I did not expect Mass Effect 2 would impress me as much as it did. Moments after leaving the 20-minute hands-off demonstration by Mass Effect 2 project director Casey Hudson, hours before I'd be able to compose my thoughts here, I sent a message to my Twitter page announcing that Mass Effect 2 slammed my jaw to the floor. If Mass Effect was BioWare bringing their A-game, Mass Effect 2's looking like what happens when they bring their AAA-game -- if that makes any sense. When the demo finished, I wanted to head home and start Mass Effect again.
Here's the biggest reason BioWare left me with my mouth open: they're taking consequences seriously. In the original Mass Effect, characters could die, decisions could be made, but if you were like me, the moment a choice became regrettable, it was as simple as loading up a previous save and making a different decision. BioWare appears to be taking steps to avoid these issues in Mass Effect 2.
[NOTE: IF YOU DO NOT WANT SOME OF MASS EFFECT 2'S STORY DECISIONS TO BE SPOILED, DO NOT READ THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS!]
In Mass Effect 2, Commander Shepard can actually die. No, I don't mean his health bar will run out because of one too many laser blasts and players are returned to the last checkpoint. The consequences are more severe than that. According to Hudson, players can make a series of decisions that will not allow Commander Shepard to continue -- the decisions lead to his death. I was shown a sequence where the Normandy has been completely wrecked by an "unknown force." Shepard told other characters to leave him behind; he'd take care of escaping on his own. The scene didn't unfold how I predicted, though: Shepard died. Done. Finished. In this scenario, he won't appear in Mass Effect 2.
Unfortunately, BioWare wasn't taking questions. I wasn't able to ask the obvious -- if Shepard is killed, does another character take over in Mass Effect 3? Do you have to play through the entire game again? How reversible are these decisions, if at all? Creating decisions with real weight appears to be imperative to the Mass Effect 2 experience, which is unsurprising, given how Hudson repeatedly emphasized how much darker the sequel would be. This is Mass Effect's The Empire Strikes Back.
Mass Effect 2 Trailer
What sets up all this darkness is still unknown. You prevented the Reapers from destroying the universe at the end of Mass Effect, but there's more work to be done. Hudson wasn't revealing much in the way of plot specifics, only saying that humans have started to mysteriously disappear and even through Shepard is told finding out why would be a suicide mission, he's committed. Mass Effect 2's story takes Shepard into some shady locations, as he spends most of the game recruiting the universe's sharpest criminals to join his mini army. To fight who or what, though? BioWare isn't saying.
To no surprise, then, was the massive amount of firefights that happened during my 20 minutes watching Mass Effect 2. The powers wheel found in the original remains a part of Mass Effect 2, but for almost the entire demonstration, BioWare chose to fight in real-time. In fact, if you weren't told otherwise, it'd be hard to tell Mass Effect 2 hadn't been designed from the ground up to be a bonafide action game. Mass Effect's combat was always more action than RPG, but it seems BioWare is aiming to have Mass Effect 2's real-time combat stand up to the world's other shooters.
And while combat's seen serious upgrades, it's not alone. There were only a few dialogue conversations here at E3, including a more elaborate version of the sequence shown at GDC, but the few snippets showcased lessons learned from Mass Effect. Eventually, standard dialogue became boring to watch in Mass Effect because the camera didn't do anything. Mass Effect 2's conversational camera, however, is constantly moving around, adding a much needed cinematic touch.
I was already looking forward to Mass Effect 2, but not like this. Once E3 is over, maybe another session of Mass Effect is in order.