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Mass Effect Mass Feature
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 04:22pm 22/10/07 | Comments
AusGamers talks to BioWare's Chris Priestly about all things Mass Effect and then takes the game for an action spin.

Mass Effect
It really is only a few weeks away, but one of the first massive year-end releases (and arguably the one that will take up most of your time) has been given the Microsoft hyperbole nod with BioWare’s Chris Priestly, chief Community Manager on the hotly anticipated Mass Effect, being flown all the way down under from the world up over to answer all of our super nerdy BioWare and Mass Effect questions. He was also nice enough to run us through the game’s bustling innards, showcasing many of the game’s amazing attributes ranging from customisation and story to action and technology. After all this, yours truly was lucky enough to spend an hour or so with the beginning of the game to get a handle on the action portion of Mass Effect, and while there is obviously a lot more to what it has to offer, I definitely walked away from the game with a very warm and fuzzy feeling inside – this is definitely a game worth its weight in gold.

The Basics
Sitting in a comfy hotel room in the heart of Sydney’s CBD, surround sound speakers err… surrounding me in a lone chair directly in front of a massive LCD TV, Priestly fires up Mass Effect. I’ve been privileged enough to see this little gem running already when AusGamers tackled this year’s E3, but that was a short 10 minute demo with a stack of other journalists along for the ride, here, I’m going one-on-one with a man who arguably has one of the coolest fanboy jobs in the world, and 10 minutes has turned - very quickly – into an hour-long run-through of what the game has to offer – and Priestly still only manages to scratch the surface.

Mass Effect
For any of you who may be unfamiliar with Mass Effect though, here’s the low-down. In the year 2148 the human race has become part of a major intergalactic body of other beings. Kind of like our United Nations, this governing faction polices the known universe ensuring all interracial differences don’t end up in a galactic war. You play the role of Commander Shepard who, aside from being one of the most decorated and well-respected officers in the human fleet, makes a major discovery that could threaten the very existence of every living thing in the galaxy. However, Shepard has more than an uphill battle to convince all other races there is, in fact, a threat, and so must go about proving his discovery while uncovering an even deeper plot in the process.

Mass Effect
"Discovery" is a key word in this as Mass Effect’s entire story system is built around probing questions and delving deeper into everything and everyone you come into contact with. Indeed, the game is about choices and utilising those choices to set your path in motion. Like BioWare’s other classic titles, Jade Empire and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect offers a robust conversation system where almost every discussion you take part in can go in multiple directions, and much of the tone and direction of these is governed by, not only your own personal responses, but the type of character you’ve made Shepard into. Yes, as you would most likely have guessed (based strictly on the developer’s pedigree), Mass Effect is a RPG; however, there is also a lot of action thrown into the mix also. It’s essentially a cross between Gears of War, Jade Empire and Star Trek/Star Wars in terms of action, management and its design/direction aesthetic.

Mass Effect
From the outset you have an amazing amount of customisation at your fingertips. Shepard can be made as either a male or female and his or her voice throughout will properly reflect this which means BioWare had both a male and female voice actor record every inch of dialogue for the game – a major factor in seeing just the sort of lengths they’ve gone to for the game. You can then change everything about your character, in a fashion not at all dissimilar to Bethesda’s Oblivion character creation system. I asked Priestly why there wasn’t an option to use Xbox Live Vision to map your own face to your character, to which he responded, “by the time that function seemed viable we were already too far into development, but it is something that could turn up in the next game.” A tantalising option for this type of game, indeed.

Mass Effect
Once fully customised you begin the game aboard the SS Normandy, a huge star ship with a full compliment of soldiers. Here you meet a number of people who will take part in the overall story and from the outset you can start using your conversation wheel to interact and milk information from the game. A number of recognisable voices will most likely hit you once the story starts rolling. Keith David (Halo 2 and 3’s Arbiter character) and Seth Green (Robot Chicken, Family Guy) are major standouts, but there are more promised to be revealed closer to the game’s release. Based on the type of character you’ve chosen (ie you can choose to be a ‘by the book’ type who does everything good, or something of a rogue-ish character who does things their own way), various conversational arcs will present themselves. An example Priestly showed saw Shepard faced with believing and leaving a farmer alone on one of the game’s earlier planets you visit, or delving deeper and using force to get things done. Suffice to say we were shown the roughian way which resulted in Shepard knocking the character out with a punch – an outcome we’d have never seen if we played things nice.

Mass Effect is full of surprises like this, and players will find themselves forced to deal with major decisions throughout. Some will have dire consequences right down to specific party members, while others will completely affect the outcome of an arc or indeed, the entire game. This should offer more than enough reason to play through the game twice, however, if story isn’t enough, Priestly also revealed the exploration options available to you, beginning first and foremost with your guidance and map system on the Normandy.

