In all forms of entertainment, it is criminally dangerous to attempt a trilogy.
The second film in a successful series can often get away with being critically panned and go on to deliver at the box office. In videogames, with larger time and monetary investments involved, sequels are typically harder to sell.
In spite of this, it appears many developers are not only attempting multiple sequels, they're doubling down on existing franchises and squeezing them for all they are worth, with each instalment accompanied by nervous chatter that it will surely be the one that ruins everything.
However, when it comes to Mass Effect, this is a non-existent fear. The first Mass Effect was ambitious, and its few flaws only became prevalent after the release of its overachieving follow-up. From there, a vocal, robust and obsessive community was born, spurring the recent announcement of an animated feature from renowned anime studio Production I.G, as well as the optioning of movie rights and the extended fiction being weaved around it through novels and comic books.
After all, unlike The Matrix or Pirates of the Caribbean, Mass Effect was designed to be a trilogy.
On the cusp of the conclusion to this trilogy, Mass Effect lead Casey Hudson is tired in San Francisco, nursing a cup of tea on a promotional blitz that will not end for the forseeable future. After running through a hands-on with previously unseen material and Kinect functionality, we talked to Casey a little about ending a trilogy.
Dispensing with the inevitable question of the future of the franchise, a weary Hudson admits what everyone knew deep down.
"We're always working on the next thing. Most of us have been for the past three months.”
Though with Mass Effect 3 not even out yet, “We're trying to focus on the present."
Downloadable content is, of course, inevitable. As to what it contains, the answer is cryptic: "It will be squad supplemental", which seems in line with how DLC is usually treated in Mass Effect; a vehicle to flesh out the surrounding world and characters.
But this is not the first franchise Hudson and his co-workers have been involved in.
"The Mass Effect team is the team from Knights of the Old Republic. Same writer, designer, art director."
Leaving an established universe behind, many things went into crafting this world. As Casey states, it was a blend of "nostalgia for Blade Runner, Alien and the aesthetic and mood of Kubrick's 2001", and a variety of science fiction artists.
This is not a game that is a slave to its influences, nor its genre. More than any science fiction element, what Mass Effect became most known for was the decisions, the number of ways to play and the choices that could be made – as well as the relationships crafted throughout the game. Not to mention the thousands of variations present in Mass Effect 3 based upon previous events in the preceding two titles.
Other representatives at BioWare noted that Mass Effect 3 is a great jumping on point, of course tentatively trying not to ward off the uninitiated into what could be an intimidating franchise. However, Casey emphasises that they listened to what the community wanted.
"We listened to the feedback on Mass Effect 2. They wanted more depth in the RPG system. For example, every piece of armor has unique stats and upgrades, with diverging upgrade paths. Players can scour the galaxy looking for the specific mod that works for them."
This depth is entirely optional. One can simply play Mass Effect as a shooter if desired. It’s the same reason Mass Effect defies sticking to a hard sci-fi or soft sci-fi genre.
"This is the advantage of an interactive medium. When you read a book, everyone reads the same words. In a game, a player explores what interests them."
The overall theme of the Xbox Spring Showcase is clearly the promotion of Microsoft's motion-sensing Kinect hardware as a core component in gaming going forward. This is not limited to family oriented games – although there sure were a lot of them on display. The drive here is to incorporate blockbuster titles like Mass Effect 3.
In the hands-on time provided to media, a campaign that appeared to best showcase the Kinect's abilities was presented. Avoiding spoilers, it involved multiple instances of talking to non-player characters and commanding various party members. The most uncanny thing is that it actually worked, and it included no arbitrary hand-waving or gestures.
“Kinect didn’t change Mass Effect, it wasn’t planned at the outset”, stated Casey.
Naturally, there were some reservations for what they wanted to do. Casey smiled, “Voice is hard.”
However, Kinect bent to the will of the Mass Effect team. Voice recognition, in the demo provided, was uncanny. Suspicions of an otherwise novelty use were replaced swiftly with the realisation that the technology had actually been harnessed appropriately. Quick weapon switching through voice commands allowed weapons to be cycled, an action that would otherwise require intervention at a HUD level.
Likewise, team commands; specifically demanding covering fire, telling the AI to move to different locations and requesting different abilities to be utilised were all remarkably easy to manage. Similarly, in the usual dialogue selection screen, the dialogue can be simply spoken, adding a small RPG element to the game.
On one hand, Kinect made the game quicker to play. On the other, it allowed players to increasingly immerse themselves in the game, re-enforcing the core of the Mass Effect experience.
Said experience will be arriving on New Zealand shores on March 9.