BioWare's been keen to talk up the improvements it's made to combat for Mass Effect 2, due out on Xbox 360 and PC in January next year, but it's hardly said anything about what other shiny new tricks the RPG/shooter has up its sci-fi sleeve... Until now. Last night, listened in on a lengthy roundtable Q&A, in which project director Casey Hudson revealed loads of juicy new info, including first details on the brand new loyalty system, N7 missions and what you'll get up to in the new and improved Normandy. Here, in the gargantuan full transcript of the session, you'll find all the Mass Effect 2-related info you could possibly want. When you started to think about Mass Effect 2, what were the main goals you wanted to achieve?

Casey Hudson: We started with two objectives. One of them was all of the things we wanted to do as developers of the first game. We knew that we wanted to take the story somewhere for part two and three of the trilogy. Mass Effect is a trilogy and really the idea there is that we, in creating the new science fiction IP, we wanted to be able to set our goals as high as we possibly could. That was the idea that you would be able to create a character as a player for the first game, and you would be able to play that same character throughout three huge science fiction stories, of the biggest possible scale and the deepest emotional intensity. That was really our goal - telling the story on the biggest canvas possible.

We knew what we wanted to do in terms of where the story would go. We think of the trilogy as one story but we also think of each instalment of it as needing to stand alone as its own story. So, with Mass Effect 1, you play that story, you get to the end and then you feel a satisfying ending. Likewise with Mass Effect 2, you don't have to have played the first one, but we know how it all fits together as a trilogy. We know how the story leads from the first one into the second one, and then where it will go in the future.

So we had our goals for the story and some of the ideas we wanted to add to the gameplay. But then there's the other half of it, which is that millions of people have played this game around the world, and that's where much of the design for the second one has to come from - listening to the way people played it, the feedback we got. We literally took every bit of feedback we could find. Every sentence in every review, comments in forums, we literally categorised everything we got. That became the other half of the blueprint for Mass Effect 2. Then we stood back and looked at what that was, and came up with a singular design that captured all of that stuff, which was basically to give Commander Shepard a story that starts off with a bang, gets things moving quickly, and puts you up against the threat of having to go on a suicide mission and build a team, build up your crew and then go off and attempt something that should be impossible. But it has to be done to save humanity. Humanity is being singled out by an enemy that's a new force in the galaxy. You need to do something that really should be a suicide mission. That tied together the goals we wanted to achieve in terms of the story but also it did things like it brought together all of the subplots back into the main storyline. You go out and get a character, you make them loyal to you - loyalty is a big part of the game - all of these things tied together. So with those two goals of what we wanted and what our fans wanted, that gave us the design for Mass Effect 2. What is the addition to Mass Effect 2 that you're most excited about?

CH: We've made so many improvements that it's hard to pick just one. We're still making improvements. Even just yesterday, we did a lot of improvements to the way sound works, so you can hear bullets whizzing past your head and striking metal behind you. When you're firing on an enemy you can hear you're hitting their shields, and you can hear the "plonking" sound of bullets against armour, and you can hear them hammering into the meat of Krogan flesh. Just little things like that we're doing all throughout the project, that you'll maybe not notice on a one on one basis, but makes the whole experience so much better.

The two areas we've made the biggest improvements in is in combat, which again contains countless improvements, from the feel of how you aim, the way you track enemies, the way you move and take cover - a completely new cover system - and the weapons feel fantastic. So, all the stuff we've done in the combat area. But then all of the things we've done to make the RPG aspects a lot more intuitive. I wouldn't say they're simpler, because you can do a lot more - there's a lot more customisation, there's more research and upgrades, there's just generally more there in the RPG side of it too - but what we've done is we've moved things into interfaces and screens where you can realise the full potential of these things without them becoming cumbersome or it having too many items and all that kind of stuff.

