With Mass Effect 2 in its final stages of production, BioWare is hard at work applying the finishing touches that we’ve come to love and expect. Gamer Limit was fortunate enough to sit in on a roundtable interview with Project Director Casey Hudson, where many details pertaining to the combat system, dialogue options, and many other important aspects were revealed.
In addition to serving as Project Director to both installments of Mass Effect and the original Knights of the Old Republic, Casey has also worked on BioWare hits such as MDK2, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadow of Amn, and Neverwinter Nights. Come join us as we sit down with Casey Hudson and delve deeper into the inner workings of Mass Effect 2.
In what ways has combat substantially changed since Mass Effect?
We probably improved every single aspect of combat. To go through some of them, it really starts with the feel of combat, the way weapons feel in your hand and the way aiming feels. We really did a lot of work in the area, and fundamental to that is frame rate. On the first game we were trying to create a really ambitious universe and a non linear play style, which made it very difficult for us to find a final texture and memory budget and everything, but now that we have the first game that served as to what our final budget was, we were able to be a lot more strict about performance so that we could make sure we were always running at a smooth, fast frame rate, and that probably is one of the biggest things you will feel as a difference in combat.
Now it’s so much smoother, it’s easier to control the characters, it’s easier to aim: it just feels really good because the frame rate is a lot faster. But we’ve also done a lot of work to the camera and the aiming system. It’s a lot easier, it feels a lot better as you’re zooming in and targeting enemies.
Related to that is the weapons, we still have a very much RPG style approach to weapons and items. You’re buying things, you’re selling them at the stores, you’re upgrading and modding. The thing that I think people will find, you choose your weapons by feel because they each feel very different. We have more weapon classess in this game, and you start to choose your weapons just by how good they feel and what your preference is.
With the pistol category, we have a hand canon, a heavier pistol, we have a sub machine gun, and you might really like the feel of a Desert Eagle-style heavy caliber pistol if you like one shot weapons. You might also like the feel of the sub machine gun where you can do a spray of many rounds and but less accuracy, with more area damage. You feel these things, and that’s one of the big things that people find when they’re playing, they’ll switch to a weapon, and they’ll fire it, and they’ll love the weapon. It’s nothing we can put on a bullet point, but I think it’s probably the biggest thing people will notice, it feels really good.
In Mass Effect 1, part of the problem with it, because the weapon was a skill, your character might have a low skill in a given weapon, and that means you as a player might be able to get the reticule on an enemy, but your character would be unable to hit them because a character has a low skill or the weapon is a poor weapon. We’ve moved those things onto different kinds of powers, and so now the character is able to fire as well as you can, and just really adds to the precision of the combat. But at the same time, all the same depth is there in terms of your character progression. We put those things more into powers that really get to the fantasy fulfillment of each class, so each class feels deeper and more varied.
One of the favorites is Vanguard. As a Vanguard, you are good at shotguns and you have some biotic powers. One of them is “Charge,” it’s a new power where you can launch yourself across the level, you launch yourself using Biotic powers at a tremendous speed so you can physically hit another enemy, and when you do that, the higher end version of the power actually slows down time when you hit them, so they get launched into the air and then, in slow motion, you’re right there with your shotgun. It creates this really high risk, high reward type of combat. Its a unique type of play style.
But then you have other kinds of classes like the Adept, which can essentially remotely command the battle field. You’re looking around at all the different enemies, and you’re able to do Pull and Throw and all these amazing abilities, but, beyond that, we’ve advanced those powers so that when you do a power like Pull, it’s not just some that pulls the enemies towards you. It’s an actual projectile that you throw into the world, and it guides towards the enemy. Depending on which angle you throw it, it’ll yank that enemy in that direction. So, if you’re on a bridge, you won’t just pull the enemy towards you, you can yank them left or right on either side of the bridge. You can really control what you’re doing and where people are going.
Soldiers, for example, you’re able to have skill in all the weapons and unlike other characters, you’ve got the heavy weapons system, which basically replaces grenades from the first game, for some extra firepower. The Soldier can also do all the different weapon mods too, so you’re feezing people solid, you’re incinerating them, it’s very much about the weapon experience.
So that’s one thing we’ve done, in terms of just really deepening the classes and making them different from one another. We’ve made a lot of improvements to the AI. There’s mounting objects and if you command your squad up ahead, and there’s an object in the way, they’ll leap over it on their way to the enemy. There’s a lot better use of cover between your squad, and the enemy, as well.