Mass Effect
Staying In Touch

There are copious amounts of sub-texts available for the Mass Effect game-world. BioWare has fleshed out their universe so completely that it's almost overwhelming. Thankfully almost everything of significance (and some stuff not so important) has had all its background information injected into the game. You can check your Codex at any time throughout your adventure and from this you can listen to a brief history or update of people, planets, weapons, vehicles and more.

Equally, if you leave the game for an extended period of time and come back unsure of where to go to next, you have a handy journal that will keep all of your important conversations, discoveries and missions and quests completely in order.
One of the coolest features of the game is the interactive map of the Milky Way galaxy you have at your fingertips. Where other RPGs like this will offer you a number of villages, towns or even lands to tangent yourself to, Mass Effect literally offers you a galaxy. According to Priestly there are hundreds of planets to travel to - some available to you from the outset while others will need to be unlocked in sub-quests or simply by exploring. Almost every planet you find can also be visited and on these you can also find power-ups, new minerals, technologies and more. Some will open up robust story arcs for you to follow, and it was even revealed to me we can visit Earth’s moon (though I didn’t see it in this demo, which is a good thing). Each planet also has its own realistic properties. Some will be gas giants meaning you can’t really do much with them, others, however, will be in the early stages of life. Some will be full of minerals, gases, rare plants and more (there are chemistry, farming and creation quests available). So, for those of you who like exploring and finding out most of what a game has to offer, Mass Effect is most definitely going to keep you busy for countless hours on end.

Other quests you’ll encounter include a number of different romances (some seminally attached to the main quest, others not at all), fetch quests, bounties, illegal activities and more. But everything you do in this regard will reflect in how you’re greeted or interacted with in the game-world. It’s completely dynamic and means everyone is going to experience what the game has to offer on a completely unique level.

Throughout Chris’s demoing of the game I was constantly surprised at both the level of depth and the ease in which you engage it. For anyone annoyed the game is not on PC, bear in mind this has been developed for the Xbox 360, from the ground up. There are no disadvantages, from my point of view, this is exclusive to that platform, and in fact, being able to explore the Milky Way from the comfort of my lounge on my big-ass TV is a lot more enticing than being hunched over my keyboard. That being said, I did hit Priestly up about Mass Effect landing on the PC platform further down the track to which he said it wasn’t out of the realms of possibility, but as it stands right now, the game has its home on the Xbox 360, which for the meantime, is the only place you’ll be able to play it.

The Interview
Amidst the demo, I managed to grill Chris about a number of things, but bearing in mind he is the community manager and Q&A guy at BioWare and not a physical part of the dev or production team, many of his answers reflect just how secretive the BioWare cats can be. That said, however, I still managed to get some goodies out of him, so read on.

AusGamers: We asked our readers to hit us up with some questions for you Chris and among a bunch of good ones, a key need-to-know query came in the form of Jade Empire – will we see its name in lights ever again?

Chris Priestly: Personslly, I certainly hope so. I mean I know the Jade Empire team, and I know they’re working on an unannounced project that we can’t talk about yet. I can tell you I was the Q&A design lead on Jade Empire and was personally responsible for the Fen the Flower of the Fields plot and I was also partially responsible for getting John Cleese’s voice in the game, so I am somewhat attached to the game and would love to see it rise again.

AusGamers: What will happen with the Mass Effect IP in the wake of the EA purchase? Does it mean the rest of the trilogy will be published by EA and not Microsoft?

Chris Priestly: To be honest I’m not really sure. I left to come to Australia, landed and literally found out over the phone it had happened. We were all completely unaware it was in the works and so it hit me by surprise. It’s definitely a good thing in my view, but as far as what happens to Mass Effect and indeed, any of the other titles we’re working on, I’m not really sure.

AusGamers: I’m in the middle of the prequel novel, will people need the background information from that to fully understand the game?

Chris Priestly: No. The game is set 20 years after the events in the book, and you will learn more about the universe, but you don’t need to read it to understand what’s going on.

AusGamers: I’ve noticed a few familiar voices in the game such as Keith David and Seth Green, who else can we expect to pop up?

Chris Priestly: There are a lot of great voice-actors involved with the project, you may have also noticed Lance Henrikson in there. We also have Armin Shimerman from Star Trek (also Andrew Ryan in BioShock), as well as other people who have worked with us at BioWare across games like Jade Empire, KOTOR and more.

AusGamers: I’ve seen one vehicle example in the game in the form of the Mako, will we be able to use other vehicles at all?

Chris Priestly: No, the Mako is the human military vehicle of choice. You’ll certainly see other vehicles but as far as what you’re able to control, the Mako is it. That being said you can really play with that vehicle which is part of the reason we’ve only given you access to a single one.

