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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Mass Effect 2

Squad core.

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.

Any gun with a radiation warning on the side is bound to pack a punch.

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.