BARCELONA, Spain--Earlier today during a meeting with BioWare at Microsoft's X06 event in Barcelona, we had an opportunity to check out the latest work-in-progress version of Mass Effect. Currently scheduled for release sometime next year, Mass Effect is an ambitious sci-fi role-playing game in which you'll assume the role of commander Shepard--the only human elite agent in a peacekeeping organization known as Specter. We weren't allowed to get our hands on the controller on this occasion, but we did get to see plenty of new features as a BioWare representative played the game.
After a brief recap of what was shown at the Electronic Entertainment Expo earlier this year, the demo began by showing a map of the galaxy. From this good-looking and fully interactive map, you'll be able to zoom in on specific solar systems and then, if you wish, on specific planets, before deciding where you'd like to go. BioWare hasn't yet revealed how many planets will be in Mass Effect, but our best guess after today's demo is "lots." Although some of the planets in the game will have to be visited to advance the storyline, many of them exist only to give you the freedom to go and explore them. The planet that we had an opportunity to check out during today's demo is called Caleston--a barren planet on which a mining colony has been overrun by intelligent machines.
Upon landing on the reddish planet, Shepard and his two colleagues (the same female soldier and alien tech guy that we saw at E3) got into a conversation about the fate of the miners and about whether or not they should let the situation interfere with their main mission. When the alien stated that he believed the main mission was more important, we had an opportunity to see Mass Effect's real-time conversation system in effect. The BioWare rep playing the game interrupted the alien to remind it that it'll do what it's told and that rescuing miners was now their priority. The voice acting was good, and the midconversation interruption was completely seamless--if we hadn't known that it had been triggered in real time, we almost certainly would have assumed that the sudden change in the conversation (and of the camera angle) was scripted as part of a cutscene.
When the conversation was over, the trio climbed into their customizable combat all-terrain vehicle--a six-wheeler that comes equipped with not only plenty of weapons, but also jump jets that can be used to hop up in the air or to right the vehicle after it takes a tumble. The vehicle looked like it was a lot of fun to drive, and we couldn't help but smile when we watched it jump into the air from a stationary position so that it could get a shot at an enemy who was otherwise not in the driver's line of sight. The vehicle portion of the demo came to an abrupt end when the crew stumbled on an impassable roadblock, at which point they all climbed out of their ride and proceeded on foot.
In combat, you'll be able to switch between all of the characters under your control on the fly, and we're told that the artificial intelligence of those accompanying you won't disappoint. However, you'll have the option to give them simple commands using the directional pad and even to issue more complex orders by pausing the game and using a Full Spectrum Warrior-style interface. The whole screen gets a yellow tint when you pause the game in this fashion--it's overlaid with a tactical-looking grid--and your colleagues are represented by 2D icons that almost look like chess pieces. Using this interface, you can tell the other characters where you'd like them to go (behind cover, for example) and which of their abilities or special powers you'd like them to use. It's an interesting control mechanic and one that promises to afford you a far greater degree of control over your allies than most.
The abilities and special powers that your characters have at their disposal will be determined by the skill sets you assigned them at the start of the game and how you've been spending your experience points since then. Some of the more memorable powers that we got to see in action on this occasion included a telekinetic "lift" that could be used to pick up objects and enemies, and a tech ability that let our alien friend drop the shields on a large, four-legged mechanical boss. We also got to see a couple of the game's numerous weapon modifications put to good use--namely an incinerator upgrade that set fire to enemies and a vaporizer add-on that made them disappear completely.
Our time with Mass Effect was much shorter than we'd have liked on this occasion, but before we left for our next meeting, we did have an opportunity to check out some pictures of other planets in the game. Nothing too surprising was shown, but we can at least confirm that you'll be visiting planets with icy, jungle, desert, and industrial themes on your in-game travels. We look forward to bringing you more information on Mass Effect as soon as it becomes available. Stay tuned.