Previews

Mass Effect - The First Hour

Preview: We go behind the scenes of BioWare's stunner

Jack Bauer and Space Zombies; that's what you can expect in the first hour of BioWare's latest RPG masterpiece Mass Effect. Co-founder and co-doctor Ray Muzyka is calling it "a next-gen BioWare game on steroids", a bit like 24 in space.

The Bauer reference is particularly fitting, not just because of the break-neck speed of the game's opening action scene, but because of the emotional and heart-breaking choices you're forced to make during gameplay. Moments which Muzyka promises will truly test your conscience.

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"We're really pushing the idea of emotion and sustaining that emotional impact and intensity throughout the course of the game," he says. "Mass Effect is all about making choices with consequences. We've been making choices throughout this demo and the rest of the game has a mixture of choices; small ones and big ones that affect the entire outcome."

It's not quite the same as playing Russian Roulette with a toddler, but we can see the sort of drama Muzkya is going for when he encounters a doctor in hiding with her shell-shocked scientist partner. Rather diplomatically, the BioWare boss decides to calm down the bumbling doctor with words, but that's not your only option.

"What's wrong with your assistant?" our hero returns to enquire. "Manuel has a brilliant mind but he's always been a bit unstable. I gave him an extra dose of his meds... he should fall asleep in 20 minutes or so. Say goodnight Manuel." Thump! Deferent methods, same result, but with more hilarious rifle-butting in the second.

This level of interaction with the characters, and not just the world, is something that BioWare is really hammering home. We don't think Pixar will be off to the job centre any time soon, but it's obvious the people at BioWare have buckets of talent behind the camera. The game's intro sports the kind of cinematic flair and attention to detail Kojima pours into the Metal Gear series.

The camera stalks the great red spot of Jupiter and spindles through space as a spaceship floats by. Inter-cut is the back of Shepard's head as he bowls through the bridge of his mighty vessel, attracting the attention of crewman and giving a sense of authority to Mass Effect's clean-shaven hero.

This nearly-finished build delivers on its promise of "digital actors", who gesture and fire off their lines with realism unseen in games before.

Shepard is about to become the first human Spector, a space-age police force tasked with protecting the galaxy. His first callout is sooner than he thinks...

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On a scrambled video screen we can see a soldier radioing in for help. He's struggling to juggle both the shaky video cam in his left hand and a rifle, firing blue lasers against unseen foes. His eyes are darting across the horizon, there's dirt on his face and finally, this little piece of cinema ends with a bang, and a flailing grunt corpse.

SPECIAL EFFECTS

Taking to the ground we get a first proper glimpse of Mass Effect's combat. We're on a planet called Eden Prime, a lush, green paradise which BioWare describes as humanity's way of showing the galaxy how awesome they are. Now, after attack from a mysterious robotic super-army Eden Prime is in ruins as ash falls from the sky.

Combat plays more like a Ghost Recon game than any of BioWare's previous RPGs. Heavy weapon and character customisation is what keeps strategy in the combat. X-mods change the damage type of your weapon for Pokémon like rock-paper-scissors gameplay. Electricity weapons for example are more than likely to leave water beasties sizzling on the floor.

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