Fresh from a mammoth two-hour hands-on session with upcoming sci-fi RPG/shooter Mass Effect 2, spoilerrific impressions of which you can read here, we sat down for a chat with BioWare's lead technical artist Adrien Cho to seek answers to all our unanswered questions. Read on for hot new details on downloadable content, vehicle driving, disc swapping and... Mass Effect 3.
VideoGamer.com: What's the Cerberus Network, which is an option in the game's front menu?
Adrien Cho: It's a feature we've put in, obviously, and we just haven't talked officially about what it does. It is a mechanism to keep players engaged in the Mass Effect universe. The part I can't talk about is the delivery method for downloadable content. We looked at all aspects of Mass Effect and we looked at areas that could be improved upon. Top of the list, combat had to be better; exploration, uncharted worlds, art, no more texture blurring, stable framerate, and then DLC. We looked at DLC and said, what we put out didn't live up to what we promised. I'm not going to say we dropped the ball, but we could have done a lot better. What you're going to see with our DLC plan for Mass Effect 2 is that we're going to offer a lot more content from day one to keep people engaged.
VideoGamer.com: So there will be DLC on day one, like with Dragon Age: Origins?
AC: Exactly. Dragon Age, actually, at the time you know there's new content - you're going to have Blood Dragon Armour. We have lots of promotions in North America. What's the equivalent of GameStop?
AC: Okay. Depending on where you pre-order in North America you're going to get armour and weapons. That stuff is also going to trickle out to our DLC. The great thing is there is a lot of content out there that ranges from a new weapon, to a new heavy weapon, maybe a new piece of armour, a new helmet, different things to customise Shepard with, to side quests, to a full-blown mission, or a huge expansion pack. It's a huge range. If I look back at Mass Effect 1 DLC, it was just like, here's a chunk. This DLC has a lot more variety. The cool thing is also there's going to be a lot of bonus content basically for the fans, that they don't have to pay for. It's just going to keep them engaged. It's hopefully a good service to the players who buy the game, and will keep them engaged.
VideoGamer.com: We now know the game's coming out on two discs, and there will be a point where you need to change to disc two. How will that transition be handled?
AC: It'll be fine. We basically looked at the most logical point in the story for it to happen and of least inconvenience to the players. On the plus side, there's so much content, right? If you thought Mass Effect 1 was good, imagine what you're going to get with Mass Effect 2! We had to put two DVDs full of content in there. So we had to break it down. We actually had a team working on it. We worked it out in such a way that has the least effect on the player. You don't want people to be distracted throughout the game, but it's necessary partly because the game is so huge.
VideoGamer.com: Do you just swap discs once?
AC: I don't know for sure. I can't comment on that. You might have to do it twice.
VideoGamer.com: Do you know how the transition is handled? Does the game simply ask you to insert disc two, or is it woven into the story or the universe in a cool way? Do you know?
AC: No. I've been playing from my dev kit for the longest time! I don't know exactly how it pops up to say please insert disc two at this point. It's not going to be in the middle of a mission where you're just like, oh I see some enemies - please insert disc two. It's going to be a chapter stop, where it's like you finish the mission, now here's a logical branching off point.
VideoGamer.com: Have you decided how the game will acknowledge players who reached the level cap in Mass Effect 1?
AC: I asked my lead designer before I left, I was like, I want to make sure I know exactly what... because I was like, ah I'm going to get ambushed! I'm an artist, right, so I was like, I'm going to get a whole bunch of designer/writer questions [laughs]. She said, if you max out at 60, which is the highest level, you will have, paraphrasing my lead game system designer, Christina Norman, you will have a distinct advantage over those who don't import their characters, or if you start afresh. She described this mapping process. Me as an artist didn't understand. I said, well, is it going to have an impact? She said, yes. It'll have a big impact on hardcore players. They'll notice the advantage we give them. Which is, of course, great. It's a good service. It's not a disservice. We want to reward those who played the first game, who went through 60 hours, 80 hours to level up their character. They're going to notice there's a little bonus for them.
VideoGamer.com: But you can't tell me what it is?
AC: No [laughs]. You've got tons of hardcore questions!
VideoGamer.com: I noticed the loyalty system relates to your relationship with your party members. Does that work similarly to the way the relationship system worked in Dragon Age: Origins?
AC: I didn't play Dragon Age! I've been so busy working on Mass Effect! From my understanding it's very similar. Loyalty plays a big role with your squad mates. You'll go on side quests and if you gain their loyalty, it will have an impact on the game, it will dramatically change how the endgame plays out. It's worth it to make them loyal. It's also worth it to not make them loyal, to see what happens.
VideoGamer.com: Casey Hudson told me you'll come back to the Normandy after a mission and have to break up fights...
AC: It's really cool. The neat thing is also, if they gain your trust they'll do favours for you. You might get items. It also opens up... actually, I don't know for sure! I won't say it.
VideoGamer.com: Can you talk about how on planet driving will be improved?
AC: I can't say. All I can say is, one of my first tasks on Mass Effect 2 was to prototype the new handling for the vehicle. We haven't released how you're going to travel exactly with specifics, but there's stuff in there.
VideoGamer.com: The personal assistant...
AC: She's cute!
AC: From a functional point of view, she offers really another mechanism in the game to get the player involved to know what to do. We wanted to make sure the players understood all of the different things that they could do. She's just one element of getting people into the game. If they have questions like, which floor do I go to, to get to the armoury, or what is the engine room and why do I have to go there for whatever reason?
VideoGamer.com: Is she a romance option, or is it limited to squad members?
AC: I'm going to leave that as a pleasant surprise for players.
VideoGamer.com: Mass Effect has been confirmed as a trilogy, three distinct stories which fit together but all work on their own as self-contained experiences. Have you been able to think about Mass Effect 3 yet? What processes are you having regarding Mass Effect 3?
AC: We charted out the path for the story of Commander Shepard, and we know where we want his story to end. Of course, if you look at some of the trilogies which look like they didn't plan it out from the beginning, the results are muddled. So it was important for us to know exactly where we wanted to go for the second one, and also know where we want to end up for the third one, so everything makes sense and everything will be explained. As a teaser, all I can say is, if you play through Mass Effect 2, the ending's going to be amazing, but boy do we have some surprising twists and turns for Shepard in three.
VideoGamer.com: BioWare's a huge developer. Has it got the manpower to already be working on Mass Effect 3?
AC: Right now the team's still working on finishing the game. But we've also migrated to working on all the downloadable content. That's our next focus. And then a select team of people have, as they get back next week, will start envisioning the very early pre-production phases of Mass Effect 3... oh sorry, the Mass Effect trilogy. I think that's how we usually say it! We can't announce Mass Effect 3, but we can say the next chapter in Mass Effect.
VideoGamer.com: You've confirmed Mass Effect as a trilogy, though. Everyone knows that.
AC: Yeah. It's really weird. You can't say Mass Effect 3, but you can say, we're making 2, and we're making a trilogy. You say the next chapter in the Mass Effect trilogy.
VideoGamer.com: When Mass Effect 2 releases, it'll have been just over two years since the release of Mass Effect 1. Are we looking at a similar sort of timeframe for Mass Effect 3, or will it be shorter?
AC: Probably around the same timeframe. I mean, hopefully!
Mass Effect 2 is due out for the Xbox 360 and PC on January 29 2010.