2. The Sidequests - Mass Effect had plenty of side missions and quests to keep you busy, but most of them felt kind of, well, pointless. You might've been genuinely interested in Tali's quest or Wrex's personal history, but cruising one dull planet after another to find some piece of ore that seemingly counted for nothing but an achievement didn't exactly make for gripping gameplay. You'll still be doing many of those same actions, but according to Hudson, you're going to be far more personally involved now. Instead of simply choosing "scan" or "land" from a menu, the way you did previously, now you'll actually do it - or at least play a minigame representing it. Even navigating through the cosmos will be more interesting, as you'll be moving the ship itself instead of a pointer. I did get to see two minigames in action - one for bypassing the security on a safe and another for hacking a data pad -- though neither one was the finished version, both were at least mildly amusing, so perhaps we won't mind looking for random trinkets this time around.
You'll have more incentive to look into your companion's personal lives, too. The action of Mass Effect 2 is leading up to a suicide mission - one in which Hudson says the question is not whether someone will die, but who and how many. Your relationship with your shipmates will play a big part in improving your collective survival rate. The more loyal they are, the more likely you are to live to see the credits roll, so chat those teammates up every chance you get. Unless you actually want them to die, that is.
3. The Elevators - The elevator loading screens of Mass Effect are practically legendary for the way they brought the game to a screeching halt - a complaint the developers BioWare didn't actually see coming because they saw them from a completely different perspective. "People said [the elevators in the Citadel] were slow," explains Hudson with a bit of a laugh. "We didn't think they were slow because we knew how far you were going. You're going from one end of Manhattan to the other in 30 seconds."
To help you visualize your journey, a schematic will show your elevator's location in relation to your final destination, so that if it seems to be taking forever, you'll know it's because you're covering some serious distance. The loading is also much faster, leaving little time to catch up on news reports of your recent exploits.
4. The Fishtanks - As you strolled through the decks of the Normandy in Mass Effect, you may have noticed a distinct lack of fishtanks...or at least wondered how an environment populated by a crew of at least a dozen crewmen stayed so sterile and cold. The new Normandy looks much more like a ship where a crew actually works and lives. Your quarters have received quite an overhaul; they're now less like a military bunk and more like a mini-apartment, complete with an enormous fishtank built right into the wall. Hudson mentioned that you'll be able to collect fish for it, but didn't specify how. In fact, he seemed a little bemused that I even wanted to know. But they're fish. In space! How could I not want to know? You'll be able to buy other decorations for your digs, too, though I'm not sure if you can arrange them how you like, or if they'll just go where they go, a la Oblivion.
Your quarters aren't just for relaxing, though. You'll receive emails to your private terminal that may advance the plot, or simply inform you of the fallout from your previous missions. You can also change out of your battle armor into something more casual and appropriate for your off-duty hours. It won't apparently affect how other characters interact with you, though.
5. Everything Else - BioWare took feedback from fans of Mass Effect very, very seriously when work on Mass Effect 2 began. As Hudson puts it, audience feedback and reviews essentially "became the blueprint for Mass Effect 2." The team prowled forums, digested every last review - if it mentioned Mass Effect, someone at BioWare read it and took notes. "We literally made a spreadsheet where we took every positive comment and every negative comment and we put them into categories" says Hudson. The result was a list of about 40 things that the team wanted to do to make the Mass Effect 2 experience that much better than its predecessor. Does that mean the Mako sequences will be less excruciating? Or the inventory system less aneurysm-inducing? From the small part of the game I saw, BioWare is very serious about fixing what's broken while polishing what works, so I'd say the answer to both questions is probably "yes." We'll know for sure when Mass Effect 2 is released in January.