Mass Effect may be the most highly anticipated Xbox 360 title to not be spawned from an established franchise, but the universe-exploring RPG has something else going for it that might be worth as much as a million-selling predecessor: the BioWare logo emblazoned on its packaging. More importantly, BioWare’s trademarked style of highly customizable experiences, introduced to console gamers with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire, infuses every inch of Mass Effect, its most ambitious project to date.
Following three-plus years of development and a handful of delays, Mass Effect has finally come together in a near-complete state, with the final months of development focused solely on polish and improving playability. After seeing the game in action at E3, it’s not hard to see why Microsoft has the confidence to launch the first title of an intended trilogy in a crowded holiday season. Mass Effect builds upon the general formula established in Knights of the Old Republic, taking customization and user control to an unprecedented new level with an expansive narrative that’s sharper and fresher than anything a decades-old license could produce.
As with its Halo 3 and Fable 2 meetings, our meeting with Microsoft for Mass Effect was highly focused, with much of the presentation dealing with the games superb-looking conversation system. Previous BioWare titles have allowed players to dictate their responses to A.I.-instigated queries, but Mass Effect removes the rough edges, presenting such discussions in a highly cinematic way, similar to that of a film or a pre-rendered cut-scene. Using the in-game engine, the camera shifts to an up-close perspective during a discussion, allowing players to focus on facial expressions and attempt to interpret body language.
But conversations in Mass Effect are more about what you say than what you see. As the scene unfolds, conversational options will appear around a small circle on the bottom portion of the screen, allowing the player to choose a response while the NPC is talking. Where previous systems most resembled the exchange of instant messages, discussions in Mass Effect come as close to the ebb and flow of a verbal conversation as we’ve seen in a game. Choices made in the midst of a conversation not only affect the direction of that particular dialogue, but may also lead to decisions that will affect the rest of the game.
At times, a particular response (or set of responses) may help Commander Shepard avoid violence, but in other situations, Shepard may be given the option to respond with his firearm. We were made privy to a spoiler sequence several hours into the game where Shepard made such a rash decision, but Project Director Casey Hudson asked us not to share it, as players may opt to go a much different route in that situation.
One of the more intriguing revelations of the demo is that just as Shepard can upgrade his physical skills and abilities over the course of the game, he will also be able to upgrade his Presence (charm) and Command (intimidate) abilities, which may give him additional conversational options. These appeared in a later conversation as red and blue responses, as opposed to standard white options that would have been available regardless of his status. With additional options comes more flexibility in dramatic situations, as well as even more ways to play the game.
“It’s as deep a character customization system as we’ve ever had in a BioWare game, and yet it’s just a lot more straightforward,” said Hudson. “You can see at a glance what your characters are good at. If you want to get good at a certain thing, like assault rifles, you just spend experience points into it.”
Special attacks will be unlocked at various intervals in the leveling process, and Hudson added that upgrading the aforementioned assault rifle skill may also affect your shotgun skill, demonstrating that a character’s various abilities are inextricably linked. Wrex, a Krogan bounty hunter who joined our party after a heated (but respectful) conversation at the Citadel space station, had a unique special talent called Krogan Battlemaster. As the Krogan Battlemaster skill is leveled up, Wrex will become immune to toxins and earn the ability to recover much more quickly from injury. We’re very interested to see what other abilities/skills/talents will pop up between the many different characters that can join your party.
Whether intentional or not, Mass Effect has a couple of things in common with the critically acclaimed television show, Battlestar Galactica. Like the cable series, which uses a grain filter to seamlessly merge the human actors with visual effects and CG environments, Mass Effect uses similar filters and effects to make the game look less like… well, a game.
“There’s a bunch of things that we’re doing to kind of create an overall film-like presentation and get away from some of the gamey graphics stuff,” said Hudson. “Games still have aliasing issues and shadow issues and stuff that sort of distract from the performance. We’re doing a lot of things like motion blur, film grain, and some of the stuff we do with color palettes. It’s kind of a style choice, but it’s almost a psychological thing that allows us to kind of even out the overall image so that you can stand back and appreciate the acting performance more.”
More importantly, like Galactica, Mass Effect doesn’t shy away from potentially controversial social issues, as demonstrated to us by the ongoing conflict between the Krogan and Turian races. Years before the game takes place, the Turians introduced a genetic mutation into the Krogan population that affects most of their pregnancies, thus limiting the Krogan population. Tensions between members of the race were clearly evident during conversations, as members of both races (Wrex, as well as Garrus, a Turian) can be included in Shepard’s party of three. With luck, this particular conflict will only be the tip of the iceberg in terms of emotional, thought-provoking situations that potentially mirror those we face in our own world (albeit on a galactic scale).
“It’s tactical, third-person combat with all kinds of special abilities,” said Hudson, summing up the Mass Effect experience. “It’s exploring the galaxy in a story that’s really big enough to span the whole galaxy, and yet it’s conveying it in a very intimate and emotionally charged way where you actually really sense the impact of your decisions on a personal level, making everything that you do have a lot of meaning in the story.”
Intimate, emotionally charged science fiction? It’s a far cry from the kind of simplistic, good against evil archetypes we’re used to seeing in games, and it’s a potentially exhilarating change for the better. Though we were unable to get hands-on time with the game at E3, we saw plenty – enough to assure us that Mass Effect should be a thrilling role-playing experience; one that is almost certainly worth the wait.
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