Following the adventures of Commander Shepard - a space marine in the not-overly distant future - Mass Effect is a truly epic space opera, seeing Shepard and his rag-tag team of alien allies fighting the advance of the robotic Geth, and the traitor who leads them.
With this game BioWare managed to successful mix a story-driven RPG and a tactical third-person shooter, while including a sense of the cinematic that shames Hollywood. Everything in this game is pitch-perfect - the acting, the design, the drop-dead gorgeous graphics, the looks of the characters, the storyline, and the battles. Well, almost everything.
Like many RPGs you seem to spend a great deal of time running between locations. And you can end up avoiding talking to NPCs, as nearly every one seems to spend hours monologing about themselves. Some of which is interesting if you're into backstory, but it does get a bit tiresome. And then there's the Mako -an all-terrain tank used to get around on planets, whose handling is based on a space hopper. But the only reason these flaws stand out so much is because the rest of the game is made to a remarkably high standard.
If you haven't played Mass Effect, do so. Especially if you want Mass Effect 2, as events in Mass Effect (even the seemingly trifling ones) will effect how the story in the sequel plays out.
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Urgh. I Really have to play this, don't I? I've got my copy of Mass Effect 2, alongside a promise from BioWare that the actions of the first game will carry over into the second. But I'm only a few hours into the first game, and I feel confused and overwhelmed.
I stand on the Normandy's bridge, pointing at star systems and demanding that we go there, only to click mindlessly on the handful of planets, praying that I can't land on any of them.
If I can land on them, I will. For the sake of completion. And if there's one negative thing to say about Mass Effect, it's that the peripheral surface missions in the Mako are soul-scouringly dull. So I drop down, I find a probe I can't use (Science skill not high enough), fight a few things (sometimes a bloody giant worm) and find a piece of tat. Or a journal entry I can spout out at some NPC on the other side of the universe. "Oh, did you know your team were killed by a giant worm?" I'll say. "Oh," they'll reply, "Thank you. It must've been an angry worm." XP earned. Level up. I'm showered in medigel and omni-tits.
There's definitely something I'm missing here, the key to why everybody thinks this game is wonderful, I'm acutely aware of that. But for now, Mass Effect is a painful slog. And it's probably mostly my fault.
I Saw Moon at the weekend. The weekend before that I watched Armageddon on ITV and have had Aerosmith in my head ever since. It got me thinking about really good space games, specifically those that feature the moon. It also got me thinking that "the moon" is a fairly unassuming name for something so distinctly spectacular. Why not Ultor, Endor or Mordor?
While we're at it, "Sun" is a bit bollocks, considering we've got Arcturus and Tau Ceti bobbing about a couple of light years off. We're doing our celestial bodies a disservice, and with this in mind I approached Mass Effect - a game set 176 years in the future, where the regularity with which people talk about space is such that we've started calling our planet's satellite and star Luna and Sol as a matter of clarity. Thank Christ.
There's something I find fascinating about how Earth is represented in space games - specifically ones that don't start out on Earth. It's a sense of familiarity in an unfamiliar galaxy, a unifying reference point which, when sighted, makes the fiction of a game infinitely more personal.
Frontier: Elite II started you off in the Ross 154 system, 9.53 light years from humanity's origin. Reaching the Sol system (that's our solar system to non-future astronauts) in Elite's universe doesn't disappoint: by the I turn of the 33rd century it's become a hive of stellar activity. Earth hosts three giant orbital cities.
Mars has been terraformed and is now watched over by Mars High, a floating metropolis. Mass Effect tantalises by offering the Sol System as a destination, but only allows m you to land on the moon and f gaze at our planet from afar. Though disappointingly distant, it's a starkly beautiful vision, and the Codex entry referencing the irreparably damaged environment and the vast slums of the Texan Megapolis' is almost enough to have you voting Green.
Mass Effect is an epic, non-linear sci-fi adventure that features multiple planets, alien civilisations, real-time tactical combat and Fox News-baiting space nookie. BioWare outdid themselves in creating an original, engrossing and exciting new universe to play with, nigh-on redefining gaming sci-fi in the process. The game got even better after the definitive version of the console-pleaser was finally brought to PC, scoring 92%. Project director Casey Hudson docked with the good ship to discuss creating an original sci-fi universe, the online activation debacle, making the combat system work on the PC, what was cut from the build, and more importantly the further adventures of Shepard, Wrex, Garrus and the rest of the SSV Normandy's crew...
- The Big Bang:
"We wanted to make a franchise that we would own and be able to direct and do whatever we wanted with, so we spent the first year of the three-and-a-half-year project just getting a handle on the story and the universe basics, as well as just starting to work on the kind of game Mass Effect would become.
"As for the setting, you actually have to find a sweet spot where you're creating something that is familiar enough to people that they can enjoy it, but is also not a cliche - you don't really want to go and try and reinvent Star Wars or Star Trek.
