From the second Mass Effect begins, it reeks of depth. A funny thing to reek of, admittedly, but when you see how many layers have been added to the core gameplay dynamic of space exploration, Elite-style, and space combat, Knights of the Old Republic-style, you'll know what we mean. Peel back one thing - the story, for example, which has the dense, expansive feel of Star Wars, or even our very own Halo - and you discover the hyper-realism of another; say, the conversation system. Peel back that and you're faced with the exploration of unchartered worlds. Peel back that and you're looking at upgrades and biotics, which not only change the way your character looks and acts, but actually determines where you can go within the world. So, if parts of the universe have an air of familiarity about them (especially if you've spent any sort of time watching or reading sci-fi), the sheer guts and ambition at work in Mass Effect, and the fact that - quite literally - there's currently nothing like it on any format, quickly means you'll get over it.
Conspicuously absent at the Leipzig Games Convention in August, Bioware instead decided to stay at home in order to continue knocking their epic space opera into shape. And given how mouth-droppingly impressive it looked in new updated form at their HQ in the wilds of Canada this past month, it looks like a decision that may well pay off next year.
TALK ISN'T CHEAP
We've talked a lot since E3 in May about the game's conversation system, which aims to push the envelope in terms of facial realism and 'natural'-sounding talking in games. We won't stop here to labour the point some more (turn the page for our impressions of the latest build), but will say that, if it all comes together, it'll be remarkably impressive - though, at the moment, there's still plenty of work for Bioware's coders.
Instead, what caught our collective eye this month was the extraordinary 'charter' elements, where you can head off into untapped areas of the universe in search of new planets and lifeforms. You can read more about it over on the right there, but let's just say that the way in which it's implemented, and the way in which you can zoom right into a planet with virtually no loading times whatsoever, makes for an experience as awe-inspiring as it sounds. Again, it's that depth thing: from galaxies, you can move into solar systems, and from solar systems you can move into individual planets. Then it gets really interesting. Using your rover, a six-wheeled allterrain vehicle that bears a resemblance to the APC in Aliens, you can drop right onto the planet's surface and go - within reason - where you want, and do - again within reason - what you want as well.
Freedom of movement within the Mass Effect universe is an important part of the experience, though this isn't a GTA-style
sandbox. Although there is choice in what order you do things, and what planets you head to, the over-arching story funnels your investigations to a degree, propelling you forward while unrolling the plot. And what a plot. In a Battlestar Galactica turn of events, it deals with the re-emergence of the long dormant mechanical psychos, the Geth, a race of alien nutjobs who reawaken every 50,000 years to obliterate the universe and return it to what they see as purity: a galaxy of smaller, less consuming lifeforms, ie human-free. You, as Commander Shepard, have to find out what the frick is going on and how to stop them. Chartering planets is an obvious first step. Interacting with new lifeforms and new planets helps unravel the mystery at the heart of the game, helping nudge the plot forward. But it won't be as easy as just dropping in for a chat. All planets have areas that you can only reach with upgrades, to you and your rover, and it's those upgrades - referred to as biotics and X-mods in-game - that you have to search for and earn in parallel to your investigation. Essentially, the game's a thrilling grand scale exploration and a hugely ambitious sci-fi detective story. With six months still left before its release (though don't be surprised if it's knocked back post-March), Mass Effect still has many secrets to reveal - but what we've seen, played and heard so far suggests good things.
Bioware have been masters at showing more of Mass Effect without actually showing a lot, and this latest reveal is the same. We know a little more about chartering planets, the story and the way the two are married, but there's a lot still hidden... Which is exciting stuff given the high bar that's been set so far.