Back in the late 90s, the GR office spent a solid year obsessing over a fictitious project called Space: The Game. It was equal parts Star Wars and Freelancer, a space opera that let you explore the universe at will. It was Escape Velocity with a plot, Star Control with more action. Between gulps of Whiskey Slurpees, we secretly laid out the blueprints for the best game ever. What, you don’t have a Whiskey Slurpee machine in YOUR office?
But like most good ideas, Space: The Game was left on the cutting room floor, swept under the rug as we moved on to more pressing matters, like earning our paychecks. Our game design dream was interrupted by the harsh reality of deadlines, screenshots, and Whiskey Slurpee hangovers.
[image1]Luckily, the lushes at Bioware must have overheard our drunken babbling and subconsciously picked up the dusty remains of our shattered vision. They also gave it a way cooler name: Mass Effect. The company’s latest stunner melds their trademark RPG depth with groovy new technology, set in a universe so vast one might describe it as, well, a universe. In one of those E3 meetings you really wish you had the foresight to tape, I sat down with Bioware heavyweight Dr. Ray Muzyka for an early tour through what will likely be just the thing my social life didn’t need.
The details of Mass Effect’s epic story are currently murky at best, but this much is clear: in the year 2183, man and alien have learned to get along, mostly, and freely interact with one another. All seems well…until it’s revealed that a race of machines, very nasty ones at that, were responsible for the harvesting and subsequent eradication of a now forgotten race. That happened a good 50,000 years ago, but as luck would have it, it’s about to happen again, with all organic life comprising this season’s menu.
You play as Commander Shepard, pilot of a starship called the Normandy, and unlike Bioware’s last Xbox project, Jade Empire, you’ll be able to fully customize your looks and abilities. No two Shepards will look and act the same, though gamers will be put to the ethical test with Mass Effect’s deep sense of morality.
We’ve seen Bioware touch on morality before in games like Jade and KOTOR, but in those it was clearly advantageous to choose a particularly benevolent or malicious path in order to access certain skills only available to the truly good or evil. In Mass Effect, the once neglected “gray area” of moral ambiguity will be far more playable, letting gamers really experiment with both altruism and misanthropy without feeling forced one way or the other.
[image2]Making this easier on the player is a brand new communication system. Rather than scrolling through a list of possible responses during conversation, the various directions of the right analog-stick are mapped to different emotional response types; simply moving the stick leads to the proper tone without requiring you to read through every potential response. You could of course still read through everything before making a choice, but those looking to keep it moving could, for example, hold Right to fire off snarky answers or hold Left to be more pleasant. Plus, you don’t have to wait for people to finish sentences, as you can queue up a response in mid-stream, then watch it all play out seamlessly.
Matching this subtle innovation is a swarm of technological tweaks that gives the conversations a fantastic, cinematic feel. Every character in the game is fully-voiced, and like a film, the edits are quick and varied, flashing back and forth between the actors in the blink of an eye. And you’ll see those blinks in eerie detail thanks to the incredible, uh, eyeball technology. Say goodbye to dead, static eyes and hello to pupils that track movement and flutter realistically. It’s unnerving.
Space is a lonely place, so it’s a good thing you’ll eventually control a three-man (woman? alien?) party built out of dozens of potential squad mates, toggling between characters as you see fit. Bioware has been hush-hush about the races and details, but rest assured you won’t find any elven mages here.
You will, however, kick lots of interstellar ass with the game’s pseudo real-time combat system. Like a typical action game, you play in third-person, equipping weapons and firing at enemies using crosshairs. It’s not all twitch, though, as your success is heavily modified by your character’s skill proficiencies. A low-level character might have a wildly inaccurate reticule range, while a more advanced character enjoys far less error and a faster reload rate. In classic Bioware form, you’ll also be able to pause the action and issue commands and waypoints for your party. Add more depth in terms of weapon modding and a full suite of upgradeable skills and the whole thing starts to look like crack.
[image3]However, it’s when you witness the full extent of the galactic map that it actually turns into crack. Taking a nod from awesome games like Privateer and GR office fav Star Control 2, Mass Effect gives players an entire universe to explore. Using a monstrous galactic map, you’ll zoom in and out of solar systems like a virtual Han Solo, scouring hordes of planets to get to the bottom of things. Some of these will prove atmospherically inhospitable, requiring the use of a landing rover or other vehicles. With persistent destructible environments on each world, the possibilities send our geek minds into orbit.
The only thing currently missing from this most outrageous of packages is space combat, but that’s a lot to ask from a core game already chock full of the kind of addictive, freewheeling RPG mayhem Bioware has delivered time and time again. With a revolutionary conversation system, impressive tech and an immense scope, Mass Effect looks poised to alter the fate of gamerkind when it explodes onto shelves this Winter.