"I really wanted to go back to the original sources of science-fiction. Going back that far and then building up from there, allowed us to apply principles that we know are familiar enough - such as what it's like to have your own starship, or to meet alien people and civilisations - without being directly inspired by other properties."
- Creating Life:
"The characters were probably the biggest and most difficult part of the game. We had developed games like Knights Of The Old Republic and Jade Empire, where you were able to see characters in 3D, but we knew that this generation would require that much of a leap ahead again, and the issue this time would probably be dealing with the uncanny valley and trying to bring characters to life. Aspects of them can look realistic, but other areas can be much more challenging, such as giving life to the eyes and facial expressions.
So that's where we put a lot of our effort, mainly because the other component was the dialogue system which we knew was another thing that we had to push forward.
"The character technology and the dialogue system are the two key pillars in the cinematic story-telling aspect that we achieve through ganieplay and we put a lot of work into them."
- Black Holes:
"There was one entire world that we had in there for a while called Caleston, which appears in the TV commercial, but we ended up cutting it out of the final game. Caleston was kind of styled on the film (Jutland- you go to a really rough mining colony with a dispute between the factory workers and drug gangs.
"We want to make sure we have all the best stuff in there and also to make sure that the story works from the beginning to the end as a whole. I've kind of alluded to the fact that it's really hard to track all the character decisions during the game, so you can imagine that if you were to add something to it or take a big chunk out, you have to make sure that there's no hole. Quite often it isn't possible to cut story stuff because it's so embedded in all the other threads that are there, with characters reacting to decisions or comments you've made. If you've pulled a large bit of the story out, it's almost as much work to try and patch over the hole."
- Designer Spaceships:
To me it kinda feels like when you watch Star Wars or James Bond, there's a mystery to the technology in there. There's nothing cool about using a GPS in your car -It's stunning how advanced The technology is - but it's not cool, in a James Bond technology way.
We wanted to get back to when the future was this impossibly exciting time that was just full of mystery and wonder - something that seemed like the futurism of the '60s and 70s. Even now if you look at science-fiction magazine or book covers from that period or paintings by John Harris and artists like that, they still kind of have that extra futuristic look to them - there's something inspiring about them. So that's what we were trying to get back to, that feeling of an extra sleek and clean future, but also to bring some reality to that and make you feel like you're actually living in that world.
"In Mass Effect you have a world that is epic, sleek and idyllic, but people are ignoring the biggest problems that they have."
- Future Music:
"The soundtrack was another area where we certainly didn't make things easy for ourselves! It would have been easy to say 'science-fiction means an orchestral score like Star Wars and so we need a live orchestra'. But we were trying to create something familiar, but different, and we really liked the way that Tangerine Dream and that kind of '80s electronica still has that very super-futuristic feel to it.
"The idea was, what if the strings and drums and stuff that you hear in that kind of electronica were played live in a hall, so you still had this futuristic sound yet it was a little bit bigger and live? What if it was then backed up by the remainder of a live orchestra, so it would have that nice warm resonating quality to it? You would get this synthesis of sound, something which feels futuristic, but when you needed it could really draw from that orchestral power.
"I think we really got a long way there and I'm really happy with how the soundtrack worked out."
- Battle Beyond The Stars:
"It's almost painful talking about areas such as the battle system, as we once again made things really hard on ourselves! One of the big differences is that Mass Effect is entirely nonlinear, compared with many of the other blockbuster games - you can always stop and turn around and go backwards through a level, so we weren't able to do a lot of optimisation. The combat also offers so many different things that the player can do at any given time - tech powers, four different weapons that you can swap around and fire, grenades, mods - all those things that make it interesting and customisable, that allow you to play the character you want and to fight the way you want.
"Obviously trying to squeeze all this into something that plays well -C and is intuitive, really requires something that didn't exist before, which was real-time third-person shooting but with the ability to engage fairly sophisticated commands for your squad. If you add up all the things you can do in combat it's a huge list, and it takes a lot of iterations and a lot of design and simulating in your head how it would work. It takes a long time just to build something you can play, and you might go that distance only to realise that what you prototyped is exactly what you don't want! "We actually did that on KOTOR, where we did seven full iterations of the combat system - and it was the same for Mass Effect".
- Activation Nation:
"I focus on the creative and technical aspects of making the game itself, but you always want to know that this thing that you've put however many years of your life into is going to be enjoyed by people and have value. You obviously don't want pirating to happen, but in spite of that, from my perspective, I have to trust the people who are experts in copy protection. There are new ways to beat copy protection all the time and there are new forms of copy protection, so it is always hard to tell how people will react to something or how it's actually going to work when it gets played - and in fact whether it will be effective or not.
"So, from what I can tell, in the end the majority of the complaints seemed to be prior to release rather than how people experienced the release itself. Whether it was effective or not I'm not sure - it's always hard to tell as in the end people are always able to pirate anyway...''
