Mass Effect was among the most important science-fiction works of the past few years. And Mass Effect 2 promises better alien worlds, more "alien love scenes," and a Blade Runner-inspired space station. Bioware's Casey Hudson gave us a misison briefing.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Hudson, Project Director for Mass Effect 2 (and former producer of Star Wars: The Old Republic) for half an hour, one-on-one, to talk about the new game. He told us about team-building, missions on alien worlds, and the new Blade Runner-inspired space station. (For more coverage of Mass Effect 2, check out the motherlode over at our sister site, Kotaku.)
So we understand that Shepard dies at the very beginning of Mass Effect 2, but is brought back? But then at the end of the second game, Shepard can die in a way that's permanent, and you can't bring your version of Shepard back in Mass Effect 3. What's the difference between those two deaths?
I don't want to give away too much about the beginning and exactly how it happens, but there's some debate as to whether Shepard actually is technically dead, or just in limbo or near death. But obviously Shepard is very badly injured or mortally inured, and Cerberus brings him back from either a state of death or near death. But what you experience in the ending is just the kind of thing where there's nothing to bring back. It's a lot more definitive.
There's not even a scrap left.
So you've said that the players will go into the last act knowing if Shepard's mission is likely to be a suicide mission or not. And that this mission is linked to the fate of the human race. Does the question of whether Shepard lives or dies tie in with whether the human race lives or dies?
I think it's more about the idea that the fate of humanity is tied in with this overall fight, which is what the trilogy story is about, and that if you want to finish that fight, then that story is told as we go into Mass Effect 3. And that's why you want to keep your character around. If you die in Mass Effect 2, then it's like you have done your part as this particular character, but it's up to the survivors to try and find a way. But you will never know how that story ends.
So let's talk about Cerberus, the organization that brings Shepard back from the dead, or from near death, at the start of the game. I understand its leader, the Illusive Man (Martin Sheen), is introduced in a tie-in novel where he's a bad guy. And Cerberus is a xenophobic, human-supremacist organization, right? So why is Shepard joining up with them?
I guess the experience of Mass Effect, in general, is about finding your own way of doing the right thing. It's always about doing what has to be done, but how do you go about it? And finding the agonizing choices, making scarifices between the different ways you can go about it. So it's not really about being good or evil, and then Cerberus ties in with that really well, because if ultimately the goal is to preserve life in the universe, Cerberus is pro-human, they will do whatever it requires. So they're good in that respect, but they re going to be brutal in their methods. So the Illusive Man really embodies that, and the fact that Cerberus was behind bringing back Shepard... that just makes it a little bit more that you're to listen to what they have to say. But at the same time, it's the fact that they have intelligence [about the threat to humanity], they have that next piece of information that you need. They may not even share everything they have. But you know the next piece of information they have, is the next thing you would want to investigate anyway. But it's a real back and forth, because you don't know if you want to trust them or not.
And it seems like trust issues are a huge theme in this new game in general, right? Shepard has to assemble a new squad to go after the missing humans, and has to earn their trust. And if you don't do a good enough job of ensuring their loyalty, then the squad members may betray you. How does the game measure the level of trust and loyalty among squad members?
Loyalty is a big enough aspect of the game that throughout the course of the game, you're really building up this team. You're making sure they're equipped, and making sure they're loyal, and building up your ship, and all of this is in preparation for final mission.
Because loyalty is such a big part of it, we actually do track whose loyalty you've earned. There's kind of a status grid. You can see which characters you've recruited, and which ones are loyal to you. But the thing that you do to gain their loyalty is different for every character, and it's part of their relationships with you. You might recruit a certain character that you may not know what they're about yet, but over the course of the game you're developing a relationship with them and talking to them... and they'll reveal whatever it is their unfinished business is, and the thing that they need to do before they can commit to your agenda. And once you learn what that is, it opens a mission where you go off and help them. So because it really is their story, it gives us the opportunity to do two things. One of them is that it allows you to tell interesting and more personal stories than you otherwise would. You're learning about the Mass Effect Universe and you're learning about the characters. And the other thing it does, is it allows all of these loyalty missions to tie back into the core story... it's a very personal story with the character, but that personal story earns their loyalty, and that's why they'll perform better for you in the final mission.
So you've mentioned that all of the squad members from the first game turn up in the new game, and Shepard tries to recruit them for this mission. Some of them are interested, others aren't. Is this like a Blues Brothers thing?
I'll have to watch that again. Don't they drive a car through a mall in that? That'll be in Mass Effect 3.
