BioWare's Xbox 360 and Windows interactive space opera Mass Effect 2 is still half a year away, but for lead producer Casey Hudson it's happening right now. Busy as he is, I managed to grab him away from dotting i's and crossing t's as his team moves into the sequel's final feature beats to make its planned early 2010 debut.
In part four (part one, part two, part three) we cover Commander Shepard's level drop, the game's updated abilities, new vehicle attributes, the overhauled interface, and Casey explains why storytelling in at least some games doesn't suck.
Game On: In Mass Effect 2 we play as Commander Shepard again, a guy who finished up the first game with some pretty advanced abilities. As I understand it, you're resetting the character back to ability basics. How are you dealing with that retrograde motion story-wise?
Casey Hudson: There's something that's happening with the story that explains what happens with your abilities. It's something we can't go into detail about for obvious reasons, but it actually happens the other way around. Our goal with the story, in terms of getting the game started quickly and players into really compelling story situations…that dictated and allowed us to do certain things including changing the way that your abilities work and the way you develop your character.
Part of it, too, is the fact that we've gone in and improved literally every system in the game, your powers, the controls, aiming, the way that your character stats work and how you build a character, the inventory system, weapons, and so on. All of those things have been dramatically improved, so there's no direct way to map the stuff you had in Mass Effect over to Mass Effect 2 anyway.
That said, we're taking into account all of your accomplishments in terms of building a character from the first game. So things you'd expect to be acknowledged, like if you were a level 60 character, or you were highly Renegade and don't want to start out at the middle again. If you import your save game from Mass Effect, these kinds of things will be acknowledged in ways that map across to the new system. You will feel, even in terms of the character that you build, that you are continuing as that character.
GO: Has the attribute and developmental pathing changed at all? Is it still essentially soldier/weapons, engineer/tech, and biotics/magic based? Have the special upgrades that occurred along each attribute's development line been changed or altered to reflect the character's maturation?
CH: The attribute and leveling system is similar, in that we have the same character classes [Soldier, Engineer, Adept, Infiltrator, Sentinel, and Vanguard]. Some of the abilities are the same in name and in their basic function, but they've been improved substantially in terms of how you can use them and your mastery over them.
Take the throw ability. It's a biotics power that was in the first game and it's back in Mass Effect 2. Before it would just push the enemy back from your position. That's interesting, but it's not as useful as the way we've adapted it to Mass Effect 2, where throw is kind of a vortex that you fling at an enemy. When it hits them, it throws them in the direction at which it strikes them. If you're looking at an enemy that's standing on a bridge with drop-offs on either side, previously a throw would have knocked him back along the bridge and he wouldn't have fallen off. Now you can angle your throw power to the left, for instance, and it will hook around, hit him from the side, and he'll go flying to the right. It's a more advanced version of the same power that you knew from the first game.
GO: So you've essentially iterated the last game's abilities?
GO: Turning to first game quirks, I know everyone cranks about Mass Effect's slow elevators, but what bugged me was exploring with the Mako. It didn't seem to scale well with the rest of the game. At one point I recall hopping over projectiles spit by an alien sandworm and feeling this Super Mario vibe that clashed with the seriousness of everything else.
CH: We have a completely new vehicle in Mass Effect 2, and it's a similar idea, but the way it works and the controls are fundamentally different. We're not talking too much about it yet, in part because it's one of the things that's just gone in and we want to make sure that it's going to stay the way it is in the final game before we talk too much about it. But it's definitely a different design.
It's a similar idea, in that it's a vehicle about the size of the Mako that you can use to explore these really rough alien worlds. The difference is, it moves fundamentally differently from the first Mako, where now…it basically moves similar to the way your character moves. You can strafe from left to right, you can shoot wherever you want, it's easier to target enemies that are standing right in front of you or directly overhead, and it just navigates the terrain a lot better.
Part of the issue with the first Mako was that it literally, in a way that I don't think anyone knows or will ever fully appreciate, it was probably I'll bet the first and only physics-simulated skid-steer vehicle in games. Not that that's a… [laughs] …not that that's a bullet point we'd put on the box, but the amazing thing about it is that it was actually physically simulated. In doing that, it incurred a lot of control difficulties. You couldn’t just strafe to the side and hide behind a rock and then pop out.