So, both of those areas simultaneously give Mass Effect 2 the same kind of balance we had in Mass Effect 1, where you have exploration and story progression and developing your character and combat - all of these different pillars we experience are still there in the same balance - but they're all improved in pretty amazing ways. Can you elaborate on what you've done to improve the control and combat system?

CH: I guess it starts with the feeling of player control. There are many things that go into that. If you played Mass Effect 1, one thing we're really excited about is it continues to be very well received and it holds up well against other games. But we're excited to be able to let everybody play Mass Effect 2, because the improvements we've made are so widespread that each one of them is an increment, but it adds up to quite a revolution in the overall experience. It starts with even fairly subtle things like framerate. In Mass Effect 1 we didn't always have a high framerate, but that's one thing we've been able to do as part of doing a sequel, is now we've got the ability to have a lot of discipline around memory and performance budget. Generally the framerate is much faster, much smoother, and that contributes a lot to the feel of combat.

But we've also done a lot of things for the feel of aiming with weapons, the feel of the weapons themselves. Most people now, even though weapons all still have their different behaviours and stats and rates of fire, a lot of people in Mass Effect 2 end up choosing their weapons based on how they feel. That tells you a lot about how different the weapons are - when you switch to a new weapon you've got and you fire it and you decide right then if you like it or not. For example, in the pistol category we have new subcategories like a hand cannon, which would be like a magnum or a desert eagle style big high calibre single shot, or you can also have a submachine gun, like an Uzi, with a high rate of fire but less accuracy. When you feel these weapons in your hand, they feel fantastic but in completely different ways. That ends up being a big part of what's fun about combat, is you end up picking your favourite weapons partly because of how they feel.

Then also a thing like the cover system is completely new. In Mass Effect 1, again in terms of incorporating feedback, we noticed when we watch people play it they would play it like the way you might play Halo, where you strafe around, you tuck yourself behind cover and then move back out, and then they would move to a level sliding against objects - in Mass Effect 1 we had automatic cover, it would pull you into the cover automatically. You would see people accidentally getting stuck in cover. We made cover more of an active system where you hit A to engage it. Now you can slide in and out of cover without engaging cover, and it's smooth, but you also just tap A to put yourself into cover behind the object. That's helped a lot too, plus the entire animation system is different for the way you move in combat and everything, so it's just smoother. So that's just some of the many improvements we've made to the control and combat. What inspirations did the team look to for the game's shooter and action aspects?

CH: Now that we're doing a sequel we can look to the first game in terms of the things we did right and the way people want to play this kind of experience, and also the feedback for how to improve it. Again, we've got countless data points out there from people who've played it and ideas on how they would like to see it improved. But then the other part of it is we are out to compete with the very best shooters in the world, in terms of being able to pick it up and have fun playing it. We're looking at the top shooters that are out there, whether it's third-person or first-person, just looking at the very best games, the way they feel, the way they move, and making sure we compare Mass Effect 2 side by side, and keep tuning it and developing it until it feels as good as the best games out there that you're going to play. How has squad control been improved?

CH: There are some subtle things we've changed that amount to some big differences in the way you play it. One of them that's, again, simple, but it makes a huge difference, is in Mass Effect 1 you could direct your squad, so this is on the Xbox 360, to a location where you would want them to move or take cover. But, because there was one button for two squad members, they would end up fighting each other on the way there. Then they were stuck in the one position - you can't tell one to go to one place and the other to go to another place. On Mass Effect 2 we split the two buttons. Now you have one button on the d-pad, on the left side, for one character, and on the right side of the d-pad is another character. So you can point to the ground where you want them to go. That means when you come to a doorway, if you want them to take position on either side of the doorway, and then you're going to go in, and they'll take cover and cover you as you go in, you just click left and then click right as you point to the sides of the door, and they run into position.