There’s been some talk about whether or not we’ve added ammo to Mass Effect 2. Because we had essentially unlimited ammo in Mass Effect 1, it kind of took away some of the tension that there is in combat, that makes you consider your weapon use a little bit more. Without abandoning the idea of ammo, or of overheat, we had to create the concept of overheat into an ammo-style system. Your weapons overheat like they do in Mass Effect 1, but they overheat into cells that are part of an overall clip, and you can find these universal clips of thermal heat sinks. It’s similar to an ammo system; it kind of limits the number of shots you an do before you rund out of thermal heat sinks. There difference is, it’s something that can add tension to combat without you actually having bullets that can be expended.
As you run around the environment, you’re picking up these thermal clips. It kind of ties into the location system of damage that we’ve added. Now, headshots matter, you can shoot the limbs off of androids and mechs. Because these things really matter and weapons are much better, like the sniper rifle is a lot better, it’s very smooth and very precise. So, now, if you draw your sniper rifle, you’ve got a limited number of rounds before you’re gonna need to reload or get a new clip. Now you’re starting to really think, because headshots matter and ammo is relatively limited, I’m really think about getting this headshot. It just makes you consider combat a bit more, and get a bit more of the overall feel of it.
There’s a lot of change, there’s a lot of improvements, and each one of them is relatively minor. Much of the way you play combat in Mass Effect 2 is the same way you played in Mass Effect 1, but it just adds up to a revolution in the way that it feels and how much better it plays.
The inclusion of characters from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2 was done as previously mentioned both to continue the story and because of the fans liking some of these characters. Which of these characters were your favorite and least favorite?
The great thing about the way we do our cast of characters is that we try to make sure that they’re all different from one another, and, to us, a success is if a character is loved and hated. Then, it presents a choice. If there are people that love a certain character, and other people hate that character, then we know that have a pretty unique character and it’s kind of inspiring some controversy, or at least decision making as a player you decide whether you like a certain character.
I think the ones that were more universally liked were characters like Wrex, Garrus was kind of a surprise. He’s a fairly laid back and cool, by the book guy. He wasn’t necessarily someone we expected to be a standout, but he’s pretty universally liked. Liara was well liked. Probably the most debated character, as to whether people like him or not, was Kaiden. I think a lot of people left Kaiden to die on the nuke decision on Virmire. I think that was an easy decision for a lot of people, between Kaiden and Ashley. As a character, there are a lot of people who loved Kaiden, andnas a love interest, I know there are a lot of people who have expressed a real interest in having Kaiden back, they really want to see Kaiden come back and be a part of the story.
The other one that was interesting was Tali. Tali is kind of an alternative character, she’s an alien, she’s mysterious, you can’t really see what she looks like. At one point I think we were considering whether she should be a love interest in Mass Effect 1, and I remember people saying, “no, people aren’t gonna wanna have a romance with a girl with chicken feet.” But, chicken feet didn’t really bother anyone.
Does Mass Effect 2 allow you to pick which play through you want as a reference point, or does it just default to the most recent playthrough data?
Every time you finish Mass Effect 1, it makes a special save game that is the end-state for that playthrough. Then, when you have Mass Effect 2 and you run the import utility, it will look at all your ending save games from Mass Effect 2. Then, it lists them out and it lists some of the relevant data, so you can remember which one was which, like when you made the save game and some of the key decisions, and when you import that save game, it gives you a full rundown of what happened in that, so that you can do a final double check, like a paragon playthrough, Ashley survived, and Wrex died, and all these things. Then you can make that final confirmation that is the save game that you remember and that you want to continue from into Mass Effect 2.
Also, you can import that game and play Mass Effect 2, but you could also import that same game and then play Mass Effect 2 a different way. So, you could have multiple playsthroughs of Mass Effect 2 coming off of one import from an end-game of Mass Effect 1.
What sort of improvements have been made to the planets? Will there be more variation in the terrain and the layout this time?
In regards to the vehicle, the Mako, we’re doing some cool things with the vehicle, though we’re not ready to announce them just yet. In another month or so we’ll probably be talking about the vehicle.