The new vehicle fundamentally addresses all the stuff we wanted to improve with the Mako, and that's part of the value of really just…instead of moving ahead and just continuing into the sequel, the fact that we stopped, we looked at everything about the way people were experiencing the first game, and then designed things that were fundamental solutions. We could've made incremental improvements to certain things like the Mako, but by going back to first principles and thinking about the way the worlds actually ended up, how rough the terrain was, the kind of fighting that you'd want to do there, the kind of exploring, then designing a vehicle that captured exactly those things...knowing all that we know from the first game, we now have a vehicle that's right out of the box so much easier and intuitive to play with.
GO: Mass Effect's inventory system was missing options like "leave" or "take this, not that" which made item management and character outfitting a bit of a struggle. How has Mass Effect 2's inventory interface been improved?
CH: The inventory system is completely different. Nothing about inventory management from the first game is in Mass Effect 2, though all of the actual functionality it provided remains. Basically we took the whole thing out and replaced it with a bunch of different systems that do the same thing. Part of the problem is that, in that first inventory system you could do a huge number of things. You could manage the load-out of your team, you could customize your weapons, you could do all of this stuff through that interface. Now we have separate ways to do these things.
So you can very intuitively manage the load-out of your team, then go to a different system where now you're upgrading your weapons and that feels more intuitive. We've essentially spread things out over several different areas where you can actually do these things in a more natural way and it's a lot more fun.
The other thing that allows us to do, is that each of those aspects can go a lot deeper. For instance, the way that you customize your armor and your appearance and your weapons is a lot deeper than we could've gone before, when it was all managed by one interface.
GO: Last question. Gameplay and auto-narrative closure aside, today's video game stories seem incredibly shallow. Even the best bits of BioShock, which seem genius next to the D-list riffing in a game like Doom 3, feel a bit superficial when scaled against books like Cormac McCarthy's The Road or Neal Stephenson's Anathem or Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire. Your reaction?
CH: It's a complex issue with lots of factors. I think part of it is that in books and movies, and I'm sure someone can Google this and see if I'm right, but I think there are just many, many more books that come out per year, and many, many more movies, relative to the big games that get played. I think the fewer works you have in a medium, the more mainstream or accessible they have to be. If games were consumed in tenfold numbers, then you’d have more opportunities to find different genres and niches in terms of the story, and more exploration into really personal and small-scale stuff.
If you look at the entire spectrum of games made, there are definitely some that veer off the beaten path, but they often don't do well enough commercially. They just don't capture the huge mainstream audience that's required to make back the money necessary to put together a triple-A, really high-quality game. Unlike a movie, we can't go on location and have actors show up and film them. Even if you want to make a small private game, if you want to have actors and sets to comprise a story of the caliber you're talking about, you still have to build those actors in your game, you have to build the sets, and you have to build out the overlying technology in general. That's still very expensive. So I think that's one factor, the fact that ultimately a game has to be able to appeal to a broad enough audience.
But I think there's maybe a bigger factor, which is…gaming's just a different medium. I think we have to acknowledge the fact that it's a different medium, that the way a game affects players' emotions in terms of narrative is fundamentally different. If you compare the same elements from a game story to a movie story on paper, certain things won't match up, but I can tell you, I've had a number of game-story experiences that were as profound as any movie I've seen, one of them being ICO.
For me, ICO was about a nine-hour game, and you play for about eight hours leading a little girl through dangerous situations. As you move around, she's holding your hand, and you feel the tug of her hand on your controller for eight hours. But then in the ninth hour, you lose her, and suddenly, you don't feel the tug of her hand on your controller anymore.
The way that ICO ends, it affected me more powerfully because of that emotional rollercoaster they put me on than I think maybe any movie that I've seen. And it's because, in an interactive way, they tapped into something about how I connect with a human being in a way that a movie can't. So I think that if a comparison's to be made between games and other mediums, it has to be made in terms of the result of the experience.
GO: Mass Effect 2 release dates...still on track for an early 2010 release?
CH: Yep, absolutely.
GO: Thanks Casey.
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