Big Games of 2010: Inside BioWare’s Mass Effect 2

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    Mass Effect 2 is hands-down one of the biggest role-playing games (RPG) of 2010 and one of the most-anticipated games of the year. Electronic Arts-owned BioWare, maker of bestselling franchises like Balder’s Gate, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Dragon Age: Origins, has the second epic action adventure in its science fiction trilogy ready for gamers. Casey Hudson, lead producer on Mass Effect 2 at BioWare, talks about the new game in this exclusive interview.

     

     

    What were your goals heading into Mass Effect 2?

     

    We knew what the reaction to Mass Effect I was like, which was tremendously successful and very critically acclaimed. I guess the most important thing is that even though we had or plan for what we wanted to do with the on-going story and the gameplay, there were billions of people who played it, and in fact, finished the entire game. That’s a lot of people out there who were really immersed in the fiction and want to know where the story is going. We needed to listen those playing the game. Their opinion is at least as important as ours in terms of what Mass Effect is all about and where it needs to go. So it was kind of a combination of our goals in terms of improving the overall experience and improving the polish level and then incorporating some of the additional changes that people were requesting. Things like just faster, smoother, better combat; more interesting exploration in the world, and of course the things that most people have seen as a given is a really amazing story. But players will be more immersed in this larger science fiction world.

     

    Will gamers who didn’t play the first one be able to jump right into this one?

     

    Absolutely. We design all of our games so that they’re a standalone experience and that’s actually the benefit of thinking about games in terms of a trilogy. You can have that goal in mind. Mass Effect 2 starts in a totally self-explanatory way. It starts with a bang. It hooks you in. It has a tutorial, and you immediately know who you are and what’s going on in this world, and then it also has a really definitive ending. You feel like, “Wow, you’ve really finished something.” But because we designed this as a trilogy, we know how the ongoing trends are going to be interesting for the people who played the first one and pulling that into the second game. Likewise, we know where things are going in the third game. If you played all three games or a couple of them in a row, you get to appreciate the fact that it’s an on-going story. And it’s your story, because you’re pulling in your saved game and it’s the same character and a continuation of the same experience that you had. But for people who are totally new to it, it’s a great standalone experience.

     

    How large is this game compared to the original, when you add in the side quests and exploration?

     

    I guess compared to the first one, I’d say it’s some percent bigger. I mean it’s really hard for us to even determine the length of the game, especially the way we make them. The game can vary so widely depending how much the player uses the freedom of choice. You have about a 20 to 30 hour game, which is somewhat longer than the first one, and it’s a much richer game. Even if you don’t explore the 30-plus hours including all the extended content, then you’ll end up experiencing content that’s so much richer than in the first one. It’s a lot more handcrafted. And then at the same time, it has more replay value. There are a lot more lines of dialogue. There are a lot more choice and different consequences for things. It’s bigger in that sense, but we probably have about 15 percent more words of dialogue.

     

    Were you able to increase or add depth to the customization that’s available in this game?

     

    One thing that I think people find an interesting decision is that we really moved around where you view the RPG-style customization and personalization that we had in Mass Effect I. We moved it into different activities. We previously put it all in one inventory screen where it punished you with proof that it’s a deep RPG. We’ve actually moved those things into the places where they’re more accessible so they’re easy to use and actually make more sense. The result is when people start playing it, their first thought will be, “Hey, where did all this stuff go? Did they dumb it down? Did they streamline it?” But once you get a few hours into it, you realize what you’ve been doing in all of these different activities are all the things you had access to before and with even more depth. So there’s no inventory screen where you put on a different set of armor, for example, but we do have a special new screen where you go and customize your armor. You take all these pieces of armor that you buy and actually piece together your armor bit by bit. You change materials, colors, and helmets and everything. You have more control for it because you have a place where you do it. It works a lot better. You may not even realize how much depth you have compared to the first game, even though it is easier to use.

     

    How else have you improved this game?

     

    It’s really kind of a revolution made out of many tiny little improvements right down to the fact that because you have a much more optimized game, the frame rate is consistently much faster, and that really affects content. We have a really smooth frame wave that allows the ending to be that much smoother, but we’ve also gone in and adjusted the way that the camera and the aiming works. So the aiming is a lot more precise. We moved some of the progression and skills out of the ability to aim and hit a target, so that you still have all the progression in terms of how much damage you cause or the level of power of your special abilities, but when you’re firing a weapon you have a precise weapon. You’re a trained soldier, you’re able to hit a target if you can put the crosshair on the target.

     

    How does that impact the combat?

     

    The weapons feel that much more precise and the aiming is much more satisfying. And then you can see how it starts to snowball, because that precision and that fluid frame rate and better camera and aiming now that works really well with the fact that you’ve got location-based damage. There are headshots and those things actually create different enemy behaviors and reactions. And then the fact that now each round can be something really interesting like taking the arm off of a neck which beyond just holding his weapon. With all the weapons actually, we’ve moved to a system where it’s very much like an ammo system in a conventional shooter. It’s still based on the overheat station of the universe, but because you have a limited number of rounds essentially that you can fire, it makes every shot more important. It’s that much more tension. All of these things kind of add up to combat that is very much the same.

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