Ambition is not something that Bioware lack. The creators of Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur's Gate and Jade Empire have a long history of setting the standard for well-plotted games and then sitting back gleeful when everyone else fails to meet it. We caught up with the members of the studio in their Alberta Offices to talk over their massive new title.
First, let's have a quick look at the back-story of the game. Mass Effect is the story of humanity's entrance into the Galactic community - and how that entrance was almost immediately cut short. At its heart is the concept of the hegemonising swarm, entities that endlessly multiply, turning everything into replicas of themselves, intolerant of the existence of anything else except as tools or food. Much like certain brands of humanity, then.
Casey Hudson, Project Director on Mass Effect reminds of the back-story. "To join 22nd century alien civilizations, humanity's own exploration took us to the precipice." Humanity travelled to the edge of its space, to find this ready-formed universe just out there. We weren't woken up by a superior alien race, monoliths weren't planted to lure us out; no one bothered about us. Hudson again. "Humans are new in the galaxy. There's intelligent life in the universe, in fact so much we're in the minority."
You play as Commander Shepard, humanity's first galactic representative. As a member of the elite N7 organisation your role is to deal with threats to the existence of the galactic community. As Commander Shepard explores the Citadel, the core of the galactic community, he hears unwelcome rumours of previous universal civilizations that vanished, including the mythic Proteans. And that's where the hegemonising swarm comes in.
It soon becomes apparent, from a discussion with an alien ambassador in the Citadel's casino that the Geth, a mechanical race that lives in the void between galaxies is coming back. Every 50,000 years they've returned to reduce the universe down to the simpler life forms. They don't simply convert the universe to them; they harvest it, retreat to the void and let it grow up again, before repeating. "As great as all this galactic community is" Hudson says, "we come to realize that it's just a prop for machine races that are many millions of years older than we are and come in and make use of all this stuff we've built, and harvest us and recycle us, in a kind of cycle we're unable to stop."
The Geth aren't simply robots either, they change and learn from each iteration of the galaxy. "Given that these machine races are very much like organic beings in that they evolve," explains Hudson, "and given that they're not simply metallic robots, they're equally viable life forms and much scarier that way. Aren't they living beings? Who is actually first?"
So it's 2183 and the Geth's alarm clock has just gone off. And, you know, after 50,000 years napping in the absolute zero of the void, they're a mite peckish. So it's Commander Shepard's job to stop them. That's you, by the way. The way you're going to do it? Well, that's up to you as well. Though it'll have to involve exploring space and alien worlds throughout the galaxy, to some extent.
First, off, we'd better point out that though Commander Shepard looks classically handsome, he doesn't have to look like that. Hell, he doesn't even have to be the same sex. Like most modern games, Mass Effect includes a full facial animation studio. This is the first place in the game the word "procedural" pops up, but it's not the last. " It lets us create as many heads as we want, from a set of blended start heads, with little memory." There's a truly remarkable range of characters you can make from the technology (even if they all look like Canadian hockey players), and tweak afterwards to get that perfect likeness or perfect monstrosity.