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May 16, 2006
E3 2006 Day 2: BioWare’s Ode To "Epic"
Mr Shepard, have you ever considered a breath mint?
Almost pretty enough for a movie poster
"Do you think I'd make a good stunt double in Metroid?"
Below the belt shots are never pretty
Red neon makes everything so dramatic
Seemingly casual chat with an alien girl

BioWare isn't new to the word "epic". The term has found its way into critical reviews and consumer opinions of other BioWare game titles like Jade Empire, Neverwinter Nights, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Apparently, they decided those definitions of epic weren't quite good enough - enter Mass Effect.

David Falkner, Lead Programmer for the game, led the media through a tour of Mass Effect at the BioWare booth in the back of West Hall. The twenty-minute demo introduced a game that portrayed a sci-fi, futuristic world that was both stunningly bold and subtle. The demo, we were assured, was real-time rendering and not CGI visuals. That was a helpful hint, because the graphics presented were nothing short of spectacular. The universe, if it hasn't been suggested emphatically enough, is huge. Hundreds of star systems, planets, satellites, ships, and random encounters of the third and fourth kind, are potentially available to players in this non-linear universe.

The backdrop of the game is the Milky Way, centered on a 30 mile-long island in space known as the Citadel, a focal point for all known civilizations in space. Since Mass Effect is a character-driven story, your character you play is Commander Shepard, a character whose gender and racial appearance can be adapted to a player's preferences. As the only human Spectre agent in the galaxy, you have the ability and influence to uncover a sinister machine-driven plot to exterminate all life from the galaxy. In other words, flavors of Star Wars and The Matrix color this game, but in a good way.

The most prominent quality of the game is the emotively-driven conversations, which will seem very familiar to fans of the Knights of the Old Republic game series - but there's much more at work this time around. Conversations are carried out in real-time, so the speed of your reply affects the intensity or casualness of the chat, along with the hostility or diplomacy of the reply as well. Facial tics, flashes of pleasure and annoyance, among other less dramatic facial cues will underscore the tenor of the conversations as well. Not that it should be taken as pressure or anything, but how a player handles conversations affect a player's reputation and the view of humankind through Mass Effect's galaxy. The world around the player is more active than AI drones simply waiting to be spoken with or engaged with in some other way; they show signs of individuality and a life of their own.

More than learning how to handle conversation will be needed in Mass Effect: learning the 3rd person-oriented combat system will be essential. Since you bring up to 2 squad-mates with you wherever you go, you can direct them on the fly to any point in a combat situation using just an analog controller motion. Combat itself should be something special, too, if the visual effects are any indicator - enemies bursting into flame, being crushed by pillars and other destructible objects. Players can take control of a rugged ATV-styled vehicle that they can customize, enhance and make use of at various junctures of the game, which will demonstrate that the vehicle is more than just a pretty plaything.

Still, Mass Effect is at heart an RPG, not a shooter. The development of your character will likely prove to be more important as basic combat survival skills. In all, about 25 hours of pure core game play will be about the norm for a player plowing straight through the storyline, but the game can be much longer when considering side stories that can be engaged. Through Xbox Live, additional content will be added and offer new storylines for players to experience, after launch. Speaking of adding to game play, when asked about multiplayer options, Falkner said, "We have very ambitious plans for multiplayer (in Mass Effect), but more details will be announced later this year."

Mass Effect will be published by Microsoft Game Studios as an exclusive for the Xbox 360. No specific release date has yet been set, although it's a safe bet it will turn up by winter this year. Expect to hear a lot more about this game title as the year rolls

By Paul Philleo


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