In terms of the overall exploration, one of the things that we had feedback on, people really loved the idea of a larger galaxy and being able to go out and explore stuff. What they really wanted us to improve was the variety and the different things that you got to do when you were out on these missions. So we did two things. First of all, we improved the galaxy map experience. It’s very much the same kind of galaxy map, but this time there are a few differences. You’re actually moving the position of the Normandy versus a target crosshair. And when you arrive at a planet, you have an actual minigame for scanning the planet. It’s really cool, you actually see the planet spinning below you, you turn it around, and you can scan for resources and the controller will rumble, and hear different sounds. You can kind of close in on resources. This part basically replaces the less interesting aspects of resource gather from Mass Effect 1 and puts it into a minigame thats really cool and a lot more interactive. This is how you pull up a lot of the resources that then tie into the economy of the game for getting upgrades and stuff like that.
The other thing that happens is, when you’re scanning planets, in addition to finding resources than you can pull out of using space probes, you can also find signals and radio anomalies that you can close in on, and through the minigames, actually find the location on the planet where something is going on. We call these N7 Missions. You can send a probe down to come back and do basic stuff like getting resources, but sometimes you find something that only Commander Shepard can do in person, and that’s an N7 Mission. For those, you find these locations on a planet and then you drop down to the surface. Those missions are kind of designed to be the opposite approach to the missions from Mass Effect 1, where you’re in the uncharted worlds. The only reason why they exist is because each one of them offers something unique and different than you’ve done before. Every level, either the gameplay or the story, or something about it is really unique and special
Each one that you do is different. You’ll want to go back out and find the next one and the next one, because you know that each one is going to offer you something weird and wonderful, just like you’d expect out in space. Those are some of the improvements we’ve made to exploration, it suits the game a lot better and it’s a lot more interesting. Because, again, all of the rewards that you find out there tie back into the main story; either they’re part of the key storyline, or the resources that you find out there tie back into the goal of equipping your team, building up your ship, and getting ready for a suicide mission.
With Mass Effect, I was constantly impressed with the depth of the fiction. For example, while the Elcor received considerable exposition, the Keepers seemed to be left intentionally ambiguous. How or where do you all decide what’s going to be explained, and what’s left up to the mind of the player?
I think its fun for players and it’s certainly fun for us too, because now that we have a universe established, we can think about which parts we want to develop. I don’t know if there’s any method to it, necessarily, but we work from the top down. We know the basic idea of where we want to go with the story, and what we want to make sure the players have the opportunity to do, as far as the story. Then we work down from there; if it’s a Dirty Dozen-style suicide mission, then you need missions where you’re going out the recruit characters, and you need to do things where you’re making them loyal to you, finding what’s important to them and what’s going to be meaningful enough that they’ll become loyal, and those become missions.
Once we get into the missions themselves and the locations we want to go to, then we can start bringing in things like characters from the first game, or different creatures and storylines. If you’re talking to a character, maybe this character knows something about the Rachni decision that you made. Or, if somebody is causing trouble in a bar, maybe that character who’s causing trouble is that Commander Verner, your super fan from Mass Effect 1, and will remember you when you interrupt him. It’s kind of a fun process. Once we get down to the details of the story, figuring out how we want to develop things in a way that’s going to be interesting to the players.
What contemporary games has the team looked to for inspiration?
I think, with the first game, we were looking at what some of the top shooters were doing, what some of the Xbox RPG’s were doing. Mass Effect ended up being unlike any game in particular, but it did combine elements of the better third person shooters and RPGs of the time. I guess our inspiration mostly came from games that came well before us, the main one being Star Wars Knights of the old Republic. A lot of us worked on Knights of the old Republic, and a lot of the core team worked on that game as well. To some degree, that really became the basis for what we were going to do with Mass Effect. The main idea being that we knew that we wanted to work on our own science fiction property, and trying to build something new there.
We also wanted to be able to incorporate more different kinds of players into the experience. A lot of people still have trouble with pause and play style gameplay like we had in KOTOR, but we wanted to have a more accessible gameplay interface, being that of a third person shooter. Otherwise, the overall experience was meant to capture that same sense of huge story and non-linear decisions making where you can go where you want in the universe, but with a little bit more freedom for exploration. The same kind of really intimate character stories, but then a story on a really high level of scope. That was probably the game most responsible for what Mass Effect became.
