Mass Effect is fast becoming one of the most anticipated games of this year. It's not surprising when you consider it's being developed by BioWare, the same studio which brought us Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. Not to mention the fact that it's looking superb, as we found out when we got the chance to go hands-on at a special preview event recently.
Here, BioWare president Greg Zeschuk talks more about Mass Effect's cinematic structure and combat system, explains why he believes it's a "true next-gen" title, and reveals his thoughts on the differences between PS3 and Xbox 360.
Eurogamer: Which genres does Mass Effect fit into?
Greg Zeschuk: Obviously, BioWare and RPG go together. We feel though Mass Effect is more than that; it's certainly not a traditional RPG in the sense that, for example, you're not sitting there crunching numbers.
We've tried to distill what BioWare makes down into something different. There are four main aspects to our games: story development, character progression, conflict and exploration. In Mass Effect, we feel, we hit all those notes quite well.
A lot of people have said when they start playing they just run round shooting, and it feels like a shooter. It does at first, but when you get into the game you start getting into situations were just shooting doesn't work. So you learn more about your powers and how you can manipulate the battlefield and command your squad.
It's hard to pin it down. We're having trouble saying 'It's an RPG' in good conscience. Our definition of RPG is very broad. At the very least it's quite action-oriented, but it's also quite story-driven.
Eurogamer: How would you describe the combat system? Which games did you take influences from?
Greg Zeschuk: The combat is broadly inspired. Clearly there's a cover system not dissimilar from Gears of War. It's lighter than Gears, you're not jumping and rolling from cover to cover, but cover is important.
The second thing is the squad. When you start the game your team-mates only have one power or two, but as you progress they acquire more and you need to work out strategies to defeat stronger enemies.
Eurogamer: What if you're not interested in the tactical bit? Can you just play the game like a shooter?
Greg Zeschuk: You could, but it would probably be very hard. If you were particularly adept and had just the right equipment... Maybe. The other thing is, your characters aren't dummies, and you can set them to do things to support you.
Eurogamer: How do you strike the balance between creating characters who are intelligent enough to provide effective support, but not so good at their jobs there's no point you being around?
Greg Zeschuk: Lots of practice. We've been doing these type of characters since back in the Baldur's Gate days... You know it when you get there. You play and you tweak and suddenly you're like, 'Hey, this character is doing what they're supposed to.'
Eurogamer: You're known for developing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. For Mass Effect, where you got the idea of doing a trilogy of games with an overarching storyline set in space? And when you've finished them, will you be doing a set of prequels which many misguided people think are rubbish?
Greg Zeschuk: Hopefully not the rubbish part [laughs]. When we started Mass Effect's development, we decided to do a big space epic, we went away and wrote the story, and we just felt it fitted better as instalments.
But a key thing for us is, we never want to make a game where the end of part one doesn't feel like the end. That's not to say we'll never have any kind of cliffhanger, but you've got to be satisfied with the ending.
As far as a prequel trilogy goes... We're just thinking about this next period right now. We're trying our best to make sure all of these games end up within this generation as well.
Eurogamer: What are your plans for episodic content?
Greg Zeschuk: We have development plans for what we're building, but not release plans as yet. We'll work with Microsoft on that. We have a pretty good idea what we want to build, not spec'd out to the maximum, but we want to create something we can have fun with.
The thing about story-based games is, usually what people want is more story. So we can create that, but we could also have more content like weapons and armour... I'm not saying we would or wouldn't have any feature changes. Big feature changes are probably unlikely, maybe some additional changes, you never know.
How much post-release content we produce will depend on how well the game does, and how well the initial extra content does. We could do a lot more and be more aggressive if they're both very successful.
Eurogamer: What do you believe is BioWare's biggest achievement with Mass Effect?
Greg Zeschuk: I can't help but think it's the characters and the acting. I can't say it's 100 per cent yet, but it's certainly getting there; there are times when I just sit back and it seems like a movie. I'm just amazed sometimes.
What that results in is very interesting: watching Mass Effect is almost as interesting as playing it. We did a brief hands-on at E3 and gave one journalist the chance to play, and he said, 'No thanks, I'm just enjoying watching it.'
It's about trying to capture that cinematic feel for everything within the game. Mass Effect really does do that in a lot of ways.
Eurogamer: There's talk that we're finally starting to see proper next-gen titles now with games like Bioshock. Do you think Mass Effect should be placed in that category?
Greg Zeschuk: As a true next-gen game? Absolutely. In every way.
Bioshock, Mass Effect and some of the other titles coming out this year show us how some of the games before weren't next-gen. It's not that we're so much better, but the bar is being set. Certainly Bioshock set a high bar, I think we'll set a pretty high bar, and it's going up and up.
It's scary, because you discover how many groups can legitimately compete at that level. In the games business it's winner takes all, so if you can't compete... That's a bad position to be in.
Eurogamer: What about the argument that PlayStation 3 is technically the most powerful console? As you're trying to push these boundaries, do you wish you had that extra power to play with?
Greg Zeschuk: With power comes challenge. A lot of improvement in games doesn't come so much from raw power as it does from the tools at your disposal - so creating tools and technologies to make the act of creating better, which we focus on a lot. And secondly, pushing the performance; hitting the limit, then pushing and hitting it, then pushing more...
At the end of this cycle, I don't think there's going to be a big difference. If everyone's waiting for this huge difference, it's just not going to happen. By the end of this generation both PS3 and 360 will look awesome. Maybe 1 per cent of the population might be able to tell the difference between the two.
Going back to Bioshock - people said, 'You can't make great games on one DVD.' Well, Bioshock is on one DVD. Mass Effect is on one DVD. Gears is one DVD. It's doable.
Sometimes technologists are best when they've hit the wall. When you tell them they can't do something or they can't go any further, then they go a bit further. By the end of the cycle games for both consoles will look great, that's the main thing.
Eurogamer: About this rumoured PC version of Mass Effect...
Greg Zeschuk: We're not discussing anything about that at this point in time.
Eurogamer: Is that your final answer?
Greg Zeschuk: That is my answer.
Eurogamer: That is our final question. Thank you.