Mass Effect Update: Starting the Adventure

We head up to BioWare's Edmonton offices and spend some quality time with a near-final version of its upcoming Xbox 360 RPG.

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With a slew of highly anticipated games across most of the major genres arriving this year, BioWare's Mass Effect is one of a handful that stands at the head of the pack. This gorgeous role-playing game epic--set across the vastness of space--has held our attention since it was announced two years ago at X05. With the release coming up, BioWare invited journalists up to its offices in Edmonton to have a look at a near final version of the game to see how the various pieces we've seen in demos all fit together. Boasting stunning visuals; a rich, complicated story that's big on user choices; gameplay that draws on and evolves the best elements from BioWare's previous games; as well as a nod to Dreamcast gem Skies of Arcadia, Mass Effect is shaping up to be the most ambitious game from the veteran developer. After playing through a chunk of the game's opening, we'd also say it's shaping up to be one of the best games out of the studio.

Mass Effect's story is an ambitious and interesting blend of the rich, scripted storytelling we've come to expect from BioWare with a very cool streak of personalization. The story's basic premise casts you as a human being in a distant future where man's discovery of an alien artifact has allowed technology to take some serious leaps forward. As a result, the human race has taken to the stars and started mingling with the neighbors. The interesting thing about this future is that, for all the romanticism there is about aliens, it seems like our galactic homies are just as petty as humans. This has led mankind to be treated like kids, and, viewed as a not entirely mature people, not cut out for full involvement in helping to govern. Your personal story finds you as a soldier pulled into a mysterious investigation regarding technology-boosting artifacts. Like all good RPG's, your seemingly innocuous video game self winds up playing a pivotal role in humanity's future. The playable demo at BioWare offered us a chance to get our hands on a work-in-progress version of the game that let us try out a few chunks, which included the game's opening.

BioWare's sci-fi epic RPG is getting set for Xbox 360s everywhere.
BioWare's sci-fi epic RPG is getting set for Xbox 360s everywhere.

The first chunk we tried was the game's opening, which lets you create your version of the main character, Commander Shepard. At first blush, the character creator follows the same basic pattern as previous BioWare games. You'll have an auto option that lets you nab a preset male or female character or you can choose to dive in and create a custom character. The game's tools are robust and let you create a hyperdetailed character that stands comfortably around the rest of the game's cast. The cool thing about the whole system is that the moment you start to create your character, you're in the game. The whole process is framed by accessing a computer database for the galactic alliance. By customizing your character, you're essentially "rebuilding" an entry that's been corrupted.

Once you have the physical appearance down, you'll add in little details by picking one of three general backgrounds: spacer, colonist, or earthborn, which tie in to your upbringing. Spacers were born and raised on ships in space, colonists were born on a human colony on another planet, while earthborn humans were born on good old terra firma. Once those are chosen, you'll pick one of three defining moments in your service history: sole survivor, war hero, or ruthless. The descriptors are fairly self-explanatory and revolve around how you've distinguished yourself in your career. Sole survivors managed to live through a maneuver that cost their squad's lives, war heroes risked their own lives to selflessly defend their squad, while ruthless soldiers are very focused...on getting the job done--no matter what.

The last thing you'll do is pick from one of six classes in the game, three pure and three hybrid, which determine your fighter type. The three pure classes have three major traits that they'll evolve as they gain experience. Soldiers offer improved health, the ability to use all weapon types, and start with the ability to use medium armor with the option to specialize in heavy armor. Engineers are able to use an "omni tool" that allows them to decrypt security systems, repair or modify tech equipment, disrupt enemy weapons or shields, as well as heal their squad. Adepts rely on the unique "biotic" powers that let them lift or throw objects, shield their squad, and disable or destroy enemies.

The three hybrid classes essentially mix elements of the primary three. Infiltrators combine soldier and engineer abilities. Sentinels combine engineer and adept abilities. Finally, vanguards combine soldier and adept abilities. While you'll be able to develop the abilities of the different sets to their most advanced levels, which is same as the pure classes, the trade-off is that some of the classes just won't have access to some of the specific higher level abilities you'd only get in a pure class.

While the details may seem like window-dressing to the character-creation system, everything comes into play as soon as you wrap up and jump into the game. Your character is shown in the intro cinema as you hear commanding officers discuss their suitability for a mission. Your service record is discussed, as well as your background. As this happens, you see your virtual self make its way through the bridge of the Normandy, the cruiser that will serve as your galactic wheels. We'll pass on the specifics of how the story unfolds because it offers a nice, interactive setup that pulls you right into the action. You'll interact with the crew, meet some of the key non-player characters you'll rely on in the game, as well as the commanding officers who were talking about you.

Expect to interact with plenty of interesting NPCs in the game.
Expect to interact with plenty of interesting NPCs in the game.