The other one is from even further back, which is a game called Star Flight for the PC. It was an incredible game in the sense that it offered space combat, and you’re driving a vehicle on distant planets, and you’re getting resources. At the same time, there’s an epic story brewing under the surface that evolves over time, and as you explore deeper into spact, it kind of magically evolves on its own. That was really fascinating to me, and I’ve always wondered how far can you go with present day techonology to try and achieve that kind of experience. That was kind of one of the more spiritual inspirations; what would that look like, that kind of non-linear and very open ended experience.
Are there any changes or improvements lined up for the inventory system as well as the character upgrade system?
We’ve made a bunch of improvements there, all in the spirit of preserving the original depth that we had, but just making it more intuitive in what you’re actually doing. The main thing, in the first game, the inventory system was all in one screen, so you were trying to equip your team with weapons and armor and whatever other gear you had. You’re also trying to then mod each of those types of equipment, and then you’re also kind of going through lists of inventory and trying to juggle your inventory. All of that was in one screen, so, even though it had a lot of depth, I think a lot of people weren’t able to access that full potential of what it was offering.
What we’ve done is taken all of the functionality that was there, and we’ve moved it into separate activities. For example, we’ve got an armor locker, and in your armor locker, you can actually create a modular N7 armor out of pieces, so you go and buy these pieces in the store as you’re exploring the galaxy, there are a variety of ways that you can get them, and then you bring them back and, in your armor locker, you actually build them piece by piece and each piece kind of does a different behavior in terms of gameplay or combat. Whether it’s enhancing your shields, armor, health, and accuracy, all of that kind of stuff. You can adjust every aspect of it, like how shiny the material is to all the different colors, your helmets, visors, all that stuff way deeper than we had before. Because it’s in its own location, you actually have much greater control over what’s going on.
Similarly for upgrades and modding your weapons and armor, that’s done through research terminals. The research terminal, because it’s actually about going out and getting research projects, come back and either spending money or different kinds of resources on it, it becomes a whole activity chain, but it also means that potentially anything can be upgraded. There’s a whole variety, whether it’s different kinds of ammo mod or modifications to weapons for accuracy or things that you can do to improve your armor, or even the ship itself has research projects that you can enhance the ship so, when you see it performing in certain key moments in the story, different things will happen as an outcome. It’s a very open ended system.
Likewise, the character progression system is very similar. We’ve added some new powers. You spend points in a very similar way to develop your character, you still have levels, you still have the paragon and renegade system. But there’s been some more subtle changes in there than in the other systems, its more similar to Mass Effect 1. But the changes we’ve made there are to draw out more impact on your gameplay. Most of these things that you have as powers or skills that you’re developing are active powers that you fire, either during combat or as part of interrupts in conversations, persuasion, things like that.
Are there any densely populated locations besides the Citadel, or is every place you visit a neatly established colony or an outpost?
We have a whole bunch of different kind of locations. I think Mass Effect is still very much about this idealistic, futuristic universe where everything is beautiful and sleek and clean, except for this underbelly that exists. It’s a part of the universe; symbolic of that is this larger threat of the Reapers, and the fact that a really idealist civilization would not easily accept the idea of such a threat. That’s kind of the role of humanity and Commander Shepard, to be tough enough and pragmatic enough to be able to see these things and dig into them, and in Mass Effect 2 you end up digging into that darker underbelly of the Mass Effect universe.
Two examples of different populated locations would be the Citadel, which you all have seen before, but you get to new locations there. It’s kind of idealist and beautiful and populated. Then there’s the other side, which is Omega. It’s also densely populated with huge space stations, but it is the opposite. It is completely lawless, it’s run by gangs and there’s a lot of crime. What you find there is just all of that other darker side of the galaxy.
And you also have other places like Illium, which is an Asari home world. It’s just a beautiful location, very sleek and clean like the Citadel, but it’s got its own style. Lots of Asari characters, it’s a very worldly place, it has a stock market, space ports, and that kind of really cool stuff to be able to visit. There’s a bunch of different populated locations. Even places like Tuchanka, which is the Krogan home world you get to visit.
Have enhancements been made to some of the minor, more technical aspects of the game, including long-ish elevator load times?