It makes a huge difference. It helps them find a path to the right location, but then you as a player also have so much more control over how you send your squad in. You can send someone into cover and send somebody else charging into the next room while you take cover. You can come up with all kinds of interesting tactical options doing that. Plus they're context sensitive. So if you point at the ground they'll run up and try and take cover at that point on the ground. But if you point to an enemy, then they'll attack that enemy. If you map a power - that's one thing we've added to Mass Effect 2, is the ability to map powers to buttons on the controller so you can fire weapons and powers in real time. So you can still pause the game. It's got a similar combat system where you can pause the game, issue tactics to your squad and choose powers you want to fire. But from that screen you can also map your powers to buttons so you can fire them in real time, and you can do that for your squad members as well. So now if you have a biotic who's good at, say Biotic Pull, you can map that to that part of the d-pad. Now, when you hit that left side of the d-pad or right side of the d-pad, corresponding to the character, if you're pointing at an enemy, they'll pull that character and throw them into the air and throw them off a cliff or wherever you happen to be. It's just a couple of simple things that allow us to give a lot more control to the player in real time. Why did you switch the reload system from the overheat system? Will ammo be infinite?

CH: What we found, again in watching people play and analysing the game ourselves, was that the overheat idea is cool for the IP, and we wanted to keep that, but it also meant you end up playing with less consideration of where your bullets are going. That's a big part of combat, is considering each round of fire as a resource. That makes you consider it more, there's a little tension to combat, and that's one thing that contributes to some of the top shooters, just having a good feel and tension and drama in combat. Even if you never run out of ammo it still makes you think about what you're doing just a little bit more.

The other thing was the overheat system in Mass Effect 1 would cause people to overheat their weapon, and then now you're stuck for a few seconds. We wanted to make things a little bit more visceral, a little bit more fluid. Related to that, another thing we did was we reduced the charge time on powers. So now you can fire powers much more frequently and have a lot more fun on the battlefield. In terms of the overheat and ammo, our goal then became to be able to add that tension and resource consideration to combat, again as part of getting to the best gameplay we could, while retaining the idea that the Mass Effect universe established, of you're firing tiny projectiles at near light speeds, so you don't really run out of them because they're so tiny and you have a reserve, but there's still overheat. The idea is you have a clip of thermal heat syncs. They're universal. They're designed to be universal, so you can pick them up from the ground, you get them from enemies and armour lockers and stuff like that. It adds an ammo like tension to combat, but at the same time it still continues to work with the way the technology in the Mass Effect universe works.

You can see how it ties in with some of the other improvements we've made. For example, sniper rifles are much improved. They feel smooth, accurate. We've also added part-based damage. If you hit a mech with a high-powered sniper rifle, and you hit him in the knee, it'll blow his leg off just below the knee. Then you see it falls down and crawls towards you, all kinds of great stuff like that. But if you have that kind of part-based damage, head shots, things like that, if you have unlimited ammo, then you can just blast away until you get that shot. As long as there's a concept of needing to provide a little consideration for the rounds you're firing, then you end up thinking, well, okay, I've got my sniper rifle, I have X number of shots left, I'm going to make this one count, and then you get a headshot, it's that much more rewarding and it helps the combat work a lot better. How did you improve the enemy AI?

CH: We did a bunch of things. First of all, each of the enemies has received custom scripting. They have different behaviour. Some enemies are defensive, they take cover, it's hard to dig them out from behind cover. If you advance they'll retreat, so they're always heavily defended, very tactical. Other enemies will stand and move towards you relentlessly, but they'll flank you as well. So when you fight several of them you very quickly find yourself surrounded by them. We have husks in Mass Effect 2 that are much scarier than in Mass Effect 1. They're the zombie-like humanoids. But in Mass Effect 2 they'll run towards you and then they maul you when they get to you. You can take a few of them out pretty easily, but there becomes so many of them that they end up flanking you and coming up to you from behind. It's a different kind of enemy to fight. It's things like that, where we've given them custom behaviours and unique AI, where you have to think about what's different about each enemy. They generally are a lot smarter.

