Mass Effect 2
Shepard Is So close we can smell him - he smells of onions and motor oil - as Mass Effect 2 is out in literally a matter of days. If you're a slow reader, it might even be out right now, in which case we can say with relative safety that you should head right out and buy it But for now, let's look at the final tidbit of hype BioWare have dropped into our beautifully contoured laps.
It's Justicars. Justicars are rogue Asari warriors, Sam Fisher-like splinter cells who operate above the jurisdiction of the Asari government. The Asari, if you can't keep up, are the blue alien ladies with oversized breasts and alluring sex-voices. Specifically we're being introduced to one Justicar called Samara, who insists that the more you say the word Justicar' the more it sounds like a vigilante assassin, and less like an incredible crimefighting Ford Escort.
She'll form one member of your squad, though the composition and consistency of the company you keep is itself changing for the sequel. The hard and fast alliances of the old school BioWare have been ousted in favour of something approaching a Dragon Age: Inquisition-style friendship system. The means with which you persuade people to join your crew will affect their opinions of you, and the actions you take throughout the plot will determine whether or not they'll stick around - or, as BioWare have been hinting, whether or not Shepard even makes it to the end of the game.
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1 - Combat Evolved
"Mass Effect 2 is still a third-person shooter with the ability to give orders to two squad mates. And it still uses the same command interface that pauses the action and allows you to set up your team's tactics, order special attacks and assign positions and targets to your team. What's really different is the overall feel and quality of combat, but that conies from a series of small changes rather than a wholesale, radical redesign.
"When we released Mass Effect, we were happy to see that the system itself was really well received. There were lots of requests for improvement in specific areas - like the feel and precision of aiming and movement, the tactical control of your team, and the intensity of combat - so we made a number of minor adjustments to improve each one of those areas.
"The net result is something that plays so much better that it feels like a radical change, and yet people who'vc played Mass Effect will also immediately feel comfortable with how combat works."
2 - Feedback Loop
"We've a hard-working and passionate team, and it's a huge relief to see that their efforts over several years are so well rewarded. Often the commercial aspect of the business hides the fact that these games are made by individuals who are players and fans themselves, and their work every day is a labour of love.
"Much of what was fun about working on Mass Effect 2 was seeing how team members add something special to the game, working on their own personal time strictly out of the sheer joy of adding a special experience for players.
"The fish tank for example was something that the game design did not require, but it was made in the evenings by people 'who thought players would appreciate it."
3 - Paths To Glory
"We plan out the larger plot points of the story from one game to the next, but it would be impossible to plan it all in advance. More importantly, we'd never be able to plan as many creative opportunities if we'd to do it all up front. Instead, we record what a player has done in a play through, and then we have all of those choices available that writers can refer to as they build story lines. "Many of the connections are made as we're developing new story lines, and we find places where key characters can be ones from a previous story, or where the plot should work differently based on decisions you've made in the past.
"Numerically, it's over 1,000 variables that we'll have access to for shaping the Mass Effect 3 experience for people who've played the previous games."
4 - Engine Core
"The benefit of hindsight is that we can look at how the Mass Effect experience is really meant to work and deconstruct the best examples of it from the first game. The result of that was the discovery of many optimisations that we could make, without making concessions. It sounds counterintuitive, but it comes down to looking at what's actually going on in the game engine, and addressing inefficiencies. Our HUD in Mass Effect simply spent more time rendering than it needed to. Rewriting that code resulted in a dramatic improvement in frame rate without sacrificing quality.
"Another example is the material shader quality. In Mass Effect, we had really beautiful and complex materials on everything in the scene but, because the lighting model applied a lot of flat ambient light, the materials didn't always look as good as they should. So in Mass Effect 2, we made changes to the lighting model so that the material shaders (like the carbon fibre on Shepard's armour) always look their best, even though they don't require more processing than in Mass Effect."
5 - Are Pee Gee?
"If you define an RPG as a game where you equip your hero by sifting through an inventory of hundreds of miscellaneous items and spend hours fiddling with numerical statistics, then no, Mass Effect 2 isn't one.
"The best part of role-playing is being the character, and that means never being pulled out of the immersion of the world to be reminded that you're playing a game. So in Mass Effect 2 we focused on what we love about RPGs: an awesome sense of exploration, intense combat, a deep and non-linear story that's affected by your actions, and rich customisation of your armour, weapons, and appearance. We did those things in ways that achieve what people love about these things in a traditional RPG, but that also preserve the immersion and intensity of the experience.
"We've had an overwhelmingly positive response to this approach, and while we'll make further adjustments to it for Mass Effect 3, we're really happy with how it's been received so far."
