E3 2006: The RPGs

24 Aug 2006

Mass Effect

It was surprising to see no mention of Dragon Age at this year’s E3, but at least we were able to get our eyes on BioWare’s highly anticipated demo of Mass Effect. The sci-fi RPG is about a year away from release, and it’s looking good. Damn good, actually.

Mass Effect puts you in control of Commander Shepard, an elite Spectre agent that you’ll be able to fully customize during character generation. While you won’t ever be able to change your name, you will be able to alter skin tone, facial features, gender, abilities, class, and background story. Background story is something relatively new to a BioWare game, and works somewhat like traits or perks in other RPGs. BioWare’s Jay Watamaniuk explained that this choice will ultimately affect how NPCs perceive you as you make your way through the storyline.

The demo began in a bar on Citadel, a 30-mile-long space station that will serve as the game’s introductory location. The first thing we noticed is the game’s finely detailed graphics, including facial animations that have been tailored to show specific emotions (even on aliens!). While The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion may have set a new standard for graphics on the Xbox 360, Mass Effect may just be the first game to meet and even exceed that standard. In addition to facial animations, Jay also pointed out the lengths the team has gone to in order to make the NPCs that inhabit the universe more realistic in their day-to-day duties. Even characters that have no bearing on the storyline will go about their lives, carrying on conversations with one another and performing small tasks like ordering their own drinks from the bartender.

When we approached the Salarian bartender to track down an Assari diplomat, he didn’t want to relinquish any information. At this point, we were able to see just how different the dialogue system is. You don’t actually choose a full sentence of dialogue like one might expect after playing any of BioWare’s previous RPGs. Instead, you’re given a short menu of “gut instinct” responses. Each response is just a few words that convey what sort of response you’re going to give, though your character’s actual speech will be much more elaborate. We chose the threatening response and Shepard whipped out his rifle and pointed it at the bartender’s head. This convinced him to reveal that the diplomat was in the casino up the stairs.

As one might expect, the threatening choice we made above would shift our character toward an “evil” spectrum. Additionally, the two companions with Shepard offered their own reactions to our threatening gesture while we made our way to the casino (“Was that really necessary?” and “Hey, it worked, didn’t it?” if I recall correctly). The whole occurrence reminded me of what one might expect from a similar exchange in Baldur’s Gate II, though it all occurred in real-time rather than stopping the action to show a companion’s response.

The conversation with the Assari diplomat was considerably longer, and we were able to see just how advanced the dialogue system will be. Instead of waiting until she was finished talking before choosing our response, the menu would appear just before the end of her last sentence. This allowed us to choose our next response before she was done talking so that the conversation had a non-stop cinematic quality to it. It’s something I’ve never seen before in any other game and it worked exceptionally well. During the chat, we learn that the Protheans were wiped out by a race of machines that visits the galaxy every 50,000 years. The time is ripe for another visit from the machines, and the diplomat expects that all organic civilizations will be wiped out this time around. You don’t actually know it yet, but preventing this destruction will become the goal of Commander Shepard and his or her squad.

Pursuing this goal will take your character across the galaxy via a ship called Normandy. We didn’t actually get to peer inside it to see how it compares to KotOR's Ebon Hawk, but we were shown an interactive galaxy map that can be accessed within it. The map grants you the freedom to navigate the ship to any one of a selection of planets, barren moons, derelict ships, and even asteroids in several different star systems. When you arrive at your destination, you’ll also have a combat ATV at your disposal that can be upgraded with better armor, enhanced firepower, or even additional horsepower.

We weren’t actually shown how vehicular combat will work, but we did get to see Commander Shepard and two companions on foot within a set of ruins on a distant planet. Before long, the team was ambushed by a small army of machines. For those of you looking for more twitch combat, I’m sorry to disappoint you. While Mass Effect isn’t entirely turn-based, the combat is considerably more tactical than the real-time-with-pause combat systems we’ve seen in BioWare’s previous games. Before combat begins, you’re able to give instructions to your squad members, including the option to place highlighted areas on the battlefield where you’d like each squad member to station themselves.

If you’d rather not play as Shepard during combat, don’t worry. You can assume a vantage point from any of your squad members if you’d like. You won’t have to worry about trying to target your opponents using a crosshair, either. The game features a “lock on” feature that automatically points your weapon at the opponent and the character’s skill set takes over in determining the accuracy of your shots. You can also make use of the environment. During the demo, we watched as Shepard fired his weapon at an area of crumbling ruin above a machine and, as a result, it was crushed by the falling debris. To further enhance the abilities of your character during combat (or elsewhere), Jay also explained that the game will feature “biotics” that will allow a character to achieve superhuman abilities.

BioWare has a trilogy of Mass Effect titles planned, but Jay assured me that each one will have a definitive ending. They’ll also be making downloadable planets and such available on Xbox Live, so we most likely have several years worth of Mass Effect content coming our way. No complaints here.