And then there are a lot of technical things we've done. The cover system helps them to take cover more reliably, more accurately. They have a man pulling system, so you can vault over pieces of low cover or storage containers or boulders and things like that. You'll see an enemy that's running towards you and he'll vault right over a piece of low cover and keep charging towards you. Stuff like that contributes to the overall experience. How do your relationships with your party members change following dialogue decisions?

CH: This is a game that's about the characters. Part of the idea of preparing your team for a suicide mission is it's all about recruiting the characters you want to take with you, making them loyal, making sure they have everything they need to be equipped and ready to go into battle with you, building up your ship. So it's all of these things that tie into the main storyline, but it comes back to those characters that you're getting. You end up doing missions to go out and recruit them. First you have to talk with them once you have them and find out what makes them tick and understand them. Then you'll figure out what mission you need to do to make them loyal. You have an ongoing relationship with each character. But loyalty is a huge factor in the overall concept of the game, and then that's how it ties in with your relationships.

Maybe in previous games you would talk to characters and there's a relationship there, but again, it might not tie back into the main storyline. Here, the reason you end up talking to your characters, outside of the fact that it's interesting and there's a relationship there, is that you can figure out what it is that's going to make them loyal to you. And then you go and do a mission where you learn a lot about their back story. It unfolds in a way you can learn about and appreciate that character. So you're developing their loyalty, you're developing their relationship, and then we also have a number of romance options in this game where if you develop a relationship over the course of the game, some of them will become love interests. Whereas in Mass Effect 1 there was a love interest for male or female, and then Liara was another option, in this one, male and female characters each have several love interests.

It adds a further degree of conflict, actually, because you're thinking about who's more interesting as a love interest, but also it's interesting that the loyalty system and the love interest aspect both involve conflict. You might make someone loyal to you and then you make someone else loyal to you, the next time you come back to the ship, they might be fighting. You go down to find out what's going on, and now you have to decide or talk them down or come up with a way to try and keep them both loyal to you. And then likewise with the love interests, you might find yourself conflicted about who you find more interesting, and then if you pursue one, then that can block your ability to progress with the others. So there's a lot more sophistication there. And there's more character, too. There are ten characters you can get as part of your total team to draw from, versus the six in the original Mass Effect. What did you do to make sub-quest-based exploration more fun and varied?

CH: That was a part of Mass Effect that we had interesting feedback on. At one point we were even wondering if we should keep it because it was probably the part people wanted improved the most. So one way you can interpret that is, well, maybe it's just not an important enough part of the experience, like we don't need it. But actually when we thought about it, it was clear part of the reason people wanted us to improve that aspect was because they love the idea that you can take your ship wherever you want in the galaxy, and you can go out, fly to the some planet on the edge of the galaxy and find something weird and wonderful there, and explore it however you want. It was the richness and the variety people wanted more of. So that's what we did.

We made a few changes to the way you navigate the Normandy so you get a better sense of exploration, you actually move the position of the Normandy versus moving a crosshair for where you want to go. You have fuel and space probes you burn to explore deeper into space. And then we also added a mini-game that is a new way to get resources off of a planet. So instead of having to drive around on a planet in the vehicle as a mission, where you're just really picking up rocks and having to jump out and do that kind of stuff, now it's part of a really cool planet exploration mini-game where you're spinning the planet around underneath you, you can feel with the controller rumbling, you can hear the sound of anomalies and resources being picked up by your sensors and close in on them and send space probes. So that part is a lot more interesting. Running around and getting resources is now in a cool mini-game instead of you doing it on foot.

But now, also when you are doing this mini-game you can find locations. We call them N7 missions. You find things that only Commander Shepard can investigate. When you find one of those, that's an N7 mission. Our approach with N7 missions is that really every N7 mission has to provide you something amazing and different in terms of the gameplay or what you get to do, than you would be able to do anywhere else in the game. Now when you find missions out there in the uncharted worlds, there are always missions where something special happens, and you get really good handcrafted gameplay and art that you can't see elsewhere in the game. I think people will find them to be really rewarding, really rich, because there's something different around every corner. Can you explain the new features of the Normandy?