6 - Lady Killer
"The character that I'm most happy about is Subject Zero, aka Jack. "Jack worked out perfectly in that she took players through an interesting arc. She was initially seen as a marketing gimmick, and for many people she was repulsive. But we always design our characters with faults and layers of depth, and I knew that when people saw how well our writers had captured her story, they'd really like her.
"In the end, many players have said that they were surprised how much their opinion of her changed as they got to know her, and she's now one of the most popular squad members."
7 - Cupping Issues
"One of the most controversial things was probably the change to how ammo works, from an unlimited ammo system in Mass Effect to one where you pick up clips.
"This was something that wasn't part of the main game design, but instead was simply implemented as a test by a gameplay programmer. Our lead designer was against the idea, but tested the 'ammo' version of the game for several weeks in total secrecy before concluding that it made a huge improvement to the tension and pacing of combat.
"Some of the best ideas in Mass Effect 2 happened that way, where a passionate member of the team took their own time to try something they thought would be great, and it eventually passed harsh scrutiny to become part of the game's experience."
8 - Plan Of Attack
"We've had the very high-level concept of the trilogy mapped out from the start, but we approach each game as a new and standalone title. We wanted to make sure that players new to the series can jump right in to the beginning of Mass Effect 2, and that everyone will get a satisfying and climactic endgame even though there's still one more part to the trilogy.
"The high-level concept really just gets us a start and end point, with a few basic structural ideas. From there, we listened to the feedback from fans and reviewers, and combined it with our own creative ideas to form a clear vision for what Mass Effect 2 should be. It's at that point that we decided to make the story about preparing a team for a suicide mission, as a means of tying even the most sentimental side plots into your epic mission.
"It's a top-down process where the story outline is really the last thing to be done, after we have the larger structural aspects of the game in place."
As Log Said in his review, this game really is an example of epic storytelling. The first time I loaded up, I was hooked for an entire weekend, eschewing all social contact in favour of wallowing in space opera. However, this level of quality leads me to consider one thing: does this great storytelling, by its excellence, detract from the solid-yet-unspectacular combat sections?
Going from tense conversations and wonderful scenic vistas to hiding behind crate after crate is slightly jarring. At least the combat is easy enough (at least on PC, with its superior aiming control) that it doesn't get in the way of the storytelling for too long.
As well as this, I can't be the only one missing the large quest-hub areas we could explore in the first game. Going to the Citadel and finding it's basically now just a couple of corridors is slightly disappointing. I even miss the lifts, if you can believe that. Go on, stone me to death for my heresy, but I thought they were good. In a way.
Despite these things, the strength of the game lies in the fact that, no matter how hard I try, I can't really find many faults with it, and certainly none beyond the petty and irrelevant. Roll on Mass Effect 3 and more dancing Asari women.
Nobody can accuse BioWare of being lazy. They've just knocked out a 100 or so hours worth of dragon-slaying in Dragon Age: Origins, are working on a huge Star Wars MMO, and January sees the release of the second chapter of the Mass Effect trilogy. It's the latter that we're here to talk about and we're joined by co-founder of BioWare, Dr Ray Muzyka, who's a big deal, even in a state of jet-lagged autopilot.
As he explains for the umpteenth time, "It's the dark second act of the Mass Effect trilogy, and you play the role of Commander Shepard. He's a hero or anti-hero depending how you want to play him, but he's charged with solving the mystery of human colonies being abducted by an unknown menace that threatens all life forms in the galaxy.
Dum Dum Dummmm
"It's even more ominous than the threat you faced in the original Mass Effect, so to overcome the challenge you have to build a squad of some of the most badass operatives from across the galaxy." The specifics of those bad-arsed operatives have been drip-fed to the press, beginning with a deadly assassin called Thane, a violent and unpredictable Krogan by the name of Grunt, and some bald woman with a load of tattoos, otherwise known as Subject Zero. She's a rebellious sort who claims to have "been around, ran with gangs, wiped out some gangs." Like we're dead scared...
BioWare games have always involved moral decisions and their consequences. Intriguingly, the decisions you made in the original Mass Effect will have some bearing on the sequel. As the good doctor explains, "If you import your save games from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2 you'll have a different experience. Decisions you made will have an impact in how the story unfolds. In fact, the choices you make in Mass Effect 2 will have an effect on the outcome of the trilogy. We've always planned for that story arc."
Don't worry if you didn't play the first game though, as ME2 is "a start-to-finish new experience. You don't have to have played Mass Effect, you start afresh, there's a tutorial, we make certain assumptions about what choices you made in the original game and bring you up to speed to give you the context of who you are."
Save games or otherwise, who you are is Commander Shepard, who in our brief hands-on demo is wandering into a nightclub and taking a long hard look at the exotic dancers, reassuringly affirming the series' adult-oriented status.
