The first thing to establish about Mass Effect on PC is that it's not a port. "This is a conversion," explained BioWare demonstrator Chris Priestly. "BioWare hates ports." Considerable effort has been expended on adapting the science-fiction role-playing game from console to desktop. Not only does it have the well-documented control, inventory, and hot-key changes, but it also has gameplay improvements informed by community feedback on the 360 original. There are shorter loading times and faster elevators, and there's less texture-popping. Mass Effect PC also supports higher resolutions; Priestly illustrated this by focusing on Liara, whose freckles were apparently more visible (we were also shown the infamous sex scene so we could see for ourselves how ludicrous The Allegations were, which we found a little bizarre).
Mass Effect's conversion from pad to keyboard has made a big difference. Shepard can map his weapons and biotic, tech or combat abilities to number keys and call on them without navigating menus, whereas the console version only permitted one hotkey ability. Combat's much more fluid and, as a result, more engrossing, as you can see in a pair of videos on Eurogamer TV. Also small but significant is being able to order your team-mates around individually, which means you can place a sniper further away while ordering a shotgun-wielding stalwart closer to the action. Simple, but effective. Even changing the layout of the inventory to a list-based affair has made a difference, as you can see in the screenshot gallery.
BioWare has had to re-think the decryption mini-game for the PC, discarding the button-matching from the 360. Taking futuristic tech-gadget the omni-tool as inspiration, the developer has come up with a series of concentric circles (with gaps in) that spin around and present openings to the centre. Taking these will lead to a successful hack or unlock, but you can still fall back on omni-gel if you fail. Priestly likes this because it fits the world better. And we like it too.
It all fits the underlying message from BioWare that this is the same acclaimed formula tidied up and converted to PC. There are no content surprises such as new quests or characters, not even the Bring Down the Sky DLC, for now, at least - you may even get something unique at a later date. So, in search of some surprises, we sought out BioWare's Matt Atwood and asked him why PC fans are made to wait and what we can expect from Mass Effect 2, among other things.
Eurogamer: Has Mass Effect really got higher-resolution visuals on PC? We didn't notice much difference.
Matt Atwood: Yes, absolutely. Not just because you have a better video card, but because they have upscaled textures and resolutions.
Eurogamer: You've said the loading times are much better, but I didn't see much of a difference...
Matt Atwood: You will.
Eurogamer: What about texture pop-up? That still seems to be happening. Has that been tidied up?
Matt Atwood: Yep. Basically what happens at BioWare is that we look at the forums, we look at all the reviews, we isolate what the issues are, both positive and negative, and then we make a prioritised list of what we want to do. The areas you saw were fairly early on so it was loading all the data for the first time, but back at the office it takes me just a couple of seconds to load places. So most definitely the loading times are much quicker. The elevators, too; elevators have information in them for side-quests and stuff, so we're making sure you get the information and the load done quicker. Once you get it on a high resolution monitor on a decent PC then you'll notice the load times and the visuals.
Eurogamer: What sort of PC will be "decent"?
Matt Atwood: The team's goal is to get it running very smoothly on a solid PC from two years ago and forward. So, most of the market.
Eurogamer: You've established a cycle of console to PC "conversions" in the last few years, with games like Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. Will Mass Effect 2 and 3 follow in those footsteps?
Matt Atwood: I can't tell you anything yet. But there are some good surprises on the horizon on that front.
Eurogamer: Why did you choose this console-first way of doing things after having been so PC-focused in the past?
Matt Atwood: It's dependent on the game. Mass Effect works well on a console; the team did a really good job with the controls and by offering two levels [of play style]. The hardcore fan who wants to level-up, do weapon mods, look at all the codecs, and explore everywhere can do that. But the game is still very approachable for the more mainstream or less hardcore gamer who can play the main story and not do all the other things.
When you build the game you don't say "this is for this system". We went through talks with Microsoft who were great partners, and we thought we could make something really special for the 360. We were excited about the exclusivity. And it was good for the holiday time, too. It was a crazy holiday time, for sure; great for gamers.
We started working on the PC version of Mass Effect right at the tail end of 360 development. And the PC team worked directly with the console team to make sure every vision was met. Really it's fairly quick in comparison to something like Jade [Empire], and we would like to get quicker and quicker. But we're not going to rush it out, because the single most important thing is to make it feel like a natural PC experience. If BioWare delivers a game that feels anything like a port, then we're in trouble and we'll hear about it.
We get questions about if we're going to do new content [for the PC version], but what's the real value there? The game is so robust with this content. What makes the most sense is to focus on making the keyboard customisable, increasing the visuals, making the controls very natural and add things like squad commands and hot-keys for Shepard's biotic powers and weapons; make those things that, honestly, when people make ports they just don't do. They just get it going and that's it. And that's not what BioWare's about.
Eurogamer: Downloadable content is obviously a big deal judging by the in-game menu for it. We've seen one pack, Bring Down the Sky, but what else have you got planned?