CH: That stuff is about what the Normandy does in space as part of the space exploration, but the Normandy itself as a space is greatly improved. The Normandy has three areas where it interacts. One of them is the way you explore the galaxy and the galaxy map, the things you do there. Another one is its role in the story. People will remember in Mass Effect 1, it almost becomes a character in the story where Joker and the Normandy are able to do incredible things during space combat, and it becomes a real hero for the storyline. Similar things happen in Mass Effect 2, just incredible space battles, huge epic scope, but there is interactivity there in the sense they play out differently based on the upgrades you've done to the Normandy. To do those you need certain members of the team, you need to be able to find resources by exploring and doing missions. These resources allow you to do research projects and upgrades to the ship, and then your ship will do different things in these space battles than they would otherwise. There will be different outcomes, and there may be a life and death situation for people on your team. That's the second thing.

The third thing is the Normandy has an environment you get to be in. That's probably one of the more fun and surprising improvements to the game. When we think about the Normandy from the first game, that's where we really wish we could have done a lot more with it. In Mass Effect 2 we're doing those things. Really it's the fantasy fulfilment of having your own star ship. I mean, what do you want to do in a star ship? You want to be able to walk around and have people that give you updates. You're the boss, you're the commander of the ship, you can see everyone working for you, and they've got stuff to say to you, you've things to do.

Your quarters in Mass Effect 2, it's in a different part of the ship; it's in a loft at the very top deck of the ship. There's a ton of stuff in there that's really cool. You've got everything from your armour locker, where you customise all your equipment and change every detail of the colour and the materials and switch out parts. Basically a lot of the things you buy in the stores, you end up working with in your quarters. So you go back, you change your outfits, your casual clothes and all that stuff, but then you also have a fish tank. You buy fish in the store, and you go see the fish that you've bought in there and you can feed your fish. You have a personal assistant. She'll catch you as you run past going to the galaxy map and she'll say, oh, you know Miranda wants to talk to you on deck two, so you run over there. You have a personal terminal that has email. A lot of the different things you do on missions, choices you make, you'll get emails that follow it up and tell you the ongoing story of what happened there. Or you get emails from other characters in the Mass Effect universe that progress the storyline in an interesting way. You have a science lab where, if you get a scientist, then you can open this science lab and go in there and do research projects. It goes on.

The whole ship is so rich and full of things to do. Even better, what used to be slow elevators or slow transitions from one deck to another now is faster transition and it actually is part of the narrative. You go to the elevator control and then you see what's on the elevator control panel as the schematics of the Normandy reveal where you are in the ship, and they show you different decks as you transition. Then all of a sudden you're there. So it makes it an interesting part of the narrative. I find that now, in between missions out in the universe, I come back to the Normandy and I just want to run around and do all the new things and check out the stuff I bought, talk to everybody, because it's a lot smoother and there's just so much more to do. I think people will be really excited about that. The Mass Effect series is a cinematic experience. How have you spent the past two years refining storytelling and improving virtual acting?

CH: Mass Effect 1 was really the game we did to try and extend what we did in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. We knew where we could get to with the technology. We had an idea of it anyway. But the technology didn't even exist. The Xbox 360 didn't exist when we were developing Mass Effect 1 for a good portion of the project. We had to guess where things would go and how far we could push the acting. The big difference with Mass Effect 2 is we don't have to guess anymore. We know we can have a character respond and deliver an emotional blow without saying anything. In Mass Effect 1 when you reprimand Ashley at the beginning of the game and she looks back at you with a hurt expression on her face, you realise, wow, I think I hurt her feelings, and she hasn't even said anything. Now we know we can do that kind of digital acting.

