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.