Being disappointed during a game demo isn't usually a good sign, but there are exceptions to the rule. We're at a preview event for Mass Effect - BioWare's hotly anticipated science-fiction RPG about buccaneering around the galaxy - and they've just revealed a plot spoiler. We're already looking forward to playing it and now they've gone and spoiled it by telling us all about the [Deletedeletedelete. Now you've spoiled it for me! Witch! - Ed]
No need to spoil it for you too, but we will say you're given a difficult choice regarding a likeable character you've spent hours building up and getting to know. One option involves deviating from your main mission objective. The other involves losing the character from your party. And there's a much broader ethical dilemma thrown in for good measure.
This is nothing new for a BioWare game. Making choices which change how the game plays out was a defining feature of previous titles Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. But the choices in Mass Effect are much more complex and much harder to make, as studio president Greg Zeschuk explains.
"There are things you can do to keep this character in your party. It might be things you had to have done earlier. It's a path you can follow if you do certain things consistently," he says.
Decide and conquer
The choices you make, Zeschuk continues, can have such significant impacts on what happens in the rest of the game that you and a friend might have completely different experiences to compare once you've finished the game. "It's a rollercoaster ride, and the thing is it's your rollercoaster ride - someone else's will be different."
For Mass Effect, BioWare has developed not just the complexity of decision-making but the way the process plays out. There are no more long lines of text and simple changes in facial expressions. A summary of each multiple-choice response is shown as text, but when you select one your character is shown delivering a much longer answer and other characters respond accordingly.
Thanks to excellent visuals and decent acting, you feel like you're watching a cut-scene you're actively involved in. The characters' facial expressions, body language and even lip-synching are very well done. We're not quite out of the uncanny valley yet, but this is a significant step forwards.
According to Zeschuk, "There's really nothing pre-rendered in this game. At times you almost think, 'I'm watching a great movie or a television show,' but the reality is you're effectively the actor and the director at the same time."
In some of the scenes we played through, there was an awful lot of standing around while characters reeled off reams of plot exposition. Taking part in a cut-scene isn't much fun if it's a boring cut-scene. And although you don't have to try out all the "more info" responses, there's a feeling you should just in case you miss out.
More interesting are the types of response that determine which moral path your character follows - Renegade or Paragon. For example, your way is blocked by a couple of hired guns who are basically innocent amateurs. You can either warn them off or take them out, and you'll earn points whatever you decide.
Again, this idea is nothing new for a BioWare game, but there is a new system in place. Now you can't just cancel out a bad action by performing a good one; you rack Renegade and Paragon points on separate scales.
Nor can you make a single choice to determine a specific outcome. NPCs will respond differently to you according to choices you've made in the past, and the ending you see will depend on how you've acted throughout the game - not just on the last decision you took.
In addition, choices affect your character's abilities. The more Renegade choices you make, the better you become at intimidating people. Go down the Paragon path and you'll find it easier to charm others into helping you out.
So that's the morals, but what of the story? Zeschuk talks us through it. "You take on the role of Commander Shepard, representing the human race on the galactic stage. You're on the most important mission in the galaxy - to stop a rogue agent, Saren, from effectively destroying all life.
"You're single-minded and dedicated in pursuit of him. This takes you on a tremendous rollercoaster of a story with great combat and great exploration. It's a really interesting experience."
While you might be on a mission, you do have options to go exploring. You co-ordinate this using a big 3D map on-board your ship, which shows the galaxy in miniature. "People always ask us how many planets there are. It's a difficult thing to answer," says Zeschuk.
"We have tons of locations all over the galaxy. Whenever you explore them they are different types of planet, effectively. Some are story-based planets, and you're directed fairly clearly to those. Some can be scanned for minerals. Some are what we call uncharted worlds. You can go explore them and there are lots of sub-quests and mini-games. A lot are just interesting to look at."
But back to Commander Shepard. You can choose whether your personal Commander Shepard is male or female, what kind of family background they came from and their military experience. There's an impressive customisation tool which lets you play around with your character's appearance, and it's flexible enough you can make them resemble yourself.
There are six character classes to choose from. The Soldier is a weapons and armour expert, while the Engineer specialises in using what's called an OmniTool. It's handy for sabotaging weapons, restoring your team-mate's shields and taking control of enemy robots, amongst other things. The Adept is an expert in "biotics", or telekinesis as it's usually known, and can control gravity to move objects and enemies around.
The other three classes are hybrids. There's the Infiltrator (a soldier with tech specialties), the Vanguard (a soldier who can use biotics) and the Sentinel (tech and biotics, not so much with the weapons). Whichever you choose, you can upgrade your character's abilities in the usual RPG fashion by earning points as you play the game and assigning them as you see fit.
You also get to assign points to party members who join you along the way, such as Kaidan, a Sentinel with a powerful sabotage power, and Soldier Ashley. They stick with you throughout the game and you can choose which other characters you allow to join up.
This is important, Zeschuk says, "because you have to change your play style depending on who's in your group." And because Mass Effect will let you pause the game in the middle of battles and assign tasks to different characters. "When you first look at the game it seems like an over-the-shoulder shooter. Really it's a tactical squad game where you have to use your colleagues effectively."
To demonstrate this, Zeschuk gets Kaidan to use his Sentinel powers to throw an enemy across a room. He's chosen the Vanguard class for his Shepard, so he also has biotic abilities and can similarly take out a second enemy. This leaves Soldier Ashley to shoot down the last remaining foe.
Hands-on, it's easy to grasp how the system works. The interface is simple and intuitive enough that it doesn't feel like there's too much interruption to the flow of the action, even though you're pausing the game.
Characters do what you tell them but are intelligent enough to know when they should take cover or push forwards, and do an excellent job of covering your back. At first, anyway. "The early part of Mass Effect is specifically designed so your colleagues will kill all your enemies," explains Zeschuk. "It's really hard for you to get killed for the first hour, but later on it evens out."
The first hour is about all we got to see of Mass Effect, but it was certainly long enough to get an idea of the style BioWare is going for. There's an '80s overtone to the whole thing, created in large part by the brilliant music.
Zeschuk describes it as "classic '80s electronica" but it's specifically evocative of the kind of electronica featured in '80s sci-fi films, the properly frightening ones with the biodomes and the mad robots. There's a ponderous, ominous feel to it that works superbly.
There's also an '80s feel to the visuals. It's all in the details, such as the calculator font on menu screens and the characters' Ulysses 31-style helmets. The spaceship itself is pretty generic: lots of grey metal, long corridors and rows of people wearing tight outfits sat at banks of endless glowing buttons. Planet visuals look more impressive and, judging by the beach environment of the Earth-style planet we got to see, surprisingly lush and pretty for a sci-fi game.
So Mass Effect has got the looks, but does it represent a real departure for BioWare? Like KOTOR and Jade Empire, it's an action-RPG. Once again, you are tasked with making a series of decisions, and the choices you make determine how the game plays out. The tactical squad system is back, and as you'd expect the whole thing is very well presented.
But it's clear that the studio has looked carefully at how all these elements can be developed, not just improved. Mass Effect looks and feels like a BioWare game but it also looks and feels like a real next-gen game. We need to spend more time with it to make a proper judgement of gameplay elements such as the combat system and cut-scene integration. That's time we're looking forward to spending, however. As long as they don't give us any more spoilers.