It's been a few months since almost the entire VideoGamer.com staff locked themselves away to play through BioWare's epic sci-fi RPG Mass Effect. The memories will live with us for years, but some are yet to experience the deep characters, relationships and plot twists. If you're one of those gamers waiting for this May's PC release of Mass Effect, we've got good news. We recently saw the PC game in action and it's looking every bit as good as the Xbox 360 original - some might say even better.
Changes to the core game and story are minor at most, so for more details on the story, characters and all the other things we loved, head over to our thorough review of the Xbox 360 version. Our presentation focussed on the changes that have been made to the PC game, which are most evident in the controls and optimisations made for PC hardware.
Presented on a large projection screen and two plasma displays the graphical quality in this work in progress build is already on par with the 360 original. In certain areas the game will even exceed what we saw on the Microsoft console, with texture detail being the main area of improvement. Mass Effect on the Xbox 360 featured some of the best skin textures we've seen in a video game, but on the PC it's been taken up a level, and this is enhanced further by the extremely high resolutions high-spec PCs are capable of.
Something that hurt the visual presentation of the 360 game is the texture pop in - something that appears in many games built on the Unreal Engine 3. This was mildly present during our demo but the BioWare staff were quick to confirm that optimisations to improve this and all areas of the visuals are currently being made. When we get our hands on the game in May it should look extremely polished and run on modestly powerful rigs. Although no final system specs have been determined, BioWare did state that the game will run on systems bought within the last two years.
General optimisations are also being made to loading, although the elevator scenes that disguised loading in the Xbox 360 will largely still be intact. These scenes often included dialogue so cutting the time down would have resulted in major changes needing to be made to the storytelling.
Control wise, with the PC having a keyboard and mouse, things have been opened up considerably, allowing for faster gameplay. A quick slot menu allows you to access your biotic talents (Barrier, Stasis, etc) instantly without first entering a menu and weapons can be switched by pressing the F keys or by scrolling through with the square bracket keys. Although seemingly small changes, being able to play without constantly brining up a menu should make for a smoother gameplay experience. These changes are optional, so if you prefer to pause and bring up a menu, that is still an option.
On the other hand, the addition of individual squad control adds an extra level of depth and tactical play. Although the grouped squad commands in the Xbox 360 game didn't cause us too many problems, the PC game will allow you to direct each of your squad members individually. We'll have to get some hands-on time to figure out how much this will really add to the experience, but if you're the kind of gamer that wants to go into every battle with a tactical formation, you're in luck.
Other additions are more minor, but should add up to a better overall experience. The Mako controls have been redesigned allowing for independent camera control, a new decryption mini-game based on the Omni Decryption Tool used in the game has been added (although we didn't get a chance to see this in action), the inventory system has been enhanced and the number of save slots has been increased.
Extra content hit the Xbox 360 recently and more is planned, but if, when and how this will arrive on the PC is still to be determined. Our BioWare reps couldn't stress enough that they're committed to making sure PC gamers get the best Mass Effect experience that's possible, so we're confident the new content will come to the PC in the future - whether or not it'll come at a cost is something we just don't know. Also not on the agenda is mod support. Given the rich storytelling and reliance on fully voiced characters this isn't an area that BioWare feels is essential to the PC game.
With such a brilliant game to work from there's little doubt that Mass Effect for the PC will be anything less than amazing. PC gamers hoping for large scale changes are out of luck, but BioWare is doing a good job at taking the console game and turning it into the kind of experience PC gamers will be expecting. With PC optimisations continuing at a pace up until the game's May 2008 release date, EA and BioWare should deliver a game that all PC gamers will be very excited about.