Following a chat with a barman we wander down a few corridors and find ourselves involved in a shoot-out. i Utilising the game's location-based damage, we gleefully take someone's leg off. It all seems fairly tight, and as Muzyka says, "It's really as much as shooter as it's an RPG. We've listened to the feedback from the fans and press on the first Mass Effect about the action elements, the emotional intensity of the characterisation, and exploration, the uncharted worlds.
"The shooter intensity is really high, the controls, the frame rate, the textures load really smoothly. I think the shooter experience is going to feel as tight as the best shooters." This shouldn't scare off the RPG purists though. "I think it'll broaden the audience," says Muzyka. "But the RPG fans are going to love it to because you've still got a lot of the things that they love about BioWare games and Mass Effect 1 in terms of choices, emotional intensity, characters, the narrative and story flow and the progression, customisation, exploration. But the game's new shooter elements will enable us to reach a new audience that maybe haven't played RPGs before."
As for that all-important narrative, Muzyka says, "We use characters and companions as a mirror of your choices and a lens through which you see the world." Throw in an art style that doffs its cap to '80s sci-fi movies, and Mass Effect 2 is shaping up to be one of the key releases of next year. As Muzyka says, "It's-a galaxy on a disc."
Shepard! But... But you're dead!" cries a baffled Asari crime lord having been backed into a corner by our hero. "1 got better," replies Shepard, as cool as a penguin's bum. It's not a dialogue choice, it's right there in the cutscene, otherwise we'd have chosen the option along the lines of "I know, after that E3 trailer I'm just as confused as you about the whole thing."
If you missed it the debut trailer panned around Shepard's armour, reeling off a list of his achievements and credentials before flashing the words "Killed in Action" on screen. BioWare aren't talking in any real detail about what it all meant, instead they point me at the playable demo, in which you're very much in control of a living, breathing Shepard. Not only do we have to grapple with the fact that game characters die over and over again as a matter of course, now we're told that in BioWare's sci-fi RPG sequel your character can die in a narrative context, and stay dead.
Avoiding this fate seems to be the crux of the second game, which ends in a potentially suicidal mission for Shepard and his team. Play well, amass a decent squad and do your best to keep them alive, and you might just arrive at the end of a game with an intact main character. The reason it's puzzling is that BioWare are carrying saved games over from the first title.
Mass Effect 2 will have tracked over 60 individual choices you made, from the fate of major characters - if some of your Mass Effect mates didn't make it they won't be in Mass Effect 2 - right down to seemingly inconsequential encounters having unforeseeable repercussions. It means that Shepard's death at the end of Mass Effect 2 would presumably leave Mass Effect 3 without a lead. And the trilogy is about Shepard.
Clearly there's more to it than what we've been told, and the developers would rather leave us wallowing in intrigue while they show off the more tactile changes they've made in Mass Effect 2. Combat's been scrubbed up well, not least through the introduction of heavy weapons and rocket launchers (there's even a Fat Man-esque nuke launcher to play with), but also by tweaking the AI to be more fun to fight against. Biotics will no longer spam you with their stun abilities, so Shepard won't spend half his fights flopping about on the floor like a fish out of water.
There's an immediately recognisable difference in gun combat as the game is loosed from its RPG moorings. Your rounds carry more impact, scraps feel less floaty and more physical (often literally, as you can punch things), and there's a satisfying sense of connection during exchanges. The cover system's' been fixed, so accidentally sticking to walls and crates is less frequent.
The brainy tactical hemisphere of Mass Effect's combat hasn't been neglected -you'll still command your squad's roster of special abilities through the power wheel, and this time around you'll have a greater degree of control over the placement and movements of your team. Oh, and having realised the Mako handles like a remote-controlled boat, well be getting a new ATV to truck about planetside with. Mass Effect 2 also introduces Renegade and Paragon actions, dialogue choices that appear fleetingly in conversation to interrupt the other guy mid-sentence. As such you'll have no time to consider consequences, which is appropriate when these actions are intended to be Shepard's impulse reaction (guided by his moral compass) to what's happening around him.
At its least intrusive, Shepard will rudely cut somebody off with a smart-arse remark. In the demo we played, however, Shepard punched somebody through a window in the middle of a sentence. And while it's hard to think of a similar snap decision being made on the good side of the moral fence (maybe handing over impromptu birthday cakes), it lends a hefty dollop of unpredictability, and insanity, to Shepard's chats.
So to recap, Shepard's not dead. But he probably will be by the time the end credits roll. Our theory is that he'll re-emerge as a sort of Geth-enhanced Robocop character, maybe without him realising that he'd ever croaked his smokes in the first place. We're eager to continue the adventure all the same. Alive or dead.