LEIPZIG, Germany--BioWare is here at the Games Convention with the latest build of their space role-playing epic Mass Effect, and we had to see what's new with one of this year's most promising Xbox 360 games. The demo focused on the game's open-ended combat, which allows you to approach battle scenarios in a huge number of ways. First, we got a quick glimpse of the character-specific talent trees, where you spend the talent points you earn while leveling up. Talents exist that grant passive stat bonuses and even new conversational options, but we mainly saw talents pertaining to specific weapon and biotic powers. For every few points you spend, you'll gain a new ability related to the weapon you're powering up. We also got to see some of those abilities in practice when a BioWare rep loaded up a save game to enter a specific combat situation.
The demo began with Commander Shepard and his crew heading to a lush colony world called Virmire, in pursuit of the source of a transmission containing information about the whereabouts of Saren, the game's antagonist and a former elite operative bent on the destruction of human life throughout the galaxy. Upon landing on Virmire, Shepard and two allies used their six-wheeled planetary off-road vehicle, the mako, to plow through the shallow waters just off the shoreline as they moved toward a beachside complex where the signal had apparently originated.
Things heated up after Shepard and crew exited the mako and made their way up the stairs to a courtyard in front of the complex's outer wall. They encountered light resistance from a group of Geth, the sentient machine race with whom Saren has allied himself. It was here the BioWare rep showed us how free and extensible Mass Effect's combat options will be. On its surface, the game can be played simply like a third-person shooter. You can take aim with your weapon and simply pull the trigger to fire it, just like in any shooter, and you can also perform simple evasive tactics like backing up against a wall, Gears of War-style. In fact, some character classes are more focused on brute-force combat than special powers. For example, if you play a soldier class, you might specialize in passive talents like the ability to wear heavier armor. In that case, you'd have fewer talent-based abilities to use against enemies, so by necessity you'd have to rely more on your shooting skills.
But if you do develop a wide variety of combat abilities for Shepard and his comrades, Mass Effect will provide an easy and accessible interface for using them in concert to strategically take on even the toughest foes. BioWare showed us the game's talent wheel for the first time, which is simply a radial pop-up menu that shows all of your three characters' abilities in three sections. More importantly, bringing up the talent wheel pauses the game, which means you can issue simultaneous commands to all three characters.
After the rep dispatched the Geth underlings with traditional shooter controls, we saw the talent wheel's effectiveness when Shepard and crew came upon a Geth Prime at the end of the corridor. These baddies are especially tough and brutal, and can essentially kill one of your crew in a single hit. Apparently, you'll usually only come up against them when you're in the mako and have its armor plating and heavier weaponry at your disposal--but in this case, Shepard and friends had to get it done on foot. The rep pulled up the talent wheel, picked three appropriate actions for the situation (including a psychic push ability for Shepard), and then unpaused the action, allowing all three combatants to attack simultaneously. From the sound of it, this will make the game's hardest encounters much, much more manageable than if you attempt to simply go in blindly, without a firm strategy.
After the combat ended, we witnessed some dramatic story points that we can't tell you about just yet. But we did get to see Mass Effect's innovative interactive dialogue system put to its fullest use when Shepard and one of his crew members got into a heated discussion over a particularly crucial topic. As we've reported frequently, the game gives you a number of dialogue--and in some cases, action--options as you progress through a conversation. In this case, we saw that this particular version of Shepard had spent talent points in the charm and intimidation categories, giving him two extra response options (in red and blue) that he wouldn't have had otherwise. Apparently, you won't even be able to complete some of the optional side missions without sufficient levels in these categories. At any rate, the confrontation came to a head, and Shepard had to make a decision between all six options, some of them quite extreme. (Again, unfortunately, BioWare wants certain plot points to remain secret for now.) This situation certainly exemplified the freedom you'll have to handle even the most tense, pivotal situations in multiple and diverse ways.
Mass Effect is looking great at this point, with both combat and dialogue sequences exhibiting a lot of polish and flowing smoothly. We're looking forward to seeing more of it before its release toward the end of the year, and we'll be sure to tell you about it when we do.