27th Sep 2006 | 12:08
Mass Effect was a big surprise at this year's E3, easily snatching our vote for Xbox 360 game of the show and nearly ruining a perfectly good pair of trousers.
Utilising every morsel of the Xbox 360's technical prowess, the stellar RPG is bringing worlds and characters to the screen with more believability and realism than we've seem before.
Add to that an infinite supply of characters and worlds to explore, real-time combat with a deep weapon customisation system and the usual epic plot and endless quests you'd expect from BioWare, and Mass Effect has us dribbling with excitement.
Recently we managed to get a few words in with Mass Effect project director, Casey Hudson, who wrapped our heads around his gargantuan RPG while hinting at BioWare's other Xbox 360 project and touching on the company's recent merger with Pandemic.
So it's over to him...
CVG: You've already created two massive, highly-acclaimed console RPGs, Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. What were the main design considerations in planning Mass Effect?
Casey Hudson: We had a very positive experience in developing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but it left us wanting to try new things and take on new challenges - to really innovate. So creating a new science-fiction universe was an opportunity to build a basis for exciting new experiences for players, built from the ground up to provide a definitive interactive science-fiction experience
One of the ways that we wanted to expand the game experience was to give the player a much larger world to explore - so we've created an interactive map of the Milky Way, where players can explore many locations beyond the core story.
We also wanted to give players a character that wasn't just a hollow vessel, but instead was in a position to give the player a very specific and unique experience: being responsible for a mission of such importance that you're justified in (and have many opportunities for) smashing through barriers and breaking rules to take care of business. In other words, your experience as Commander Shepard gives you good reasons to take extreme actions.
CVG: What inspired your decision to turn Mass Effect into a trilogy? How long will we have to wait for the second and third instalments?
Hudson: We want to create the biggest and most memorable interactive science-fiction experience possible and that meant being able to not only tell one great story, but to be able to constantly elevate the experience across future adventures in a way that feels like one enormous experience.
This isn't one story spread across three episodes though. Instead, each game will have a self-contained story with a spectacular and satisfying ending. By planning out the long-term story ahead of time however, we're able to ensure that future adventures in the Mass Effect universe continue to have really interesting places to go
Players will be able to create a unique character for Mass Effect, and play as that character through three huge titles and tons of downloadable adventures over the lifetime of the Xbox 360. Unfortunately, we aren't ready to discuss timing on future installments of the franchise.
CVG: What's the overall plot of the game?
Hudson: It is 200 years in the future. You are Commander Shepard, veteran of the Alliance military and the only human among the Spectres: elite agents sworn to protect galactic stability at any cost. Trusted to deal with the most dangerous threats to galactic civilization, you are the tip of the spear for humanity on the galactic stage.
Early in the game you reveal information that suggests an ancient race of machines was responsible for destroying galactic civilization roughly 50,000 years ago in a horrific cycle that resembles a "harvest" of organic life - and they're about to return! As the only person who's seen this evidence - and being one of the few in a position to do something about it - you begin scouring the galaxy to destroy the agents of the machines and prevent the cycle from happening again.
CVG: The scope and size of Mass Effect is immense. How did you approach creating such a huge and diverse galaxy and the sheer wealth of content in the game?
Hudson: It's a complex process, but it really started with one question: What would you most want to experience in a science-fiction adventure? That question led us back to our favourite moments in science-fiction movies, exciting experiences in our favourite games, breathtaking paintings from science-fiction book covers, even to music that inspires thoughts of dramatic space adventures. And this collection of exciting ideas and moments started to create a picture of the kind of universe that would support the biggest and most exciting science-fiction stories.
That led us to several key areas of innovation, including a much larger explorable galaxy with free-form gameplay, and digital actors that are compelling enough to deliver real emotion.
CVG: What would you say are the main innovations in the game? Which features are your favourite?
Hudson: Since we consider a powerful story to be a critical part of a BioWare game, a main focus of innovation on Mass Effect has been the development of advanced digital actors. We've developed complex systems for facial expressions, gestures, wrinkles, eye movements etc. that allow Mass Effect characters to react with tangible emotion. This makes your choices even more satisfying, since you can see that emotional reaction in their eyes.
To further enhance your interactions with in-game characters, we've created a dialog system that allows you to respond in real-time, with full voice on your player-created character. The interface uses consistent controller mappings that correspond to different "classes" of response, along with subtle timing and the use of brief paraphrases, so that you can make an educated decision with each response, while keeping the conversation running at a normal pace. In fact, you can even cut off another character in mid-sentence, and your choices aren't just about dialog - they can lead to physical actions as well, such as shoving another character or drawing your weapon.
We're also really excited to be able to innovate in the area of exploration. Whereas KOTOR gave players a small number of locations to travel to in the galaxy, Mass Effect allows you to explore planets, moons, and space derelicts across the Milky Way. Combined with a freeform approach to gameplay and a customisable combat vehicle that makes great use of physics, it really feels like you have a massive space to discover as you unfold the game's story.
CVG: How does creating a new sci-fi universe compare to working on the Star Wars properties like Knights of the Old Republic. How does Mass Effect differ from the Star Wars universe?
