Previews

Mass Effect

Less like an RPG and more like A big shooter with hit points

We've all been impressed by Mass Effect before - many times before, in fact. It's hard not to flip out when you see what developers Bioware are creating - an RPG that mixes exploration with conversation, combat with character development and a planned trilogy of titles with extra content added via Live.

But seeing isn't everything and the latest trailer reveals how important it is to actually know what the hell's going on too. When the footage premiered on MTV this month, we again saw an all-consuming RPG consistently blurring the boundaries between a conventional RPG and a team-based shooter with fluidity, simplicity and visual splendour. But across the web, a shower of 20-sided dice came flying out of prams as others saw real-time combat taking precedent over levelling-up.

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The fact is, Mass Effect is about much more than the superficial - every detail matters in battle, from the new combat system to the complexities of the creation and relations within your team of three Spectre soldiers. While the MTV footage only showed the familiar trio, led by Jack Shepard, fighting, there is actually a whole host of details about the make-up and mechanics behind your Spectre agents.

ALL TALK
Here's what we mean: your fearsome threesome are selected from a larger list with differing personalities and skills all drawn from different races and planets, but the one unchanging element in the mixture is you, Shepard. Well, we say unchanging because while that will always be your name, your look, gender and skills can all be tinkered with. The rest though is up to you, with points to be spent selecting your class and military background from the standard Soldier type to the tech-based Engineer, the dark energy powered Adept, and pretty much every point in between.
Of course, your captain and his cohorts continue to evolve, eventually unleashing superpowers such as creating cover from dark energy force-fields and even using gravity itself to crush foes to death. And it's this development of the team and their dynamic interaction that fuels not only how effectively you fight but also how the story and the bountiful side missions unfold. Because, thanks to the much-talked about conversation system, your team are able to chip in with their opinions on you and your leadership.

moral CRUSADE
Which might sound like an annoyance but in the example we've seen this is backchat from a Turian, a member of a militaristic race who fought a brutal war against us puny Earthicans a few years previously.

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And it's here that Bioware inject one of their fave elements: morality. Shepard is on a mission to defeat the Geth at all costs - whether a certain talkative Turian should be one of those costs is one of the key decisions you'll need to make.

It's a choice you can make because all that matters ultimately is that you're left standing - the other lot can be sacrificed. For, while your team's overall AI has been improved since KOTOR's drones used to survive even if left to fend for themselves, a new system has been created allowing you to issue orders in two different ways. One is on the fly (with the D-pad picking targets and so on) while the other is a more precise Full Spectrum Warrior-style series of glowing markers called Squad Command. And it's with this method that you can combine your skills so that one character lifts an enemy into the air while the other finishes them off with a nicely timed, nicely powered-up shotgun blast.

Despite the team swelling to 130 and the impressively stable nature of the code, the drip-drip-drip nature of Bioware's disclosures leave many questions still unanswered: just how big and how numerous will these lost worlds be? Will we get to fly the Normandy itself? And most importantly, when we will get a final, confirmed release date?

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