Lurching dizzily out of a Halo 3 presentation on my final day in attendance at Games Convention 2007, thoughts were already turning to the bar and a train ticket to Berlin, where an evening of relaxation awaited me. Microsoft's alluring PR lady had other ideas, however, 'have you seen Mass Effect yet?' Not exactly, I replied, eager to sound keen while an internal battle of loyalties raged, beer or games coverage, daddy or chips. 'Follow me,' the young lady beamed, clearly mentally ticking-off another sales target as I was led into a room with Senior Programmer Christina Norman.
In Leipzig to show off BioWare's new RPG, the much touted Xbox 360 exclusive Mass Effect, Miss Norman was clearly struggling from a long journey over from Edmonton, Canada, confessing she'd already presented the game more than a couple of times and couldn't decide whether to forgo the consumer experience in favour of shopping in the city, or do the 'right thing'. We knew how she felt. Still surging ahead with our Mass Effect demonstration with noteworthy aplomb under the circumstances, I was told that the game is due out in the US come November and should arrive in PAL regions a couple of weeks later.
Plot, Norman explained, was key to the game, with a player's choices during the action key to where this binding element will take you next - BioWare keen to emphasise that the universe and opportunities presented by Mass Effect are truly vast. The game commences with player's assuming the role of an envoy to the Citadel Council, a kind of UN for the galaxy, humans being a fairly recent addition as a race having only just acquired the technology for star travel. The Council's purpose is to keep galactic peace, and as an envoy you'll play a crucial role in making this happen, with your actions defining how the human race is viewed throughout the galaxy by certain bodies and races.
As the game begins, however, a threat to the galaxy's peace has emerged in the shape of a lethal machine race, hell-bent on consuming all forms of natural life. Almost inevitably, then, you'll have a key role to play in this plotline, as you forge alliances, break others and generally do your damnedest to further your character, your race and of course keep the galaxy safe in the process.
The plot-furthering cut-scenes of other story-driven titles won't be interrupting the flow of Mass Effect, Norman explaining BioWare's real-time 'cut scene' system, which creates cinema quality sequences on the fly ensuring continuity of action. This will be blended in with a unique conversation system which offers players a range of possible responses and actions in an intuitive way that still doesn't simplify proceedings too greatly.
Character development will be key - you're charge, Commander Shepard, is going to need to get stronger, faster and cleverer if Saren's machines are to be halted in their other-worldly bid to destroy all life. As the first human 'Spectre', a defender of galactic peace, your main mission will be to halt Saren (a rogue Spectre, it would appear), but there will also be a myriad of side quests and diversions along the way. As you develop you'll be given points with which to improve certain aspects of your Shepard's persona, talents such as diplomacy, shooting ability, et al. These skills might make you better in combat, or might even make new paths through the game available, for example if you've invested in diplomacy abilities you might be able to talk your way out of a situation that would otherwise result in a fire-fight.
While you'll have the option of focussing on the main mission of the game, the destruction of Saren, you'll also be able to improve your strengths and broaden your talents via the completion of other quests, which can see you journeying to other planets in a vast universe aboard the most advanced human star ship, the SS Normandy. Along the way you'll make friends and enemies among various alien races, forging and breaking trusts, gaining and losing friends, as the universe changes based on your actions and their multitudinous impacts. Truly Mass Effect is all about that, your tiny moves in a galactic game of chess.
Combat isn't to be dismissed, either, the game will feature plenty of action, especially if your version of Shepard is rather partial to spot of violence, though what BioWare showed us on the combat wasn't quite as refined as the communications system. Vehicles beyond your starship will also feature, planetary exploration being undertaken via the ATCV which you'll use on surface journeys.
Christina Norman is also eager to show off Mass Effect's talent wheel, a quick interface of abilities and related commands which enables you to make informed choices in the heat of combat or a fiery debate - such an interface being crucial to the RPG's success given the lack of complicated keyboard and mouse controls on the Xbox 360.
BioWare are promising tough choices, too, something Norman details at one key plot moment when note taking and filming must halt, as we're shown just the kind of shouts Shepard will have to make in the heat of the moment - as the player looks to strike political balances while meeting mission goals.
Drawing our presentation to a close, I'm taken with how ambitious Mass Effect is, BioWare having clearly devoted vast quantities of time and resources to what they hope will be a truly epic experience. Visually, characters look stunning, as do some of the environments. The interface also looks very well crafted, and assuming the plot can be integrated well with character development, character interaction and combat then I can see few problems ahead for the title. That said, this is no mean feat, and certain elements of the gameplay as well as the side quests which give the game its grandiose scope look a touch incomplete presently. We await further developments on this title with interest. Now, where's that station...
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