Strong story lines and interesting, relatable characters are the core of any good BioWare game, and Mass Effect looks to be no exception. While many feel that a game prepared to offer such an enormous world might suffer from the lack of multiplayer, the development team at BioWare is, as always, confident in their product. I spoke with Casey Hudson, Mass EffectÂ’s project manager, to learn more about what this gargantuan space-themed action-RPG is set to offer Xbox 360 gamers.
Casey Hudson: Mass Effect takes place around 200 years in the future, as human beings make their first steps into a larger galactic community. You're Commander Shepard, best of the best in the human military, and in line to be the first human Spectre -- an elite military operative charged with protecting the galaxy from its gravest threats.
You'll quickly discover that this idyllic future has a very dark past: an ancient race of powerful machines routinely harvest the galaxy of advanced civilization -- repurposing and ultimately destroying intelligent life-forms. They're about to return.
Shack: Tell us about character customization. What can be changed in terms of aesthetics, character classes and skill proficiencies?
Casey Hudson: In Mass Effect you can develop and customize your character as much or as little as you want, going even beyond the depth of our previous games such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. You can adjust every feature of your face and create a unique Commander Shepard -- male or female. You can choose what class of skills (weapons, dark energy, or tech) your character will specialize in, and you'll be able to develop those skills as you progress -- even adding entirely new skills that add new dimensions to combat and character interaction. And throughout the game you'll develop the abilities of your squad as well.
You will also have a huge variety of weapons and equipment to choose from, whether you find, buy or steal to get it. And there's a system that allows you to gather resources that can be used to construct new gear, or modify existing stuff.
You can also customize your experience by your choice in squad members. You'll choose two other squad members to join you from a larger group, and they vary greatly in personality and skill-set. All together, this means that as you head into battle, your squad as well as your combination of equipment and skills will make your game experience very different from someone else's.
And in times when you're not into detailed customization, you can use default choices. The Commander Shepard you see in screenshots and the box cover is a pre-made character that you can choose to get straight into the action if you want.
Casey Hudson: Interacting with other characters in Mass Effect is now much more interactive and cinematic, allowing you to simultaneously have direct control of your character's responses while being able to appreciate the cinematic experience of watching your character as though starring in a well-filmed movie. Some of the examples we've shown are where you draw a gun on a bartender, or grab the collar of a squad member to get his attention. But even more surprising results can happen as plots start to culminate in an emotional climax. Without giving too much away, in one example you make the choice of either freeing or executing prisoners. At another point, you make a choice about how to give some physical punishment to someone who stabbed you in the back -- including sending your 7-foot tall Krogan warrior to do the job as you watch.
Shack: Do party members react to your actions?
Casey Hudson: Squad members in Mass Effect react on an emotional and moral level to what you're doing, so even basic combat takes on an actual meaning and relevance within the story. One example is when you work with a gang to expose a plot on one world, Ashley asks whether you should be essentially working with criminals. How you respond to that criticism is entirely up to you.
Turn the page to learn about Mass Effect's travel system, plans for expanding the game world, and squad-based game play._PAGE_BREAK_
Shack: What sort of exotic locales will we be able to visit in Mass Effect?
Casey Hudson: Much of the Mass Effect is about the thrill of the unknown -- seeing new and exotic locations, and having the freedom to travel to these places at will, never knowing what's around the corner. One of the most important locations in the game is the Citadel, a gigantic space station that is the center of political and financial power in the galaxy. With a population of over 50 million, it has a wide variety of locations ranging from the height of luxury to the seediest of dark alleyways.
There are also many locations scattered across the galaxy that you can explore, from ships in deep space to hostile moons. And throughout the game your home will be the Normandy, a powerful stealth ship that can take you to the edges of the galaxy.
Shack: How does the player travel? Warping, space ships...?
Casey Hudson: You'll be able to navigate a lush galaxy map, viewing space from the galaxy level all the way down to an orbital view. And once your destination is selected, the Normandy uses gigantic Mass Relays -- essentially powerful antennae -- to create a beam of energy that allows you to make jumps of thousands of light years in an instant. Mass Relays, combined with the Normandy's "short range" faster-than-light drives, gives you access to much of the known galaxy.
Shack: Seeing as how the universe is infinite, it would make sense for Mass Effect to somehow continually expand its own game world. Are there any plans to implement this, such as downloadable content via Xbox Live?
Casey Hudson: We've got some pretty exciting plans for downloadable content that will allow you to continue your Mass Effect adventure throughout the life span of the Xbox 360. It may include new locations, maps, or equipment to modify your character, but we haven't officially announced anything yet. Needless to say, we see a lot of great opportunities with Xbox Live so we'll certainly be taking advantage of it in a big way.
Shack: What sort of character development system has been crafted in order to make Mass Effect's characters unique?
Casey Hudson: Mass Effect has a similar depth of character development as [seen in] Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but ... gives you more direct control over your character's progression. Things are expressed in a more intuitive [way], so you can see the results of improving your character in more concrete, immediate ways.
Shack: Tell us about squads: How many squad members can accompany you; is each squad character customizable; what sort of special abilities does each squad member possess; can you give them commands (and if so, what types of commands?) or do they act of their own volition--or perhaps a bit of both?
Casey Hudson: You'll command a squad of up to 3 characters, including yourself. Each squad member has very unique skills, equipment and behavior, and you can develop these things as the game unfolds. In combat, you'll be able to issue movement and attack orders to your squad members, making excellent use of their special abilities exactly how and when you need them.
For example, using single presses from the D-pad or shoulder buttons, you can get squad members to take cover at a particular location, attack a specific target, and even perform special abilities (such as "Suppression Fire" and the shield-smashing "EMP Burst") simultaneously on a target to take down some of the biggest threats.
Shack: Thanks for your time! Anything else you'd like to add?
Casey Hudson: Only that we're honored to see the excitement and anticipation that's building up for Mass Effect, and that kind of support encourages us to push even harder to make Mass Effect as good as it can be. It's been really rewarding to see it at the #1 spot on numerous "most anticipated" lists for 2007, so rest assured we're all working extremely hard to get it done so we can all play it!
Mass Effect is scheduled to release for Xbox 360 in 2007.