Welcome to part one of our roundtable interview with Mass Effect 2 Project Director Casey Hudson! With us and a few other journalists, Casey discussed a lot of what we can expect from Mass Effect 2, along with a few reflections on Mass Effect 1. Regarding the format, questions are in italics, and Casey’s answers are in plain text. With such a wealth of information, and in the interest of those with limited attention spans, the bold text represents, from our opinion, the more intriguing parts of what Casey had to say. However, it’s all great information, especially for fans of Mass Effect. Be sure and check out Part 2 and Part 3 as well.
Q) In what ways has combat substantially changed since Mass Effect?
A) We probably improved every single aspect of combat...To go through some of them, it really starts with the feel of combat, the way weapons feel in your hand and the way aiming feels. We really did a lot of work in the area, and fundamental to that is frame rate. On the first game we were trying to create a really ambitious universe and a non linear play style, [which made] it very difficult for us to find a final texture and memory budget and everything, but now that we have the first game that served as to what our final budget was, we were able to be a lot more strict about performance so that we could make sure we were always running at a smooth, fast frame rate, and that probably is one of the biggest things you will feel as a difference in combat...now it's so much smoother, it’s easier to control the characters, it’s easier to aim - it just feels really good because the frame rate's a lot faster. But we've also done a lot of work to the...camera and the aiming system. It's a lot easier, it feels a lot better as you’re zooming in and targeting enemies.
Related to that is the weapons. We still have a very much RPG style approach to weapons and items. You're buying things, you're selling them at the stores, you're upgrading and modding...The thing that I think people will find, you choose your weapons by feel because they each feel very different. We have more weapon classes in this game, and you start to choose your weapons just by how good they feel and what your preference is. [For example], with the pistol category, we have a hand canon, a heavier pistol, we have a sub machine gun, and you might really like the feel of a Desert Eagle-style heavy caliber pistol if you like one shot weapons...You might also like the feel of the sub machine gun where you can do a spray of many rounds and [you have] less accuracy, but more area damage. You feel these things, and that's one of the big things that people find when they're playing - they'll switch to a weapon, and they'll fire it, and they'll love [that] weapon. ...It's nothing we can put on a bullet point, but I think it's probably the biggest thing people will notice...it feels really good…
In Mass Effect 1, part of the problem with it-because the weapon was a skill, your character might have a low skill in a given weapon, and that means you as a player might be able to get the reticule on an enemy, but your character would be unable to hit them because a character has a low skill or the weapon is a poor weapon. We've moved those things onto different kinds of powers, and now the character is able to fire as well as you can, and that just really adds to the precision of the combat, but, at the same time, all the same depth is there in terms of your character progression. We put those things more into powers that really get to the...fulfillment of each class, so each class feels a lot [deeper] and more varied.
One of the favorites is Vanguard. As a Vanguard, you are good at shotguns and you have some Biotic powers. One of them is "charge," it's a new power where you can launch yourself across the level. You launch yourself using Biotic powers at a tremendous speed so you can physically hit another enemy and, when you do that, the higher end version of the power actually slows down time when you hit them, so they get launched into the air and then, in slow motion, you're right there with your shotgun...It creates this really high risk, high reward type of combat.
[It's] a very unique kind of play style, but then you have other kinds of classes like the Adept, [which] can essentially, remotely command the battle field. You're looking around at all the different enemies, and you're able to do Pull and Throw and all these amazing abilities, but, beyond that, we've advanced those powers so that when you do a power like Pull, it's not just something that pulls the enemies toward you, it's an actual projectile that you throw out into the world, and it guides towards the enemy and, depending on which angle you throw it, it'll yank that enemy in that direction. So, if you're on a bridge, you won't just pull the enemy towards you...you can yank them left or right on either side of the bridge. You can really control what you're doing and where people are going.
Soldiers, for example, you're able to have skill in all the weapons...and, unlike other characters, you've got the heavy weapons system, which basically replaces grenades from the first game, for some extra firepower...The solider also can do all the different weapon mods too, so you're freezing people solid, you're incinerating them...it's very much about the weapon experience.
...we've made a lot of improvements to the AI...If you command your squad up ahead, and there's an object in the way, they'll leap over it on their way to the enemy. There's a lot better use of cover between your squad, and the enemy, as well...
