capped by the galaxy's premier dealer of stealthy death adds a certain frisson to the exchange, and offers ample scope for the moralistic aspect of the conversation tree to flourish.
Without spoiling the outcome too much, I'm not sure whether preventing the killing is an option. I certainly didn't bother, remembering the Asari's deceptions in the Citadel. Interestingly though, the new 'interrupt' conversation mechanic crops up very briefly during the conversation in the diplomat's office, with an icon for the left trigger flashing up in the lower left corner of the screen. I wasn't expecting it, and it was a brief appearance indeed, but from what we've learned already these triggers should provide a way to drive conversations forward quickly, with the only example we've had confirmed so far defenestrating a particularly stubborn informant.
The cut-scene, similar to its opposing number at the start of the mission, is beautifully set, incredibly cinematically lit, voiced and shot. There's none of the texture pop-in of the first game either, and general slickness has been ramped up by several factors. Without wishing to dig too deeply into the hyperbole barrel, Mass Effect 2's cut-scenes look to be taking a huge step toward cinema-quality storytelling. Even in the two or thee minutes at gamescom there's a palpable sense of place and narrative drive, a tremendously engaging and immersive pull which drags me straight back into this richly involving universe.
However, all too soon the demo is over and we're kicked back into the harshly lit reality of EA's press area, extremely hungry for more. Sniffles or no, there's a big grin on my face as Digital Foundry's Rich Leadbetter and I head back to the Eurogamer booth - two fans with high hopes for the series' future.
Mass Effect 2 is due out for PC and Xbox 360 next year.