- Mass Affect
"Usually the starting point for anything that we build into a game is that we have an experience that we want to give to people or something we want them to feel. Then we start creating the actual materials for it, designing the ship or creating the character or writing that bit of the story. So, for me, the thing that I love most about game development is going all the way through to the end and seeing it go out into the world and watching the way people respond.
"Some of my favourite stuff is to see that people really loved things like the ending, even though this is just the first act in a trilogy, to feel really satisfied and really enjoy the ending of that first title. It's great to see that gamers calling it thrilling and conclusive and stuff like that. I like to go on YouTube and see people who are posting and talking about Mass Effect and the things they enjoyed."
- PC World:
"The gaming world was fortunate that the PC mouse turned out to be the ultimate pointing device - for a shooter just being able to snap around and look in a specific direction really helps. The other thing that came together nicely was the idea that people who had played previous BioWare games would know to hit the Space bar with their thumb to bring up a pause menu, so we already had those two things going for us. But it still really required going back to first principles and saying: we have this game, there is this list of things you need to do in combat, so on the PC what is the best way to do that?
"That is one thing we always do regardless of what platform is released first or whatever, we always look at the platform and work out what's the very best for it. With the PC version, Mass Effect didn't go through as many entire iterations because we knew the kind of things we wanted to do with the combat. We did integrate a lot of the different pause screens from the 360 all into one screen for the PC, and that kind of stuff took a lot of time. In the end I think we were able to capitalise on the PC's strengths to make it easier to play."
- The Sequel:
"We started it at the beginning of the year and are getting pretty far into it. We have our story pretty much locked down and are now building levels. The great thing about working on Mass Effect 2 is that whereas the first one was really starting from scratch and building a universe, a game and storyline, with the next one we're really able to refine and polish what the experience was about, take all the feedback from the fans that have played it and make it so much better."
All I know about the next entry in BioWare's sci-fi role-playing series is to not call it Mass Effect 4. Is it a prequel set during the First Contact War? Will it take place in the brave new universe forged at the end of ME3? Hopefully the latter. Exploring the series' fictional history, while intriguing on the surface, would lack any sense of tension, since we know how things shake out in the end. The best direction for Mass Effect is one that's always moving forward into the future.
BioWare action-RPGs like Jade Empire and Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic may be celebrated for their captivating stories and tremendous character development, but when it comes to in-game conversations, even these titles have fallen back on traditional dialogue trees--until now. Mass Effect may resemble its BioWare brethren in lots of ways, but how characters talk to each other isn't one of them.
Here, rather than selecting the line you want from a set of text choices on screen, you'll choose a direction on a dialogue wheel. "Each direction corresponds to a different emotional reaction," says BioWare's Project Director Casey Hudson. "It's very much like trying to capture the way you have a real-life conversation: You react on an emotional level very quickly and then you ki nda figure how your words come out" Conversations will develop in real time, and the developers hope this will achieve a certain realism that hasn't been seen in games before. For instance, in most games it's been easy to click through dialogue trees by reading the text instead of listening to what the characters say. Here, that impatience might have consequences. "Depending on the dialogue, other characters might move to another path and be kind of irritated with you, if you do that too much," says BioWare Joint CEO Ray Muzyka. Cutting to the chase can work for you, though--it all depends on the context. "Again, it's like a real-life conversation," says Hudson. "If someone's talking, you can just start talking over them--their voice will trail off, but you can get your line in. It's kind of better than skipping through dialogue." The goal of the entire system is to create natural, believable conversations. To that end, the dialogue wheel will be mapped consistently throughout the game, in the hope that gamers will learn to select the emotional responses they want without thinking about it. "You'll know which way is threaten, which way is be nice, etc.," says Muzyka. "It's very intuitive."
The final frontier sure ain't fantasy--while on Mass Effect's intergalactic voyage, you won't find any effeminate elves or dangerous dragons. Rather, you'll find space...and lots of it. "Mass Effect kicks off to a jaw-dropping opening gameplay prologue," says Project Director Casey Hudson of developer BioWare (Stars Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), "and by the end of it you'll be face-to-face with a spectacular interactive map of the Milky Way." Scoping out the solar system is definitely one of the main attractions in this massive role-playing game. But even though the ride may seem like a virtual vacation, your trigger finger sure won't be relaxing. "There are four classes of conventional weapons that you can equip, in addition to various types of grenades, tech weapons, etc.," says Hudson. Ail of your equipped weapons fold up into compact shapes for storage directly on your character, and can be retrieved with a press of the D-pad." Don't get too cocky with your cool space weapons, though--all your actions (good or bad) play a major role in the outcome of not only this game, but also the planned sequels. "Your style of play throughout the game will result in diverging endings that determine the fate of humanity itself," says Hudson. Man, as if saving our own ass weren't pressure enough.