I think a lot of what we try to do is really make use of the characters people love from the first game, so we bring them back. But we also want to bring back the experience of discovering new people and new places. That's why we introduce a lot of new characters. And it's also the fact that in the end, these people are going to be going on a suicide mission with you, and it's quite likely that a lot of them are going to be killed. A lot of people are going to emerge from Mass Effect 2 with a lot of dead squad members, and it's actually very hard to keep your entire squad alive. That's one of the reasons why we have a bigger team, 10 characters instead of six. Some of the characters play an important story role but are not recruitable [for the squad].
Right. And I read one thing online where you said love interests in the game are not recruitable for this mission. Why is that?
The Mass Effect 1 love interests aren't. So that's Liara, Kaiden and Ashley. They're in the story but they don't join the team for that reason. Some people are worried that we don't care about those characters, but it's actually the opposite. We care about them so much that we want to make sure they survive this suicide mission.
So Shepard is on a mission to save humans, on behalf of a human supremacist organization. But it seems like his new squad is once again going to include a number of alien members. What's up with that? What can you tell us about these new characters?
A good portion of [the squad members] are alien. I think we were more free to do aliens [this time] because the first game was a little bit of an experiment, to see if we could imbue an alien, with very different anatomy, with very human emotion. So that's something we were very cautious about. But it succeeded so well that we got feedback that people wanted romance options with our alien characters. So they obviously were hitting a very compelling emotional level. We've got some more aliens. We've got Grunt, who's a krogan like Wrex was, Mordin is a Salarian, Thane is a new species. We introduced Thane with the goal of creating a new alien species for you to learn about, but also wanted a potential love interest. [So we designed] a new alien who had to be aesthetically pleasing, but also in the spirit of his character who is a stealthy cool assassin.
You've mentioned there'll be more alien love scenes in this game.
There will always be alien love scenes.
I know the first game caused some controversy and got banned in Singapore.
Actually, in Singapore, I'm guessing they were reacting to online rumors. There was initially a ban that was immediately lifted. And the stuff with Fox News... None of those people had actually seen what was in the game. What we do respond to is people who play our games is give us their feedback. And everyone who's played it, all the feedback we've had has been really positive about the role of the love interests. We look at it as making a PG-13 acition movie. There's action-adventure, a really cool story, witty dialogue, and there's also a love interest because it helps to get a more human emotional interest in why you're doing things in the story.
How do movies like Avatar influence the way you portray romance with aliens?
I think people who play Mass Effect games... in a way there's something there that no movie can really rival. When you personally chose a character you want to talk to. Especially in Mass Effect 2, when you choose a character out of a larger group. In Mass Effect 1 you have one or two options [of who to talk to], but in Mass Effect 2 you have a few characters you can talk to and several of them can turn into romantic relationship. So in the fact that you choose a character to interact with, and there's a back and forth there. You have to keep interacting with a character. It's not something you press a button [and a romance happens]. It's something you play over 20 or 30 hours, and late in that story is the development of this relationship into a romance. It's the little surprises and the flirting and the twists and turns that you, in a tactile way, are developing.
We love the idea that the weapons in the game have heat sinks this time around. How does that work?
We wanted to capture two things with the combat in Mass Effect 2, in terms of the weapons. One of them was... being really precise and really fluid, what you expect from the best shooters in the world. We also wanted to add some of the tension you get from consideration of ammo and rounds and whatever... We've got location-based damage now, we've got headshots. You can shoot [the enemy]'s arm off, you can shoot in the knee. If you've got infinite rounds, why not just spray the enemy? But if you've got one round left on your sniper rifle, you want to go for a head shot, so there's a reward for making that happen. So it just adds a really wonderful tension.
But we wanted to keep it in line with the fiction of Mass Effect, in Mass Effect 1, you're shooting these projectiles at near light speed, but to do that it generates a tremendous amount of heat. So you have to control the heat of your weapon. If you overheat, you're stuck with an overheated weapon for 10 seconds in the middle of a fight, which is not that fun. So we converted that [in the new game], so instead of overheating a weapon, you overheat a heat sink, and prior to that happening, you can pop out your heat sink and put in a new one and then you're back in the fight. It ends up being in line with the fiction, but allows us to have that tension of having ammo. The other good thing about it is, it's not universal. In games that have universal ammo, if you run out of ammo in one weapon, then all your weapons are gone. In this game, each weapon still takes heat sinks, they're kind of loaded with their own set of heat sinks... Therefore, if you're running around with your favorite sniper rifle and you run out, you can still switch to your assault rifle, or whatever it is you're carrying. It causes you to realize, "Whoa, I'm a little bit more up against the wall here because I'm out of rounds with my favorite weapon. So I'll switch to this and switch my tactics." It also causes you to explore other weapons.
You told our sister Kotaku that Mass Effect keeps the character-focused storyline, role-playing and scifi aspects, but plays up the shooter aspects of the game more, to appeal to people who like Gears Of War or Modern Warfare. How does that affect the storytelling?
