I hope everyone had a great Winter-een-mas week, and that everyone found some time to get a bit of gaming in. My free time last week was divided between Mass Effect 2 and MAG.
Mass Effect 2 is, as you've probably heard at this point, an across-the-board improvement over the original, and I thought the original was fantastic. It did have a few flaws/annoyances though, and having personally only completed it a few days prior to firing up the sequel, the changes and improvements are immediately noticeable.
The story and characters continue to be top notch. The first game didn't suffer there at all, but the sequel continues to raise the bar. The addition of Martin Sheen as the Illusive Man is a perfect example.
The biggest changes are found in the gameplay, which has been greatly streamlined over the predecessor. The cookie-cutter MAKO side-missions from the first game are gone. I never found myself bothered by these too much, though I feel like they'd be less bearable now having seen how the side missions are handled in the sequel.
Instead of dropping down on a bland, barren planet and aimlessly driving/hopping around in your MAKO for twenty minutes, you now scan unexplored planets from space. You'll either find rich mineral deposits that you can harvest via space probe to fund your research, or an anomaly that you can land and investigate (and you land right at the beginning of the side mission). The whole process removes unecessary load and travel times, which means you're spending more time doing something useful. It makes exploring new worlds all the more enticing.
Another huge change to the game is the inventory system. Omni gel is gone. Tons of different guns and suits of armor, and ammo types listed by increasing grade are gone. Ammo types are narrowed down, and now an ability that you can invest skill points into. Weapons are upgraded by finding schematics out in the universe. Once you have a weapon, any squad member with the appropriate skill can use it. When you embark on a mission, you select the weapon loadout for your squad (the game seems to auto-select the best available weapons for them), and that's the extent of "inventory" management you'll deal with.
Armor is handled differently as well. You no longer collect armor for your squad. They have their armor that they come with, and that's it (unless you unlock an alternate appearance for them).
For Shepard, there's still some customization available, but not in the form of a bunch of suits of armor. Now, instead, you collect/purchase individual pieces (helmet, shoulders, chest) with individual bonuses which can be mixed and matched to create a suit of armor that matches your aesthetic/play style. And then, to top it off, you can choose the colors and pattern of your suit. This is all easily done by visiting the armor locker on your ship.
These changes (removal) of an inventory system was a bit of a surprise at first... after all, a classic staple of an RPG is inventory management. However, as I've played through Mass Effect 2, I haven't found myself missing it at all. It means I'm spending less time in a pause screen comparing items to decide which onces to melt down into omni-gel, and more time out in the incredible universe that Bioware has crafted.
Money plays a more important role in the game now. You'll need credits to fund some of your upgrades and research, and you'll also need credits to purchase probes which mine resources from planets, and event to purchase fuel for your ship. Travel between star systems with a mass relay is free, however to travel between systems without one burns fuel. It adds a more interactive and considerate aspect to the galaxy map, when charting your course of travel.
Even the mini-games got an overhaul. You no longer play a little game of Simon to "hack" into safes and datapads. Now you either play a more visually appealing game of memory to connect circuit nodes, or you sift through pages of code to find the appropriate sequence. Once you get the hang of these games, you'll rarely fail them, however you get more or less credits from the safe you're hacking depending on your speed at completing the mini-game. So while by the end of the game they're old hat, there's still an urgency placed on your skill with them.
Overall Mass Effect 2 seems like its done everything a sequel is supposed to. It scrapped what didn't work in its predecessor, while continuing to build on the foundation of great characters and an incredibly rich universe to explore. And if you're importing your Mass Effect 1 completed save game (and I highly recommend everyone finish ME1 before starting the sequel), you will get so much more out of the details and character relationships in Mass Effect 2. It has made the wait for Mass Effect 3 infinitely harder.
As for MAG... it's a fun game, but I feel like it lacks a little direction right now. I'm not really sure what we're fighting for. What's the end-game here? What's the benefit of winning this war? It's going to need to figure that out pretty soon if it wants to stand up against Bad Company 2. Still, the 256 player battles are pretty damned impressive. I'm in S.V.E.R. as CADTim, if you happen to find me with a bullet on the battlefield.