A few new details about the next Mass Effect game were teased during BioWare's annual Mass Effect celebrations on N7 Day (7th November) last week. We've updated our article with all the latest information about the game.
Two and a half years have now passed since the launch of Mass Effect 3. During that time the company has been busy - finishing Dragon Age: Inquisition, for one - but also busying itself on a new Mass Effect title.
The teams at BioWare Montreal and Edmonton regularly converse with fans via the company's official forum and via Twitter, where studio director Yanick Roy said early this year that the next Mass Effect game was "somewhere in the middle" of development.
Design work began back around 18 months before then, in late 2012. Another 18 months would take the team up until October next year.
The story, characters and gameplay of Mass Effect 4
The story will focus on a fresh protagonist who won't be another version of Commander Shepard, BioWare has said, but while there will be no direct continuation of the Commander's story, nods to past adventures will be included.
Shepard's companions are also unlikely to return, although a video revealed at E3 this year suggests that races such as krogans and humans will. If you prefer to play with friends, it was indicated at this year's San Diego Comic-Con that cooperative multiplayer would return for the next Mass Effect, along with a sleeker, faster Mako buggy.
The video above also suggests that the story will be set in an entirely new region of space, something that would help BioWare sidestep the effects of Mass Effect 3's ending (spoiler: the existing universe is overwhelmed by angry forum posts), and start the series afresh. Navigation of that region will take place in a more fluid Galaxy Map, with the worlds themselves appearing as wide alien expanses, something which supported the now-confirmed return of vehicular exploration.
A developer roundtable for this year's N7 Day celebrations contained concept art for the homeworlds of two new alien species. While the races themselves were not shown, BioWare said that much could be inferred from the look of their home planets. One is a lush, idyllic world where technology and nature appear to be in harmony. The other new world is something of the opposite. It looks like something the borg would make - dark, angular, hostile.
Other environments suggested the scale of the landscapes on offer compared to your mako land vehicle, while another appeared to show a new-look Citadel space station - perhaps the rebuilt version after the events of Mass Effect 3. Also shown was a new map interface for players when exploring worlds - something that the developer says it wants to let you do for hours on end - and a look at how navigation through space might appear.
Given the omission of core characters and story fragments, when the game's official title is revealed, it certainly won't be "Mass Effect 4". But there will be no upheavals in the game's genre or design - it will be "the same type of game as the first three", Roy has said. Romance options are again due for inclusion and "there is no reason to believe" that same-sex options will be omitted, reflecting BioWare's existing commitment to diversity in its output.
Early hints revealed
Development on the game reached its first major milestone back in September 2013 when executive producer Casey Hudson and BioWare's Edmonton and Montreal boss Aaryn Flynn both stated on Twitter that they had gone hands-on with a playable build of the game.
"What's even more fun than working on the design of a new fictional world? Taking our first steps into it and looking around," Hudson wrote.
"Great time playing the next Mass Effect game in Montreal," Flynn added. "Ambitious. Beautiful. Fresh but recognisable. And fun!"
Then, on N7 Day 2013, the first slices of artwork and blurry in-game images were posted via an orchestrated round of Twitter posts from various BioWare staff. Humanoid figures and various alien-looking landscapes were shown off.
One image in the selection was artwork of the original Mass Effect's Mako. "Inspiration for the future," the caption read, hinting at a possible return for planet-based exploration. "What ever could you mean by that?" Mass Effect producer Mike Gamble replied, playing our hearts like a cheap ukulele.
Perhaps the biggest question for Mass Effect fans is exactly when the next game will be set. Mass Effect 3's various endings leave an apparently wide range of variables for any future game to work from - although most of the outcomes could be retconned fairly easily when allowing for the passage of time.
One hint that the next game could be set after Mass Effect 3 came during the recent BioWare PAX East 2014 panel. Mass Effect 3's final coda, set many years later, suggests that Shepard's story has now become legend - whatever your final choice. But a panel attendee asked about the response to Shepard's final actions directly after. They were told that BioWare "can't really talk about that at this time".
The PAX Prime 2013 leak
In August last year Mass Effect producer Michael Gamble put out a call for fans attending PAX Prime 2013, requesting that they get in touch. A select 21 people were chosen to meet with BioWare, Gamble later stated, for a two-hour presentation held behind closed doors.
The contents of that meeting were not designed to be made public, but a post from an apparent attendee appeared online a week after the event took place.
Written on an obscure Mass Effect forum the post lay largely unnoticed until November last year, when it was picked up and reproduced by Reddit and NeoGAF. Included were details hinting at when the game would be set and, perhaps most excitingly, information on two new alien races.
Eurogamer spotted the post at the time but was unable to verify the contents as legitimate. A few days later, after months online, the post and its corresponding discussion thread were pulled without explanation.
The attendee had claimed that the two new alien types they were shown included an "arrogant", skeletal race with glowing eyes and an "ancient, advanced guardian" race with a sci-fi golem-like look - which fits with concept art for the two new alien homeworlds shown recently. Mako-esque land vehicles were also apparently shown, with different models for various environments - another gameplay element which has since been confirmed.
BioWare apparently quizzed the group of fans on what the series' "N7" moniker meant to them and whether they'd like a prequel or sequel (most picked sequel). The alleged attendee wrote that he inferred a sequel was most likely due to the introduction of the new alien species among the existing races.
When will we hear more?
Former BioWare community manager Chris Priestly addressed the game's marketing schedule and eventual release via a post on BioWare's official forum. Qualifying his thoughts with a disclaimer that he didn't know anything about the game's current schedule, he did say that he had been privy to "a few details" before he departed the company in July 2013.
"I would guess that BioWare wants the focus of 2014 to be on Dragon Age: Inquisition," he wrote - something which has subsequently turned out to be true. "DA2 was not loved by all fans *cough*, but it was an important step going from DA:O to what DA:I looks to be.
"As such, and to ensure that DA:I will allow for much more DA content to come in the future (DLC for DAI, DA4/5/6 or whatever they get called, ancillary products, etc), I think this year's E3 will heavily push Inquisition to the press and gamers. To announce whatever the next ME game is called at E3 would dilute BioWare focus.
"I do hope Aaryn or Casey drop a few hints, but I really doubt there will be any teasers, trailers or even substantial news interviews about MENext. Given that for some fans the last memory of the trilogy was a negative one, I think BioWare will want to really wow prospective ME fans to pay attention to a new title right out of the gate, rather than announcing a few details or teaser trailer, then going dark while DA:I takes centre stage."
Mass Effect will be BioWare's 2015 focus, he concluded, and it was unlikely we would hear anything until after Dragon Age: Inquisition's launch.
But we may still hear more before the end of the year - perhaps at the Video Game Awards in December. This new show is a successor to the VGAs, where Mass Effect 3's first trailer was shown all the way back in 2011. With any luck, it won't be that long before we start getting concrete details.