I think the assumption is that there's a sliding spectrum between RPG and shooter. But the reality is, you think about four quadrants of a graph... In a Mass Effect game, you've got the quadrant that's combat, third-person shooter combat. But then you've also got the quadrant that's progression of character and developing the skills and so on. And the quadrant of exploring or going off into space. And then of course you've got this non-linear story. So we don't have to move a slider over from RPG to shooter... We just to look at that [third-person shooter] part of the game and make sure if you've been playing Gears Of War, if you've been playing Modern Warfare, and then you jump in and you experience the shooter combat in Mass Effect 2, you can say this is up there with those other games. But that doesn't change the fact that it's still one of the four key pillars, and the balance doesn't change.
Arguably, every game has story, but to me, if something isn't interactive, if you can't change it, then it's not really there [as part of the game] It's not really a gameplay component if the story is just there. Whereas if the story is a gameplay component, then that is a pillar of the game, which it is in Mass Effect 2. You're playing the story. You're saying "I want the story to go this way, or I want things to change that way."
Producer Adrien Cho told the Guardian that one of the worlds you visit in Mass Effect 2 is a space station called Omega, which is designed to resemble a 1980s Ridley Scott movie, especially Blade Runner. Can you tell me more about that?
We always have the risk of artist's block or something. When we start a new game we have to come up with a new idea for an amazing location. That's usually the starting point. We go to a place, a new station, and it has to be amazing. And that's hard. You look at a blank page and have to do that. So one of the directions I gave was that we have the Citadel, the Citadel is very Mass Effect, and this is the opposite of the Citadel. And so you can think a lot of what it is and what it's made of, in Citadel terms. So the Citadel is very horizontal. It's very flat and city-like. Whereas Omega is very much like a tower. It's very vertical. You can look out and see forever up, and forever down. The Citadel is very sleek and blue, with cool colors, it's very idyllic. Omega is very industrial, it's warm colors, it's fiery, it's crime and sin and gangs. There's absolutely no law. It's all the fun of taking you to a place that's like the Citadel, in that it's fun and you know what to expect from it. And yet it's the absolute opposite.
You've mentioned this game will have richer and more diverse Uncharted World locations. Does that mean the planetary exploration this time around is going to be more in depth, with more variety of environments?
What we did is, we looked at the Uncharted Worlds from the last game — [we received] a lot of feedback that people wanted to see them improved. I don't think people saw them as what they were, as a value add. They saw it as part of the main game, and they wanted to have the same kind of richness as the main game, and so we thought well... one thought was, do we need them? Is that part of the Mass Effect experience? Maybe people just don't want them. We listen to every bit of feedback we get, but we also interpret it and try and figure out what's really behind it. What we thought was really behind it was that... people [actually] loved that fantasy as part of the Mass Effect experience. You've got a ship. You should be able to go across the galaxy and find a star and a planet and something to do there. So we kind of redesigned our approach to it, so we could capture that fantasy a lot better. So we took all the mundane mining and stuff like that, and we put that into a new orbital minigame, that's actually really cool and addictive. And so you get that resource-gathering. And that's actually how you find specific locations on a planet, and find that point where you can land.
And that opens up what we call an N-7 mission. You can send down space probes and recover certain things... but an N7 mission is where only Shepard can go down and investigate, and we've designed every N-7 mission with the idea that it has to be something special. It has to be something that gives you a unique story experience or gameplay experience you can't get anywhere else. By designing them with that idea, it means when you go to planets, they actually do have that fantasy of the wonderful things you discover out in space.
We read that powers will be more class-based this time around – will there be more stuff that an Adept or an Engineer can do that will further the story in ways other classes couldn't?
The classes are more varied. They are more distinct. Whereas before, we had a long list of potential skills that everyone can get, and some of the classes had some that others didn't. But now it is very much that each class has a set of skills that are very unique. Some of them are shared, but a lot of them are unique to that class. So it does create a very different experience.
So in this game, an insectoid race called the Collectors turn out to be involved with the missing humans. Are they the main antagonist this time around, or just a sideshow?
That's part of the mystery that Shepard has to figure out, because humans are going missing and being abducted all over the galaxy, and the collectors are obviously behind it. But to what degree and why and how it ties in with the overall threat of the Reapers, that's [the larger mystery].
How does an insectoid race like the Collectors behave differently than the Geth?
I think the fact that the Geth were machine-like [meant] there was a little more order to the way they moved and they way they operated. There is a scarier aspect to the Collectors, because they're more insect-like. The way they operate, they way they abduct humans, is more creepy. It involves hives... and is just a lot scarier to deal with. And ultimately insects, it's so much harder to map on an emotional level — even compared to the Geth, who always seemed benevolent in some way. The Collectors are much more evil.