In Omega, the new downloadable add-on for BioWare's science fiction role-playing shooter Mass Effect 3, two never before playable characters steal the show.
Sure, Shepard is the main man/woman, but fans will be most interested in the two new party members you get to control.
The first of these is Aria T'Loak, the frowning asari mob boss who, in her view, is the rightful owner of Omega, the space station last seen in Mass Effect 2.
Aria is a powerful biotic - one of the most powerful, BioWare Montreal producer Fabrice Condominas tells Eurogamer. And her abilities, created specifically for her use, reflect that power. Flare is “probably one of the most powerful” biotic explosive attacks in the game and is great for clearing groups of enemies. Lash sends a biotic lash out onto the battlefield, attracting enemies to her and doing heavy damage. Lash is particularly useful against shielded enemies - a single attack can drop a shields in an instant. So powerful is Aria that BioWare had to rebalance the combat gameplay to cope.
But it is the second new party member that will attract the most attention. Her name is Nyreen Kandros, the turian leader of the Talon mercenary group and the first female turian to be seen in the Mass Effect video games.
Nyreen is ex-turian military, but, despite this, she is a biotic (turian military hierarchy prohibits biotic powers). Her powers aren't as devastating as Aria's, but she's still useful in combat. Her Biotic Grenade ability does exactly what it says on the tin, and Biotic Protector raises a magic shield, useful for keeping her alive when the chips are down.
Condominas said designing Nyreen was quite a challenge. While a female turian did pop up in one of the Mass Effect comics, there was no video game reference point (and there are female turian soldiers in the game, but they're background soldiers who go unnoticed, apparently).
“We wanted to make sure the first time you see her you realise she's female and not a male turian, so we had to do a bit of work. We changed subtly some shapes to give her a smoother face. I can't wait for the players' feedback!”
The sex question
Your first thought upon hearing about Nyreen might have been, 'I can't wait to see what Garrus makes of her.' But, unfortunately, you can't find out. That's because when you venture out to Omega you leave all your party members - and the Normandy - behind.
All this is explained by the story, Condominas says. What you get for your 1200 MS Points or £10 is roughly four hours of gameplay. You pick the mission up from the Citadel - the nightclub Purgatory to be precise. There you learn from Aria her desire to reclaim Omega, which is under the control of a Cerberus force headed up by General Oleg Petrovsky. For some reason, which, we're told, the story explains, Shepard must accompany Aria alone. That means no Garrus, no EDI, no no-one - and no Normandy. It all sounds a bit improbable to me. I mean, if Aria wanted Shepard's help to fight off an occupying force on a big rock in out of space, surely she'd call for the cavalry. A convenient conceit to fit the standalone nature of the DLC?
You could get really friendly with her. If you take a certain path you end up with a strong relationship with Aria without romancing herBioWare Montreal producer Fabrice Condominas on Aria T'Loak
On Omega the story unfolds, and, in classic BioWare fashion, you need to make some tough choices. How far are you willing to go to support Aria in retaking Omega? And at what cost? Aria, a Renegade character if ever there was one in the Mass Effect universe, has a moral compass pointing in a different direction to Shepard's. Will you allow it to guide you?
The DLC, Condominas says, will challenge players to ask themselves why they're supporting Aria. Is it because you want to use Omega's resources in the ongoing battle against the Reapers? Or are you supporting Aria's brutal revenge mission against Cerberus, the pro-humanity nutballs everybody loves to hate? “Those two paths are feasible both in the Paragon and Renegade,” Condominas says, “so there's a bit more subtlety in the way you're choosing conversations.”
And what about Nyreen? While Omega is ostensibly about Aria and her desire to reclaim Omega, Nyreen plays an important role in the process. She is on Omega because she has a long, mysterious history with its gangster boss, and throughout the DLC Shepard ends up caught in the middle of this fiery relationship.
Let's cut to the chase: the Omega DLC does not introduce new romance options. You cannot have sex with either Aria or Nyreen (“Here again there are story reasons that will be explained.”). While Nyreen is “an absolute no”, Aria is “more ambiguous”. You can't romance her, but depending on the choices you make during the DLC your relationship at the end could be one extreme or the other. “You could get really friendly with her,” Condominas says with a knowing smile. “If you take a certain path you end up with a strong relationship with Aria without romancing her.” What this means, we don't know. Perhaps she kisses Shepard's cheek before running off into the sunset, the one who got away.
