When LucasArts and BioWare released Knights of the Old Republic, they probably didn’t realize just how big a hit they had on their role-playing hands. When it came time for a follow-up, BioWare was employed elsewhere, which left Obsidian to take the reins for a sequel that turned out to be not quite as compelling. For BioWare’s next hit-in-the-making, Mass Effect, Microsoft wanted to avoid that fate, signing the developer to create the entire trilogy on the Xbox 360. And from what we’ve seen of the first chapter here at E3, the Mass Effect trilogy has all the makings of videogame greatness.
The same team behind KOTOR is working on Mass Effect, an influence that has shown since the first teaser trailer released in late 2005. The character models looked familiar, as did certain environments, and the trailer left some gamers wondering what the big deal was. Yet the similarity really ends there, as BioWare is creating with Mass Effect the first game that will get hardcore shooter fans excited to play an RPG.
Gamers play as Commander Shepard, a cop-like character given extreme authority in the outer regions of the galaxy. The world itself is bright and vibrant, but it harbors a dark secret: every 50,000 years, a sinister technology resurfaces to try and obliterate all organic life in the galaxy. Naturally it’s up to Commander Shepard to thwart this fate, something players will help him do by making strategic use of a three-person team that is determined before each mission (a la KOTOR).
Players can have Shepard specialize in biotics or weapons, and the weapons themselves are fully moddable as well. For example, if Shepard is using a sniper rifle, players can upgrade it with an “incineration mod” that shoots burning rounds or even an ice-like mod that causes enemies to freeze and shatter into thousands of subzero shards.
Using these weapons is much different than simply upgrading and creating lightsabers in KOTOR, though, as the combat in Mass Effect is entirely real time. Basically, Mass Effect is a third-person tactical shooter, much like Rainbow Six played in third-person mode. Players have full control of the camera, pull the trigger themselves, aim the guns themselves, and can switch between the three members of their party in real time to take advantage of their unique abilities (such as using “dark energy” to throw environmental objects at enemies). However, Mass Effect adds another layer of depth by giving players the ability to pause the action and command their teammates by setting up waypoints, targeting specific enemies, giving flanking orders and determining the desired direction of fire, much like Full Spectrum Warrior.
The implementation of all this is remarkably smooth, especially considering BioWare doesn’t exactly specialize in real-time tactical shooters. Had we not been in a private room with BioWare, in fact, it would’ve been easy to pass off Mass Effect as having come from a developer with a long history in shooters. That is, until we entered a bar in the 30-mile-long space station.
In this scene, we instigated a conversation with an alien who had some information we wanted. Like KOTOR (and most other RPGs), there were several ways to get this information, from sweetening her up with compliments to flat-out threatening her with a drawn gun. The conversation didn’t progress with a simple conversation tree, though, as each expression was mapped to a specific direction on the D-pad. Throughout the game, similarly toned responses will be mapped to the same direction, so if players always want to have a “nice” response they would always press right, for instance, or if they always want to have a “mean” response they would always press down.
This gave the conversations a much more instinctual and fluid feel than reading entire chains of text, and it made them feel much more like cinematic cutscenes than interruptions in the gameplay. It also will help gamers who buy Mass Effect for the tactical-shooting elements breeze through what they might feel are the “boring” parts while still being engaged in the story. BioWare did assure us, though, that every line of dialogue will still be recorded, so hardcore RPG fans can sit there and listen to every voice-acted word if they wish.
Adding to the cinematic feel of the rapid-fire conversations is an outstanding animation system. If you’ll recall the original teaser trailer for Mass Effect, you’ll probably recall thinking the characters were pre-rendered, with all the forehead wrinkling and subtle face animations going on. Nope. Mass Effect really does look that good. Of the three DailyGamers in the room, none of us was willing to believe facial animations could be that subtle and believable, but BioWare has pulled it off. The rest of the levels we saw looked just as impressive, as you can see in the in-game screenshots included with this preview.
Although we didn’t see more than two environments, BioWare says that integrity will carry over to the entire game, from the Ebon Hawk-like Normandy (Shepard’s base of operations) to any planet BioWare has decided to re-create in the Milky Way galaxy. These planets can all be explored, both on foot and by vehicle, which much like Shepard and his team can be upgraded with better-gripping tires or a more-powerful engine.
From what we saw at E3, Mass Effect is going to take the immersion and fun of KOTOR and increase it tenfold. It’s also going to be the one game that will turn FPS players into fans of an RPG. We were skeptical of Microsoft signing a full trilogy for an entirely new franchise, but if BioWare can uphold the excellence of their E3 demo, Mass Effect is going to be one of the Xbox 360’s biggest system sellers when it releases in Winter 2007.
— Jonas Allen