We've built a much more movie like approach to the script and the dialogue in Mass Effect 2. And then we've also been able to do some technology improvements that allow us to do different things with the conversations. You'll have conversations in cars and shuttle rides in space, conversations while you're ducking under gun fire or walking through a prison facility, and they're all interactive. We're able to do a lot more interesting things with how we tell the story. It's that combination of having done it before artistically and knowing what we can do on a creative level, but also having the technology there that advances things a little bit beyond what we saw in Mass Effect 1. What's BioWare's approach to breathing life into science fiction through the Mass Effect series?

CH: The goal is you don't want to be derivative. Everything is like something, we know that for sure. No matter how original we make something, if it has three eyes then it's like this alien from that property. If it has four eyes then it's another alien from another property. In general we try to not base anything on any property out there, and just come back to first principles. It starts with absorbing our favourite influences. Obviously there are things we love about the best books we've read, or the great science fiction. A lot of Mass Effect is inspired by the feeling of the movies from the late Seventies and early Eighties, like Blade Runner, The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, that early, ambient eerie idyllic future. What we do is we take those magic moments or feeling and influences and boil them down to their principles. What are we going for? What do we like? It comes down to ideas about art style and what makes a great character. Then using those principles then we build back up into something that's original and come up with our own story, our own ideas for aliens and things like that. That way we avoid being derivative of something else.

At the same time, once we start developing things then we start to look for thematic symmetries, where we go, what is the high level concept really about? What are we trying to say with the story and the universe that we're developing here? We try and make it a lot more cohesive. That's how we end up with something that's a nice combination of being familiar enough, because it's based on these principles that we all appreciate about great science fiction, and yet it has fresh and original ideas in it. And then at the same time it holds together as one thing, because we've looked for those symmetries and themes that all tie it together. After the huge success of Dragon Age: Origins, what do you expect from Mass Effect 2? What do you think is the key to it reaching its objective?

CH: We're really excited because Mass Effect 2 has an incredible amount of anticipation. What we're feeling right now is a huge pull, a tremendous pull from the fans and press to get this game out and see more of it. We're feeling that strongly, the excitement for it and we're really excited to be able to get it out there. With Dragon Age we saw, we're with a new publisher now and EA has given us incredible support. They do a fantastic job of getting the name out there and making sure people know the game's coming and know it's going to be a fantastic game. That's a good part of Dragon Age's success, aside from being a great game. At BioWare we won't release a game unless it's really good. But now we also have that solid backing from EA and the promotion they're able to do. You combine that with the excitement about Mass Effect 2, and the fact that it's an even better game than the first one; I'm looking forward to the launch and seeing how people give us feedback when they start playing it.

Another thing we haven't talked much about, and we can't announce anything just yet, is the ongoing DLC plan, which is going to be exciting for people. We weren't able to do a lot of things for DLC on Mass Effect, largely due to technical constraints with how the first game was built. It wasn't extendable to DLC. But the second one is. So even once we launch, then that just begins the ongoing story of how people are able to play Mass Effect 2 content. We're excited about that too. Did you ever think you would be part of one of the most important development teams in the world when you started your adventure into the video game industry? How do you imagine the future?

CH: I joined BioWare 11 years ago now. I remember my friend telling me that, oh, BioWare, they're working on Baldur's Gate and that's the most anticipated game in the world right now. Things were different back then and the industry was different but even at that time BioWare had a reputation for working on and then releasing games that are highly anticipated by the fan community and then turn out to be high quality games. That was the environment when I joined, even when there were less than 50 people in the company. Now things have grown. We're a much bigger company. We're part of a huge publisher that gives us a lot of support. And yet so much is the same. We're working on another fantastic role-playing game with great characters, great combat, and exploration and very much similar to the principles that we had back then when I first started. We're just able to do things on a bigger and bigger scale all the time. That's been great.

As for the future, we just plan on continuing to learn from what our fans and players are telling us, listen carefully. We set our sights high. We're ambitious. We want to do the biggest and best stuff in the world. But then once we release something, that's the time to listen and hear how people are playing our games, understand what they want next from us and do our very best to try and deliver that.

Mass Effect 2 is due out on Xbox 360 and PC on January 29, 2010.