That’s part of the feedback that we accumulated together. We just set out to make sure we hit every one of these points. One is the elevator, or the way we transition from once place to the other. In Mass Effect 1, I think we missed an opportunity in telling and showing people what’s actually happening when you’re in one of these elevators. You’re actually in this kind of tube that goes throughout a huge location like the Citadel and, even though it seems like you’re going up three or four floors and though it seems like it takes a long time. What’s actually happening there is you’re going from, essentially the equivalent of, you’re going from one end of Manhattan to the other.
In Mass Effect 2, we have a different system for transitioning from one location to another, and it actually shows you a schematic of where you are, where you’re going, and how you’re getting there. Quite often these are spectacular, like the ones on the Citadel you actually see now, for the first time, where you are, and what an amazing location it is in 3D, and how you move from one place to the other. The other side effect is, by doing this way, the actual load times ends up being much faster. It makes a seamless continuity to the narrative because you can see yourself moving from one place to the other, but, at the same time, it’s faster. On the Normandy it’s even better. You get schematics of the Normandy in each deck as you pass through it, but it’s so much faster.
A slow transition time seems like a minor thing, but it’s actually beyond that because it actually became a barrier for people to develop relationships with the characters who are too many floors away. Now, because it’s very fast and interesting to watch, it’s just a ton of fun to move all around the Normandy and go between decks and go up and down from your quarters at the top to engineering at the bottom.
Texture loading and texture resolution, memory, frame rate, all of that stuff is much improved.
The dialogue plays a large role in BioWare games, what other changes are in store for Mass Effect 2? Will we see more conversations, more natural and final closure, forcing a player to choose their words even more wisely than before? Where will the dialogue system fall in relation to the first Mass Effect and Dragon Age?
I think it’s an improvement over the first Mass Effect for a few reasons. One of them is that the technology was improved for how we portray the conversations. You’re able to see characters moving around a lot more. The actual situations are more dramatic, they can walk and talk at the same time, and you’re in quite a variety of different situations when you’re having a conversation.
Another subtle change is that, thinking back to when we were designing the first game, a lot of the dialogue was written before we could really prove to ourselves how good the game would look and how cinematic it would be. Coming from game’s like Knights of the Old Republic or even Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights, where you’re essentially writing dialogue for sprites, if you don’t write the dialogue, if you didn’t write the words then, to some degree, it didn’t happen. You had to write everything. We were trying to go for a more movie-like or TV-like quality where an actor can give a response that is unspoken, with just a look that can tell you everything about how they feel.
We had that as a goal, but we hadn’t proved to ourselves that we could do it. In Mass Effect 1, there were moments like that; when Ashley apologizes for ruining the first mission, and getting you hurt, you can say, “No it’s okay,” or you can reprimand her. If you reprimand her, her response is just a look, and she looks hurt, like you’ve hurt her feelings, and you feel that as a player. Until we really saw those things in the first game, we didn’t know if we could pull that off. But now that we have, now we can go ahead and write it much more like a it’s a movie with more concise dialogue and with more reliance on the acting performance.
The bigger, functional difference is we’ve added a new kind of dialogue response which we call Interrupts. Basically, it’s a way to seize physical control during a conversation, depending on what’s going on. You’ll either have Paragon Interrupts or Renegade Interrupts at certain times. And you can let them pass, if you’re a Paragon-style player and you see an opportunity to do a Renegade Interrupt, you can let it pass and it’s okay to keep playing. It’s more a part of role playing, as opposed to being a quicktime-event where you have to do something or you died. It’s not that at all, it’s more about, do you want to physically do something special at that moment as part of role playing that character.
If somebody that is hostile to you wanders near a ledge over a steep drop off, you might see a Renegade Interrupt and know whether your character would be able to shove them off at that point. As a Paragon player you might see that and think, “No, I’m not going to push them off the building.” Likewise, you might be talking to a character who’s dying right there in front of you from an illness, and you have the cure with you, and just as they start sputtering their last breathe, you could do a Paragon Interrupt and inject them with the cure right at that moment and save them.
Again, if you don’t like that character you can let that pass, and then that character will die. It’s a way to instantly seize control, versus just a dialogue option that you choose and let it play out. Knowing that the conversations are peppered with these kind of Interrupts, it makes the whole experience just a more active experience. You’re more aware of what’s going on and ready to take action at a certain point.
Look for Mass Effect 2 on January 26th, 2010 and be sure to check back here at Gamer Limit for the full review coming at the end of January.