Neither can you bring Aria and Nyreen into the main game once your work on Omega is done. Again, there is a story reason for this, “just like why you don't have any other squad mates. All that is embedded in the story.” Conversely, Omega is not a hub players will be able to revisit once the DLC is complete. In more ways than one, this DLC is a one off.
Within Omega, though, is plenty to do. There's a central hub, Aria's bunker, which you use to upgrade her drug smuggling operation. From here you trigger side mission as you do in the main game. Outside the hub are four main missions, each lasting about an hour, that take players all over the station. “There's an exploration aspect of Omega that's really important,” Condominas says. “Of course you will revisit the places you know, such as the Gozo District and Afterlife, but 80 per cent of the places you've never seen before.” You'll do a lot of crawling around smuggling tunnels fighting Cerberus agents, from what I've played.
We knew we wanted to do something around this place and characters. So we started to think of doing Omega before the end, but we never worked on it. We started working on it right after the release of Mass Effect 3
The downloadable content debate
Mass Effect 3 DLC is a curious thing. Fans have often accused BioWare of slicing content out of the main game to be sold as DLC later - a feeling fuelled by game files torn apart by the franchise's loyal fanbase. But how, exactly, does the creation of all this DLC come about?
“It's different for every DLC,” Condominas explains. “Some of them were never thought of before ME3 was done, like Leviathan. But with Omega it's a bit different. It's a huge DLC exploring an iconic place and characters we knew before ME3 was released.
“With all the feedback we got from Mass Effect 2 we knew we wanted to do something around this place and characters. So this one, we started to think of doing it before the end, but we never worked on it. We started working on it right after the release of Mass Effect 3. And the team that had done DLC has worked on the DLC since, so it's a fairly long development cycle.”
Omega, Condominas says, was a “special case” as far as DLC goes. The team did think about it before Mass Effect 3 was completed, which under normal circumstances would raise the internet's eyebrow, but Condominas insists this meant it ended up larger than it would have otherwise been. “We had the time to think about it,” he says. “We didn't know it would end up that big, but when we started to write the story we realised we needed a complex story to go with the complex character or it wouldn't have worked out.
“We also knew we wanted a link between Aria, who would be in ME3, and the Cerberus occupation of the station. We knew there would be a link between those two, so it was important to hint to that in Purgatory, where you meet Aria.”
Still, though, fans will wonder: shouldn't Omega have been in the main game? Is it right that it is DLC?
“As with any game you develop, it's a matter of priority,” Condominas replies. “For BioWare games we're very story driven. When we thought about Omega, and asked ourselves that question: should we put it into the main ME3 campaign? But writing the game it didn't really work out. There were other vastly more important things we wanted to focus on, especially with the Reapers.
“Also, we realised Omega is a very iconic place, so there was a lot of material to do a standalone story. This is also why it's so long, because it's a standalone story that can be played even after you ended the trilogy. We asked ourselves this question: if I've finished the trilogy why would I play Omega? The answer we have is, it becomes an inside look on the Mass Effect universe. It gives you way more detail about the character and the place that are in my opinion very interesting.”
There are two studios working on the Mass Effect franchise: BioWare Edmonton and BioWare Montreal. Depending on the DLC, one studio is said to be driving and the other is supporting, with a 75 / 25 person ratio, roughly. This alternates between projects and DLC as resources are available. So, the studio with the most resources takes the lead and drives.
The internet always finds a way
Despite having such smart people working on Mass Effect BioWare hasn't been able to prevent all the DLC being revealed ahead of time. Ever since Mass Effect 3 was released fans have found new information from the game files, hinting at character names, place names, new weapons and all the rest of it. It meant we knew about Leviathan and Omega before they were announced.
“It's technical reasons,” Condominas says with a wink by way of explanation. “And we're getting better at avoiding that. For example, Omega, we knew we wanted to do something about it, but it wasn't clear what, and we knew we wanted to hint at it in the Citadel. But once the disc is physically shipped we cannot write anything. So we had to put a number of things in the disc for the player to be able to go back to the Citadel and have a discussion and the discussion with Aria would change. This is how it happens.”
Then there are simple virtual items that must be included ahead of time. “We share a lot of things between DLCs, like the weapons. If you have a weapon on Omega or Leviathan you want to carry on it needs to be detected. Like I say, we're getting better at avoiding it.”
Ultimately, Condominas is philosophical about the whole thing. “It shows how people are still passionate. They are still pretty hard to find, but I'm sure players will do that when this comes out too.”
Perhaps they won't need to. Game files have already shown that an upcoming DLC is centred around the Citadel, Mass Effect's iconic centre of the universe. So, what's all that about then?
“I can't comment on that.”