AusGamers: Were there any concerns over disk size? Other developers have complained about a lack of space on the 360 disks – was that a problem for Mass Effect and if so, was anything pulled from the game because of the issue?

Chris Priestly: Not at all. We didn’t have any issues whatsoever and everything that was intended to make it into the game did. The compression technology we used did a great job and to be honest, we didn’t really see a need to think about two disks or anything like that.

AusGamers: At E3 we were told you could expect to play the main quest (without following all of the side-quests) within around 30 hours – does that still stand, and if you were to play the game and follow all the side-quests how long would you be looking at?

Chris Priestly: Well here’s the thing, you wouldn’t be able to do all of the side-quests because the mission tree doesn’t work like that. Certain characters may die who you would otherwise need for specific side-quests, based on decisions you make in the game. It’s impossible to do all of the side-quests. So it all depends on how you play the game. But if you’re the kind of person who just wants to skip right through and finish the game without really worrying what the rest of the game-world has to offer, we’ve made it easy to do that. It really nails down to the choices you make, so there’s no specific amount of time the game can be finished in because everyone will play it differently.

AusGamers: Thanks heaps for your time Chris.

Chris Priestly: You’re welcome – thanks so much for having me.

On our last stint with the game, Microsoft threw a seminal thanks/hands-on session for the game and for Chris Priestly being nice enough to come and visit us all the way down here in Australia. Unfortunately the environment in which we played the game wasn’t even close to ideal for story purposes, however, given I didn’t want to spoil that portion of the game for myself (or you), I welcomed the opportunity to jump right into the action element which, for all intents and purposes, can be played just like that – as an action game.

Mass Effect
As mentioned earlier, there are elements of Gears of War riddled throughout Mass Effect, from the war-movie inspired ‘action camera’ to the cover system and issuing team commands (in this respect there are also touches of other squad-based games like Rainbow Six Vegas). However, the differences are really only skin-deep as the weapons and class systems within Mass Effect offer up an entirely different spin on the genre. Weapons can be fully upgraded and each is completely unique, but they can also be turned into a substance used to bypass security systems and more. In this sense it becomes important to inspect your pick-ups and make sure you’re making the right choice in the way of which weapon you use.

Mass Effect
Similar to the conversation wheel, you also have an items wheel that allows you to cycle through your weapons and equipment to take on each situation in the most appropriate way. You have two stances, one is action (weapon drawn, action camera in tow), the other is passive where you’re simply exploring and can use other player functions such as hacking and the like. Similarly to other action titles, health packs can be picked up, and a simple tap of the Y button will heal you and your team-mates (you will always have two other party members with you, but no more at any one time), however, like many RPGs, even if you have more than one health pack, you have to wait for a meter to fill before you can use another one. This makes watching your usage of the packs paramount and also means managing your team and yourself in terms of cover, return fire, etc, all the more important. It’s a simple system in motion, but deep enough to keep you thinking about your skirmish at all times.

Mass Effect
Beyond hand weapons, you also have different ‘force-esque’ powers such as telekinesis, interdimensional phasing (where you’re temporarily untouchable) and more as well as projectiles and explosives (one particular remotely activated grenade can be thrown from a distance and set off from far away or planted as a trap). Your team-mate AI is reasonable, though from the small amount I played it was easy to see they’re not overly dynamic. You can issue movement commands, covering fire commands and more, and while they can be fully taken down in a fire-fight, they won’t die unless a story sequence is involved. To this end, similarly to Gears of War, clearing an area of bad-guys will make them automatically come back to life - always a good thing.

With Priestly watching me play, I pointed out the inaccuracy of some of the weapons I was using and he mentioned that being so early on in the game (and rushing through it) meant I wasn’t even close to the sort of weapons that will become available later on. Naturally this means a heady reward system has been implemented for those who not only explore, but dabble in understanding how certain weapons, weapon combinations and more work. And as he’d mentioned during his demo the day before, there will be a number of side-quests and sub-missions available to strengthen both your character and his or her equipment.

Mass Effect
With all this said and done, however, I should point out that while competent, on its own the action stuff isn’t the greatest thing in the videogame realm. The camera can be a little annoying at times and issuing commands and babysitting your team-mates does seem like it could become tedious. However, I was rushing through and playing gung-ho, and this is a RPG/action title, after all. More time is definitely needed to get the most out of understanding the action wheels and more, and combining both the RPG stuff with the action stuff should equally be done in the comfort of your living room and not in a loud obtrusive place (no offence Microsoft). At any rate, the amount of customisation, depth, exploration, interaction and more is more than enough to warrant two purchases of this game. My gripes come in the wake of not being able to fully sink my teeth into what BioWare have set out to do, which in turn has made me want this game all the more, so mark your calendars for the 22nd of November and be sure to pre-order the special edition to get the absolute most from what could arguably be BioWare’s greatest work to-date.