Matt Atwood: We obviously know more than we're ready to talk about, just to be completely honest with you. But I think you'll see more planets, I think you'll potentially see more races - you're going to see really great content. We're very pleased with the reaction we've had for Bring Down the Sky. In our data, 90 per cent of the reactions on forums throughout the net have been positive, because of price and value. And that's been great. We do have - for 360 - certainly one more pack planned. What that's going to be, we're not ready to tell, but we will always do our best to make it very valuable for consumers.
We're asked if we're going to do Bring Down the Sky for PC, and it's a consideration. We're looking in to exactly what we want to do; maybe we'll do something different, because the PC offers some different potentials. We've got some good stuff, and the team's very focused on it. You'll see it pretty soon for 360 - I don't think very long after the PC version ships [sometime in May].
Eurogamer: So, in summary: downloadable content is a big deal and it's going to continue for some time?
Matt Atwood: Yeah. Downloadable content is a big deal now; online content of many forms is a big deal. And I'm not necessarily talking about multiplayer. I'm talking about delivering things to the fans. I think Rock Band has done such a stunning job with the content that they've delivered. I mean, it's very intuitive there, but weekly you're getting new songs.
Imagine if you've got this really active community, could you bring things in to the game from the community, or in to the community from the game? What that means specifically, I'm not totally sure. But I know it's an area we're looking to explore. Because the more active and the more you offer your community then the more you expand it and the more you embrace them.
Eurogamer: Going back a few years, Neverwinter Nights had an enormous community because of the tool-set you released with it. Even KOTOR had mods, despite having no editor. Is a tool set for something like Mass Effect an option?
Matt Atwood: I'm not aware of any plans right now, which doesn't mean we won't do it. In general, as a company, we've already proven that we're very interested in it, whether it's Mass Effect or not. We've got Dragon Age on the horizon and there's big potential there. As a company, yes we will be doing it. With Mass Effect specifically? I just don't know the answer yet.
Eurogamer: You mentioned Dragon Age there, which has us excited like little children. What can you tell us about it?
Matt Atwood: The message with Dragon Age is that if you're an RPG player, or you're interested and want to try something new, Dragon Age will be what you have been wanting forever. It's going to be something that the fans of BioWare have been waiting for. It's very traditional in some ways, although there will be some new stuff of course. We're not giving out any other details except that it's coming out before the end of the fiscal year [before April 2009]. As with any BioWare game we believe that, and John [Riccitiello, EA super-boss] believes, you deliver a quality product no matter what. If that means you delay, then you delay. But we believe we're on track with it.
Eurogamer: It first showed its face in 2004. Was it put on hold to pursue things like Mass Effect, or have you been working on it consistently since then?
Matt Atwood: Certainly there are times with more resources and [times] with less resources; as you release Mass Effect you use up more of your talent. But it has been consistently worked on. When you make a statement like "this is the RPG that people have been waiting for", then you better back it up and you better spend a hell of a lot of time on it. I think we're going to be extremely proud and our fans are going to be extremely excited. And I think you'll hear more about it pretty quick.
Eurogamer: And that's PC-exclusive?
Matt Atwood: It is for the PC, but as far as exclusivity, we haven't said anything on that.
Eurogamer: Getting back to Mass Effect: how many copies did the 360 version sell?
Matt Atwood: Microsoft is a publicly traded company so I'll leave that question to them. We've been very pleased with the results is all I can tell you.
Eurogamer: Can you tell us a bit about the future of the Mass Effect series? Greg Zeschuk mentioned a couple of areas the game could be improved on recently, like side-quest integration in the main story and better auto-generated content for a "richer experience". What improvements would you like to see?
Matt Atwood: There's always improvements that you can make. There's a lot of interesting things that you could do, like looking at what you did in the first [game] and how that will affect the rest [of the series]. I can tell you, without really telling you anything, that people are going to be extremely captivated immediately by [Mass Effect 2]. The team has more experience and we've got the core technology in place, so we'll be making improvements across the board. The ideas that I've heard for Mass Effect 2 are stunning to me. I mean dramatically.
Eurogamer: Are Shepard and his crew going to be the centre-point of the series?
Matt Atwood: I actually don't know for sure. I've sort of heard some rumblings, but I can't say anything.
Eurogamer: What about things like multiplayer?
Matt Atwood: It's a good question, but another one I don't know the answer to. If the team wanted to do it then I think they could do it well. But Mass Effect is an experience that is very personal, because you make very personal choices. You choose whether you're going to explore that romance or explore that planet; are you going to save someone's life or are you going to kill them? And these are all things that are really personal. So is it possible? Sure, I think the team's smart enough to do it. But I don't know if they're going to do it.
Eurogamer: Before we go: Gary Gygax sadly passed away recently. You must have felt that loss very hard, given your Dungeons & Dragons roots. Did you do anything to remember him?
Matt Atwood: There was an email sent around within the company and a lot of people were discussing just how influential he was. A lot of respect was paid to him in the office. There's no question of how influential he was and it was a very sad thing to hear, but he'll continue to be an influence and that's the wonderful thing about great people.
Eurogamer: Just finally. Really actually finally. Do you have any plans for a PC demo of Mass Effect?
Matt Atwood: No. No demo. It would slow down development if we did one.