SAN FRANCISCO--Earlier today, in a hotel boardroom several city blocks away from the Game Developers Conference, we had an opportunity to meet with Drs. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, who are in town to show off the PC version of Mass Effect for the first time. Currently scheduled for release in May, the PC version of BioWare's popular sci-fi role-playing game will benefit from a number of improvements over the Xbox 360 original, many of which are a direct result of feedback from reviewers and fans.
The most obvious of these improvements, which was immediately evident regardless of the fact that we were checking the game out on a 720p HDTV rather than on a higher-resolution monitor, is that the visuals are now much sharper and more detailed. The character models look great, environmental features such as water and foliage are much more believable, and even the textures of the relatively featureless non-story-critical planets look very different now that you can clearly see cracks in the ground, small stones, and such. On one of the planets we were shown during the presentation, there were clouds of dusts blowing across the screen, which are in the Xbox 360 game but not nearly as effective as they are on the PC. We can report that the PC game's textures load much more quickly than those in the console game as well, and though we noticed them popping in on occasion, the problem wasn't nearly as pronounced as it was for Xbox 360 players last year. For what it's worth, the PC version of Mass Effect that we were looking at is still a work-in-progress as well, so it's conceivable that the problem won't be in the finished game at all.
Something you'll definitely notice in the finished game, though, especially if you're familiar with the Xbox 360 game, is that BioWare and Demiurge Studios have gone the extra mile to rework certain aspects of Mass Effect. For example, you'll now be able to give squad commands to characters individually rather than just as a group. Furthermore, if you're playing with a mouse and keyboard, you can map up to eight psionic commands to the number keys 1 through 8, which lets you use them much more quickly and without having to access any menus. Mass Effect's inventory system has also benefited from a major overhaul; whereas the Xbox 360 game forced you to scroll through a list of practically every item in your possession anytime you wanted something, the PC game lets you sort your items by type and automatically moves better-quality items to the top. Incidentally, at least a few of those items appear to have been redesigned for the PC as well, such as the sweet-looking helmet with glowing blue eyes we saw that, unless we're mistaken, looked totally different in the Xbox 360 version.
If you've spent any time with Mass Effect on the Xbox 360, you'll know that chests and doors, among other things, often need to be unlocked via a simple decryption minigame that requires you to tap the correct buttons on the controller as they appear on the screen. The PC game will introduce an all-new decryption minigame that, in addition to being much more mouse-friendly, makes more sense in the context of the Mass Effect universe. Your goal in the new minigame is to guide a small arrow cursor to the center of a circle that's made up of concentric rings spinning in different directions. The rings are colored blue with blocks of red, and to be successful you have to make it to the center without touching red. To move the arrow one ring inward, you simply press the mouse button. It's somewhat reminiscent of Frogger, if the titular amphibian was a white arrow, the street and the river were circular, and the vehicles and dangerous wildlife were red bricks. You get the idea.
The last of the big changes that we were shown today concerns the controls for the Mako vehicle that Sheppard and his or her crew travel in when they're on the ground. In the Xbox 360 game, the Mako was controlled in much the same way as Halo's Warthogs and other vehicles. In other words, telling the vehicle to move forward steered you in whichever direction the camera was pointing rather than the direction that the vehicle was facing. Not everybody likes this setup, apparently, so on the PC those controls will be turned on their head and you'll more easily be able to move forward in one direction while pointing the camera in another.
Mass Effect will purportedly run well on "midrange" gaming PCs when it's released, and will support both the Windows XP and Vista operating systems. The game will also boast the same achievements system found in the Xbox 360 game, though this will be hosted by BioWare's own servers rather than by Games for Windows Live and so won't count towards your existing gamerscore. We look forward to bringing you more information on the PC version of Mass Effect as soon as it becomes available.