LOS ANGELES--Mass Effect, the highly anticipated sci-fi role-playing game from BioWare is being shown behind closed doors in the Microsoft booth at E3 this year. We eagerly jumped at the chance to see the game in action, and although we didn't get to play it, what we experienced was more than enough to make us want more.
In the distant future--the 23rd century to be exact--mankind has started to broaden its horizons through extensive galactic exploration. The relationship between humans and a myriad of other mechanical and organic creatures is shaky at best, so you have to walk on eggshells as you explore the farthest reaches of space in your space cruiser, Normandy.
You play the game as Commander Shepard, an elite member of an agency known as Specter. As commander, it's your responsibility to maintain peace in the galaxy by any means possible. There are apparently forces at work who are attempting to sabotage the peace between the races, and it's your job to unravel the mysteries of the universe through exploration, diplomacy, and combat.
When you begin the game you can fully customize your character, from gender to facial features and hair style. You can also choose among a variety of different classes and assign proficiencies based on what type of character you want to use. The skills fall into three basic categories: combat, tech, and biotics, which are dark energy powers.
The demo we saw began on a 30-mile-long space station known as the Citadel. Commander Shepard emerged from his docked spaceship and we got a close-up view of his hardened, rough-edged features and his intense stare. Shepard then walked into a nightclub, followed by two members of his crew, an athletic and vocal woman in a visor, and a large, muscular, alien-looking humanoid. The bar was filled with non-playable characters who were dancing, talking to one another, drinking, and generally milling about as you'd expect. At this point the female character in the party mentioned something about looking for a contact among all the patrons in the bar. Instead of going table to table in search of their contact, the group approached the bartender with the hopes of gathering some information. At the bar, a real-time conversation was initiated between Shepard and the bug-eyed, bulbous-headed alien bartender. The conversation played out in a series of exchanges, between which you could choose one of a number of responses to further the conversation. There are spaces for up to six different responses, but the most we saw at any one time was four. During the conversation the camera pulls in very close to the faces of the participants, and the level of detail and expression is truly impressive. As the conversation between Shepard and the bartender soured, both participants appeared visibly annoyed, and that frustration was reflected in their voices as well. Eventually the discussion died and the bartender refused to provide any information. At this point Shepard had the option to bribe, threaten, or continue talking to try to get more information. We wanted to see some drama, so we asked the developer to show us a threat. At this point, Shepard pulled out a pistol and shouted at the bartender. This did the trick, as the bartender began to whimper and plead for his life and eventually gave up all the info he had.
After pulling a gun on the bartender, Shepard and his group casually strolled upstairs to another room. As the group walked, Shepard's subordinates commented on the tense exchange with the bartender. Apparently, as you play the game your party members will react to all of your actions and will even leave the party if they don't agree with the way you choose to conduct yourself. In the second room, Shepard approached an alien woman with greenish skin and very feminine features. This conversation was conducted in the same way as the bartender conversation, and was only slightly less tense. The woman provided substantial information about the turmoil in the galaxy, though. Apparently the galaxy is, "…built on extinction." She then goes on to explain that every 50,000 years or so one race is wiped out to make room for another. And, unfortunately, it's about time for another round of genocide.
The conversations in the game are all fully voiced, and based on what we heard, the voices sound great. Each non-player character will respond to you, although some characters will have a lot more to say than others. Also, when you're talking to characters you have to be careful of making hasty comments, because characters will get testy if you keep interrupting them.
After the conversation sequences, we got a look at the exploration aspect of the game. You can access a galaxy map that shows the entire Milky Way, and then you can choose a star or planet cluster to travel to and it switches to another large map with several locations to choose from. From the cluster, you can choose a system, and from a system you can choose a specific location to visit. There are stars, planets, and even derelict space stations and abandoned ships. All of this exploration is open to you from the very beginning of the game, and it looks like there will be a ton of locations to explore. There will also be downloadable updates to keep you exploring far beyond the reaches of the main storyline.
At this point in the demo, Commander Shepard chose to visit a planet. An all-terrain vehicle was deployed and the Commander drove it around on the surface of the planet before discovering a lost city that had been deserted for thousands of years. He entered the city, and the other characters in the party made some comments about what they just discovered.
The city looked like it was once filled with large, concrete structures such as bridges and buildings. Everything was overgrown and obviously uninhabited. The party moved around just as in any other third-person shooter, with free camera control using the right analog stick and a default behind-the-back perspective. As the party ventured farther into the city, they encountered some hostile machines that started blasting with laser rifles of some sort. At this point we got to see the combat in the game. You can switch to combat mode, which pulls the camera in close over Shepard's shoulder and presents an aiming reticle on the screen. It's similar to Resident Evil 4 in that it blends first-person aiming controls with a third-person perspective that gives you good awareness of your surroundings. You can lock on to enemies, but it requires a skill upgrade, so it isn't quite as simple as holding a button and firing away without aiming.
Combat takes place in real time, and you can switch between all three characters in your party on the fly to take advantage of different strengths and weaknesses of each character. You can level up each character individually, which allows you to create a specialized group of units that are capable in a variety of situations.
An important part of the combat in Mass Effect that makes it more than just a shooter is the squad-control mechanic. At any time during combat you can initiate squad control, which freezes the action and allows you to select one of your teammates and slide an icon around the map to tell him or her where to move. In the example we saw, the action froze with lasers hanging in midair, and one of the squad members was selected. A blue icon appeared and was dragged to the other side of the map, and then the other character was selected and ordered to move to the other side of the map, effectively flanking the enemies who were in the center. Once those positions were assigned, the action was unpaused and the characters completed their assigned tasks. This squad control gives the combat a very tactical feel, but the controls seem simple enough to make it intuitive and easy to learn. While a good sense of tactical battle strategy certainly wont hurt, it doesn't look like you'll need to know any in-depth squad tactics to get by.
During combat we had a chance to see some of the environmental effects, and how the interactive elements will affect battle. At one point Shepard threw a grenade underneath a crumbling bridge, causing large chunks of cement to fall on the enemies below. We also got a taste of some of the biotics, which are dark energy powers similar to magic. The female character used these powers to emit an energy blast that sent a shock wave toward the enemies. It also pushed some large containers around, which were capable of crushing any enemies that got in the way.
After the combat sequence, the demo ended. We were impressed by what we saw, not only by the interesting story, characters, and gameplay mechanics, but also by the amazing graphics. Everything we saw was in-game, and while some areas looked like they could use a bit more touching up, the characters and settings looked fantastic. The universe was very bright, clean, and futuristic. The explosions, weapons, and special effects added a lot of flair to the game, and the character faces were highly detailed and expressive.
We're looking forward to seeing more of Mass Effect, and we especially want to get some hands-on time with the game. The team at BioWare is currently shooting for a winter 2006 release, so be sure to check back often for more updates.