BioWare and Microsoft hosted a Community Event at BioWare's offices in Edmonton this week, and in my role of moderator on the official Mass Effect forums, I was invited to head up there and take part in the events they had planned. I, of course, hastily accepted.
One of the events was some hands-on time with this incredible game. We all got our own little station, nice comfy chair, a 360 console, widescreen TV and a great pair of headphones and they let us do our thing. My time with the game was of course limited, but I came away with nothing but positive opinions.
I started a new career (as they call a new game) and jumped into customizing my character. I was a male Infiltrator, slightly grizzled due to his time in the military with a few scars to show his dedication. I was somewhat surprised with the customization interface, it was very easy to navigate and to adjust the features of your character's face (there is no body customization, just the face), but was also very powerful. Shepard's voice (which is acted by a local Edmontonian that BioWare hired) also fit very well with the customized character.
One other aspect of the creation that I enjoyed was the lighting used on Shepard's face is very effective. Take Oblivion, which requires you to customize your character's face in a dank, poorly lit jail cell, resulting in a potentially disappointing look when you get into the light of day. Mass Effect does definitely not share this problem.
After customization you're pulled into an incredible cinematic. Shepard is on a space station, gazing out a window while Captain Anderson and Admiral Hackett (voiced by Keith David and Lance Henriksen, respectively) discuss recruiting Shepard for the mission they have lined up. This is where your psychological and pre-service history choices come into play, as the two officers discuss the dangers of selecting Shepard. After this, your character defiantly strolls the corridors of the Normandy, as it jets through the solar system towards the mass relay that will take it to its destination.
This is followed by a brief conversaiton with the Normandy's pilot, Joker (Seth Green), who informs you of where you need to go. You are now free to roam the ship, which is surprisingly full this early on in the game. You can speak with several of the crew members and ask for their opinions on this mysterious mission that the Normandy has been selected for. I didn't get a lot of time with this section of the game, as I wanted to getinto the prologue planet ASAP.
After your briefing with Captain Anderson, you are assigned to lead a three-person squad onto the surface of Eden Prime; the first combat area in the game. The planet starts off slowly, with a brief walk on a scorched landscape, encountering some non-hostile lifeforms (which are killable, for the slightly more sadistic crowd [or Chris Priestly :) ]). The relaxed atomosphere is broken when you're intercepted by a trio of Geth recon drones, resulting in your first combat experience, which can be easily ended with some weapon fire. From here on out, the mission gets more dangerous.
Further on, you witness a pair of Geth troopers impaling some human prisoners on giant metal spikes. This leads to partnering with Ashley Williams to take down these A.I. monsters. The troopers are a different threat than the drones. They actively seek out cover and will try to flank you, just sitting there and taking turns popping out of cover will definitely not work. This is also a good test of the auto-aim function. I had it set on high, as I am not what you would call a proficient twitch player. The high setting allows more freedom in hitting your target, you current target (which is selected, I believe, by having it near in your reticle for a brief time period) is highlighted by a bold, red triangle, which will draw all your weapon and power usage towards the target. By having it on high, your shots will still strike home while your reticle is a fair distance away from the highlighted target. I did not play with it low, but I would imagine it would play more like a regular shooter. This struck me a great middle ground for RPG and shooter fans.
Moving on with my party, I encountered the end result of the Geth's impalement: Husks. These are once dead humans that are now glowing with some sort of Geth technology. They were tough to take down and, despite needing to be in melee range before attacking, are quite dangerous to your party as they can close ground between themselves and your party very quickly. This is where I employed one of my squadmates' Biotic abilities. I opened up my ability wheel by holding down the 360 controller's Left Bumper (this pauses the combat), circled my control stick to access the Throw ability, pressed A and watched as our target flew backwards. With this ability, the target receives damage when it hits an object in its path.
Moving on, I got my first experience with the Weapons Wheel, which functions like the Talent Wheel, but with the right bumper. Up 'til now, I'd been mainly using and leveling the Pistol which resulted in some great accuracy and the Marksman ability, but arriving at an area with some Geth troopers down a ridge who had not noticed me yet, forced me to switch to the Sniper Rifle. With this weapon, it requires you to aim down the sights (holding the left trigger) to shrink your reticle. The rifle is very unwieldly without training, as the reticle will sway around the screen as you try to aim. Getting the target with a shot will take it down instantly, however. The Sniper Rifle also overheats much quicker than the other weapons, with all the rifles I acquired overheating with 1 shot. Overheating requires you to cool off before firing off another shot, rather than reloading which is absent from the game.