Hudson: Developing KOTOR was a great experience, but towards the end of the project our thoughts turned to all the things we'd love to do, if we were able to start from the beginning with a fresh new universe and a new approach to science-fiction. Therefore the Mass Effect universe, because it was really designed from first principles as a medium for interactive science-fiction, is quite unique while bearing the qualities that make a science-fiction experience deeply satisfying.
There are several things that are really cool about the Mass Effect universe that set it apart from other science fiction settings. One of the biggest differences is that it has a realistic quality that makes it feel like it's a likely and plausible future. It's not space fantasy - instead it's based on realistic technology and actual astronomical locations, giving players a feeling of having been to famous stars and nebulae in the galaxy.
CVG: How much emphasis have you put on the combat element of the game? How does it differ from your average squad-based shooter?
Hudson: Mass Effect is first-and-foremost a role-playing game, where your experience in combat is highly customised by the characters you've chosen to adventure with, the abilities you've developed in them, the weapons and equipment you've chosen, and the combat tactics you decide on. So while it has a familiar third-person shooter style interface, you're actually in control of a squad of three characters, in battles where you can coordinate the unique and varied skills of your squad to achieve amazing results.
You'll also have tons of things to do in combat, with attacks that go far beyond standard weapons. There are two fields of specialization - Biotics and Tech - that allow characters to perform spectacular attacks. Biotics for example can allow you to remove the gravity effects on an object, thereby making it easily thrown aside by the impact of a grenade - excellent for tearing cover objects out from in front of enemies. With Tech abilities, you can do things like hacking an electronic enemy to turn against its allies, distracting their squad so you can move in for the kill.
CVG: How deep is the weapon customisation? How are you taking it further than the weapon systems found in your previous games?
Hudson: Mass Effect features a mod system that gives you the ability to enhance almost every weapon or equipment item. You'll find various mods throughout the game, and will be able to constantly change or add to the mods on a particular object. This means you'll be able to customise your gear to match your preferred play style in combat.
CVG: What kind of gameplay can we expect from the planetary exploration? What do the land-based vehicles have to offer in the game?
Hudson: When you're exploring the galaxy, much of the fun is that you could potentially come across anything out there in deep space. If you choose to explore a planet, you'll be air-dropped inside the Mako - your customisable combat vehicle - onto the planet's surface. There will be a wide range of environments on these planets, and you can freely explore them in any direction. One world might lead you into intense firefights with mercenaries guarding a secret discovery, while another world may have an infestation of beasts that make it difficult to gather precious resources that can be found there. In any case, it's the variety of gameplay that will keep you wondering what you'll find around the next star.
CVG: Does the KoTOR good/bad system feature in Mass Effect? If so, how have you improved it?
Hudson: Players will have dramatically different paths to follow through their actions. Beyond that though, we're developing the good/evil aspect into something more worthy of the highly realistic next-gen experience that represents the quality bar for Mass Effect. As Commander Shepard, you have a powerful presence and are usually involved in issues of high-level importance. So a conventional "evil" approach seemed almost cartoonish by comparison to the realism of Shepard's story. Instead, we've put your character in a position where you'll need to break rules, defy authority, and generally raise hell as you force your way towards the galaxy's darkest secrets. This means facing tough moral decisions where you can find compassionate ways to deal with problems, but are equally justified in taking more brutal or mercenary approaches.
And since you really are the leading edge of humanity's presence on the galactic scale, it means your actions ultimately shape the future of all humanity in the galaxy. This approach gives the game an epic and grown-up feel, where the realism of your choices make your decisions - and their outcomes - that much more interesting.
CVG: What's the soundtrack going to be like?
Hudson: The soundtrack will be one of the most unique parts of Mass Effect. We've brought on an amazing composer who's hard at work creating the music right now. Each piece so far would make an excellent track for a soundtrack CD, and I listen to the music often just for enjoyment while working late. We'll be able to reveal more on that soon.
CVG: What has been the hardest part to implement in the game? Is there anything you would change if you could?
Hudson: There's no particular element that's been really difficult - it's more an issue of dealing with detail levels that are an order of magnitude greater than the last generation. This means a lot more work, a lot more assets, and a lot more complexity. That, combined with the fact that Mass Effect is possibly the most ambitious game in development today, means that we've taken on quite a challenge. So to hit the extremely high quality bar that we've set for ourselves, it means lots of late nights and a big team of extremely bright people.
CVG: Typically your games have eventually made their way to PC, after a year or so on consoles. Can we expect the same to happen with Mass Effect in the future?
Hudson: There are currently no plans for a PC version.
CVG: When can we expect to hear more about your other Xbox 360 title?
Hudson: Soon. Maybe. If it even exists at all. Oh no, I've said too much...
CVG: How's progress going on Dragon Age? We haven't heard much about that title for a while?
Hudson: The Dragon Age team is indeed hard at work on the game and it's looking really cool. We don't have anything new to announce about it just yet, but we will... soon!
CVG: How's your new partnership with Pandemic working out?
Hudson: It's been really cool. Any time you can put two groups of people together, each with different specialties and areas of expertise, there's an amazing synthesis that allows you to achieve things that you couldn't do otherwise. We're able to share each other's best methods and technologies, leading to better games from both studios.