At the game's start, you're tapped to investigate an archaeological site that has found another alien artifact from the ancient race called the Prothean. Given that the last artifact found allowed mankind to bump its technologically up dramatically and start exploring the stars, expectations are running high over this new find, as well as what it could do. The complication to the mission is that you're being joined by an observer from the alliance, Nihlus, who is evaluating you. It seems that you're being considered for a gig as a spectre, a combination shadow ops/police force in the alliance. Up until that point, humans have never been considered for such a gig because of their relative youth in the galactic scheme of things. The consideration is a big deal; thus, if you wind up passing and joining, the presence of a human on the force would mark a huge step for humanity in the alliance.

Your journey to investigate the site takes you to a planet that's under attack by the Geth, an artificial race whose origins may seem similar the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica. The synthetic creatures are something of mystery, having not been heard from in a long time. However, the critters make a splashy return on the scene as they decimate the archaeological site and seemingly snatch the beacon without warning. Your investigation yields you a party of two to roll with as you become accustomed to the game's combat system. The second chunk of the game we checked out was the planet Virmire. The level focused on your team using the Mako vehicle to race around and blow things up to give you access to heavily guarded areas in its interior. Your enemies work for Saren, who you've come to discover is the big baddie that appears to be behind all the galactic trouble. Finally, there's Feros, an inhospitable world that humans have chosen to colonize. The centerpiece to the planet is a ruined Prothean city that's getting more messed up as the days progress, thanks to an ongoing battle with the Geth.

The galaxy is yours for the taking. Discover planets and explore them.
The galaxy is yours for the taking. Discover planets and explore them.

Beyond what we played, we got a demo of how you'll discover uncharted worlds in the game and what you can do with them. Once you have the Normandy at your disposal, you'll be able to go and explore anywhere you like. If you discover a planet, you'll typically get some kind of side quest that's either unique from the main story or, in the case of the demo we saw, one that is related to something in the main plot. The demo we saw found Shepard stumbling onto a pirate outpost and interacting with their leader before turning it into a pirate butt-kicking situation.

The demos showed off the conversation-tree system, as well as how your charm and intimidate abilities will factor into the many moral choices you'll be making during the adventure. But the big focus was to show off the game's combat systems and how characters will progress. The big hook to the action is the options you have once in battle. Hitting the right bumper lets you pause the action and strategically coordinate your squad's attacks, whether they are physical or biotic. Once you target your enemies and assign your attacks using the game's easy-to-grasp combat wheel, you release the bumper then watch it all play out. Though the pause feature can be used repeatedly, you can also choose to battle in real-time fashion, third-person-shooter style, if you're not big on planning. It's not the most efficient road to success, but it's possible to play through what appears to be a good chunk of encounters. We came to appreciate both ways to fight because some enemies could be easily dealt with via some old-fashioned shooting, while others required coordinated attacks mixing firearms and biotic powers.

The visuals in the game are a dazzling showcase of technology and art direction that raise the bar for Xbox 360 games in much the same way that Gears of War and BioShock have done. The NPCs and environments are gorgeous. They're also detailed, which help sell the rich universe that BioWare has created for you. The level of detail and variety is impressive. It is also enhanced by the animation and lighting, which is topnotch. You'll have ample opportunity to savor the visuals during the many cutscenes that take place as the story advances. BioWare is obviously justifiably proud of its graphics engine and the detailed character you'll create for yourself, so there's plenty of time spent during cutscenes showcasing it all. We're also fans of the little touches, such as the slightly grainy filter used to give the game a lived-in look that works. The visuals only hit a few bumps in our demo with some inconsistencies in the frame rate during the action, but nothing that couldn't be smoothed out.

Audio is plentiful in the game with ambient effects, tons of spoken dialogue, and a very cool soundtrack framing the action. The effects helps set the tone in the environments you move in and range from the subtle chatter of local wildlife when you're planet-side to the cacophony of sound on a ship. Spoken dialogue is plentiful in the story-driven game and effectively gives the characters you encounter personality. The subtle glue to all of the above is the game's soundtrack which, while often subtle to the point of not being noticeable in some spots, is a lush complement to the story and action. The music ebbs and flows in prominence. It also has an electronic feel that calls to mind the German group Tangerine Dream. The electronic tunes aren't an obvious choice for the game's score, but they've worked quite well in the levels we tried.

It's not all conversation trees and intimidation tactics. Sometimes you'll just want to let loose with a blaster.
It's not all conversation trees and intimidation tactics. Sometimes you'll just want to let loose with a blaster.

Based on what we played, Mass Effect certainly looks like it's delivering on the lofty promises of all the demos we've seen. The story is involving and your personal involvement really adds to its draw. The gameplay feels like a good mix of old and new that plays to BioWare's strengths, pushing the veteran developer into some new territory. The visuals and presentation are stunning. The 360 pumps out gorgeous characters and environments that are technically impressive, as well as stylish. The only thing we're hoping to see is a bit of polish to the few odd rough performance edges we saw in our demo. It's saying a lot that, in the wake of such powerful games Gears of War, BioShock, and Halo 3, our enthusiasm for Mass Effect hasn't diminished a bit. In fact, after our time with the game, we're actually more excited than ever. BioWare really looks like it's going to deliver in a big way. Mass Effect is set to ship this November for the Xbox 360.

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