Throughout my stay on Eden Prime, I came upon a lot of upgrade cabinets and crates. These were filled with new weapons and armour, and upgrades for each. Weapons receive two upgrade shots, one for the weapon (which improves things like the number of shots required before overheating, or attack power) the other for the weapons ammo. I acquired an anti-personal upgrade, a toxic upgrade (think poison) and a armour-piercing round, which lessens the effect enemy shield's will have. Armour can be upgraded to increase damage protection, tech/biotic protection and shield amount, and decreasing the amount of time you need to wait between uses of medi-gel (think med kits).
Moving on, my party and I were tasked with finding a tram which would take us to the next section of the planet. We were met with stiff resistance, with several Geth troopers taking cover on a very narrow walkway. I would try to move up the walkway to get in proximity, but was getting severely drained by enemy fire. This is when I decided to make use of my Tech skills. I had been ranking up Decryption during my level ups, which granted me a mine that temporarily overheated enemy weaponry. I tossed this at a group of Geth, and watched as they stopped firing, allowing me to move up and blast them with my trusty pistol (Pistols are surpirsingly effective, by the way). My party met with another enemy type here: a heavier Geth trooper. This guy apparently has a phobia of weaponry, but made up for it with really heavy shields and armour. Our weapon blasts were chipping away at it as it charged us, which is when I employed Biotic abilities and Ashley's Overkill talent to take him down as quickly as possible.
We eventually made it to a very cool story moment (which I've promised not to talk about) which took us off the planet, and back to the safety of the Normandy.
This is when I got my first experience with the dialog system, as I decided to converse with my new partner: Ashley. She expressed disappointment over her actions on Eden Prime, which I chose to console her over, resulting in a warm smile and the possible first step on a romance subplot. The dialog is easy to pick up, as the general options of nice, indifferent or mean are always in the same place, making impulsive decisions and keeping up a cinematic pace very easy. The Investigate function, which opens up additional questions about the situation, is also always in the same and is something I will be employing everytime it comes up.
We eventually made the journey to the Citadel, the social, cultural, political and financial hub of the galaxy, which gifted us with a beautiful cinematic that brought back memories of the Coruscant descent in "The Phantom Menace." The Citadel itself was very easy to navigate, with a handy electronic tour guide and a fast transport system akin to the speeder on Nar Sharda in KOTOR2. This is also where I was able to witness the first tense political discussion in the game, leaving us humans hurting. This resulted in requiring me to hunt down a C-Sec officer (think police detective), a turian named Garrus Vakarian. This involved some great investigation and an exciting shoot out at a med clinic with some street thugs.
One really great feature I noticed in the Citadel was the party banter. As I was walking in front the Council chambers, Ashley pointed out a salarian up to somehting suspicious in the corner, I walked over to talk with him and this led me to another quest. If that kind of thing becomes common throughout the game, I'll be very happy. Also, there wre plenty of moments where examining the little things will result in some extra experience and a codex entry, the game's built-in, voice-acted encyclopedia, encouraging you to explore every nook and cranny.
My time with the game was now up, though I, along with everyone else in the room did not want to turn it off. Alas, we had to attend the exclusive Mass Effect release party. A total bummer, y'know ;)
Discussing the game with the group later on, we all came out with similar feelings, and were telling stories of what we encountered, which surprised everyone that missed out on some little things. We were all incredibly impressed.
The game is spectacular, you can tell Casey Hudson and his people took these three-and-a-half years to truly make something special. I've been following this game since its announcement, and, despite my best efforts, I inevitable became incredibly hyped, which was worrying me a little while walking into the game room. The game lived up to every expectation I had, and is exactly what I was hoping to get out of this "next generation." The blend of story telling with intense combat is exceptionally pulled off, and the universe they've crafted is so rich that you'll get lost in it.
Ray Muzyka commented at the party that he truly believes that this is the best game his and Greg Zeschuk's decade-old company has crafted, and I am really starting to sway in his drection. This is what I've been waiting for.