AMSTERDAM--Following BioWare's recent unveiling of Mass Effect at X05, we were left to ponder what the game was all about. The trailer shown was an effective tease for the galaxy-spanning adventure that featured quick cuts of bizarre aliens, massive creatures, and gun-toting humans set against a backdrop of alien worlds. We were able to meet with BioWare's joint-CEO Greg Zeschuk and project director Casey Hudson, who shed more light on the ambitious project from the veteran Canadian developer.
Mass Effect will be the first in a trilogy of games from BioWare that tells the story of humanity's journey to become a galactic power. The game is set in the 23rd century and picks up shortly after mankind, having begun extensive exploration of its solar system, makes a discovery that enables deeper penetration of the galactic interior than previously possible. The interstellar shortcut enables mankind to meet up with a collection of civilizations that make up a grand galactic community. Unfortunately, we're not quite ready to run with the big space dogs and are forced to work to be seen on equal footing with these galactic powers, which is where the initial part of the game finds you. However, a new conflict arises as man stretches his wings with his new neighbors: a definitive battle between organic life and artificial races. Our artificially created foes aren't too different from their organic counterparts, and the various artificial races have their own agendas for their fleshy cousins.
Unfortunately, said agendas aren't of the cozy "let's be friends" variety and are far more sinister in nature. Your role in all this is to play a human "specter," a member of a group of defenders of galactic peace. Your goal is to stop a rogue member of your group who controls armies that are advancing on defenseless worlds. Thankfully, you won't be doing this alone, as you're pretty high up in the ranks of your organization and merit command of a starship and a fighting force. The ambitious story marks a first for BioWare, which, after working on a series of Baldur's Gate games that ended up fitting as a trilogy, is now able to craft the rich tales you'll live over the course of Mass Effect's three entries. The homogenous approach lets the pack of veteran scribes at Bioware plot out some very special ways for ME's story to unfold.
The team responsible for crafting the ambitious game is no stranger to creating rich space epics. The group currently driving the Mass Affect project is almost entirely made up of the original Knights of the Old Republic team. Though there are more than a few similarities between elements in Mass Effect and the role-playing game set in the dawn of the Star Wars universe, Bioware is hardly recycling its work. Your actions will affect humanity on a galactic scale as you set out on your journey. This time out, besides the expected good and evil paths open to you, you'll find a third route that's far more self-serving and leans toward profiteering.
Now as good as Bioware's stories have been, they've always been given added depth, thanks to a rich visual presentation. BioWare's prowess at cinematic storytelling has been evolving at a steady clip, as evidenced by the leap between the original KOTOR and Jade Empire. Mass Effect represents an entirely new approach that the ambitious developer is touting as a unique way to tell a story. Above and beyond whatever new spin we'll see on in-game cinematics, Mass Effect will feature some truly unique content in its cinemas that's provided by two key components: your own choices and what the team is touting as digital actors. Your choices will influence how the game unfolds, just as they have in BioWare's previous games. However, this time you'll affect conversations and even character makeup, which is something new and intriguing. It sounds as though in many cases you'll have say in the way a character looks, which will, in turn, influence his or her behavior.
The digital actors in the game are equally provocative, as they seem to be a good deal more sophisticated than your average non-player character. From an appearance standpoint, the NPCs will look lifelike thanks to the incorporation of scans of real people and motion-captured animation. Full voice acting will also lend them an intriguing semblance of life that will come across during conversations, when combined with emotive animations. A new twist on the typical conversation tree will let you get a sense of the mood of the NPC you're interacting with, and it will offer him or her tips on how you're feeling as well. Bioware is hoping the end result of this will yield a more-dynamic, varied way of interacting with characters that will lend itself to real-time banter that changes dynamically.
As far as what you'll be doing in the game, your adventure will break down into basics, such as going out on specter missions or exploring the vast galaxy at your disposal. Specter missions will serve as the basic thrust of the adventure, but you'll have other options open to you. Besides the straightforward military missions you'll be sent out on, you'll also have the option to lead exhibitions to hostile worlds at the edge of space, which have never been explored. If you choose to visit these potentially barren worlds, you'll be surprised to find stuff through free-form exploration that's not found in the proper story arc. You'll get rewards you can bring in to the main game that will often come in handy as you progress through the adventure.
Speaking of the main game, you can expect to find a similar structure to KOTOR, in that you'll be alternating between set linear segments to move the story along and broader free-play-style segments, such as the free-form exploration. As far as combat goes, you'll find some KOTOR-style touches under the hood, but this time out, the Bioware gang is aiming to try something a little different. Combat will be in real time as you guide a trio of characters, including yourself, in to battle. Surprisingly, the combat will draw on squad-based shooter elements that will force you to think tactically in the heat of battle. Besides using weapons, the characters in your party will use a mix of biotics- artificial-intelligence-enhanced superhuman abilities and tech skills that can be as useful as a weapon. The different enhancements your party members will have will eventually force you to confront how you think about the definition of life during this conflict. It sounds as if some of the members of your team will be cybernetic to some degree, putting them a bit too close to the creatures you'll be pitted against.
As cool as all that sounds BioWare reps were quick to point out that three parts of ME's story will each feature a climax at some point. However, players should be prepared to take the game online, where they'll find downloadable content that will amount to stories designed to move the first game's themes of revenge over plot. Better still, if you're the type to invest hours perfecting your customizable character, know that your hard work will serve you well, as your character will travel with you over the course of the entire trilogy. And if Bioware pulls this off, it will be supercool.
As far as the visuals go, the imagery taken from in-game footage actually fits Bioware's somewhat odd description of the game by offering a "realistic" version of the future. The imagery we've seen looks futuristic, but not fantastically so. Granted, some of the aliens are a little "out there," but the humans look low-key, albeit well-armed. The game's art style features a very clean look that's nicely done. The alien vistas we got glimpses of are grand and cool-looking, but they aren't over-the-top or too busy, which is pretty much what the future looks like in most games.
All told, our sneak peek at Mass Effect left us wanting more. Sci-fi fans may be especially interested in the game because of the setting. Yes, yes, we know what you're thinking: 23rd century. Human in command of a starship zipping about space. All that begs the question of whether you'll have the opportunity to frolic with nubile green dancing girls or at least get to bump into James T. Kirk's Enterprise. Answer: No. However, we still expect big things from the game, thanks to BioWare's ambitious story and almost-episodic plans for downloadable content as the series unfolds.