There's been some talk about whether or not we've added ammo to Mass Effect 2...Because we had, essentially, unlimited ammo is Mass Effect 1, it kind of took away some of the tension that there is in combat, that makes you consider your weapon use a little bit more. Without abandoning the idea of ammo, or of overheat, we had to create the concept of overheat into an ammo-style system. Your weapons overheat like they do in Mass Effect 1, but they overheat into cells that are part of a clip, and you can find these universal clips of thermal heat sinks. It's similar to an ammo system; it kind of limits the number of shots you can do before you run out of thermal heat sinks. There difference is, it's something that can add tension to combat without you actually having bullets that can be expended...As you run around the environment, you're picking up these thermal clips.
It kind of ties into the location system of damage that we've added. Now, headshots matter, you can shoot the limbs off of androids and mechs. Because these things really matter, and weapons are much better, the sniper rifle is a lot better, it's very smooth and very precise. So, now, if you draw your sniper rifle, you've got a limited number of rounds before you're gonna need to reload or get a new clip. Now you're starting to...consider combat a bit more, and get a bit more of the overall feel of it.
There's a lot of change, there's a lot of improvements, and each one of them is relatively minor. Much of the way you play combat in Mass Effect 2 is the same way you played in Mass Effect 1, but it just adds up to a revolution in the way that it feels and how much better it plays.
Q) From what this journalist saw at E3, Mass Effect 2, compared to the first, seems to be more skewed toward being a shooter and less of an RPG. Was this a natural evolution of the mechanics, or did your audience wish for more familiar gunplay, or was this directed by something else?
A) There's an assumption or a concern that if we make one part of the game better, or if there's more of a focus on one part of a game, there's less focus on another part of the game. I think people will find that all the different aspects of the game have had the same kind of attention. We consider the different pillars of Mass Effect to be things like, not just combat, but non-linear story progression, developing your character, and exploration. So being able to not only explore the populated places like the Citadel, but also the larger galaxy. All of those things actually have had numerous improvements that lead to a small revolution in each of those...
The thing we've been showing a lot is combat because that's something that, if we're at a trade show, you can line up kiosks and people can jump in and experience the improved combat gameplay. I think it's also the thing that people really wanted to see improved in Mass Effect, and maybe wouldn't have been able to believe that it had improved this much had we not shown it and brought it out and put it in people's hands. That's why we've been talking about it a lot. Even though it is a much better shooter in terms of the overall gameplay, that's just that color...the other ones have had the same level of improvement and treatment.
Q) In terms of a character's statistic development, are characters going to be locked into combat, biotic, and tech? For example, will we be able to take the game's equivalent of Ashley and make him or her good at tech, or take Mass Effect 2's Liara character and make him or her good at combat?
A) The classes are the same, so we still have Combat, Biotic and Tech as the basic disciplines, and then we have the three other classes that combine those in different ways. You'll also have characters that you meet that are from potentially any of those six classes. There is some cross over in the sense that, if you import a Mass Effect 1 character, you'll be able to re-choose certain aspects of your character creation. If you're a Vanguard, for example, you can continue as a Vanguard, or you can import your character and change your class and play through the beginning of Mass Effect 2 and see how you like that, and try out other ones. Also, as you progress, there are opportunities to become proficient at weapons [or powers] that your class wouldn't otherwise be able to use. Similarly, with your squad members, each of your squad members comes with special powers that really are unique to that character, so it's another way to get a little bit of a cross over beyond the three main categories and combinations.
Q) The inclusion of characters from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2 was done as previously mentioned both to continue the story and because of the fans liking some of these characters. Which of these characters were your favorite and least favorite?
A) ...the great thing about the way we do our cast of characters is that we try to make sure that they're all different from one another, and, to us, a success is if a character is loved and hated. Then, it presents a choice. If there are people that love a certain character, and other people hate that character, then we know that have a pretty unique character and it's kind of inspiring some controversy, or at least decision making as a player
I think the ones that were more universally liked were characters like Wrex, Garrus was kind of a surprise. [He's] a fairly laid back and cool, by the book guy. He wasn't necessarily someone we expected to be a standout, but he's pretty universally liked. Liara was well liked. Probably the most...debated character, as to whether people liked him or not, was Kaiden. I think a lot of people left Kaiden to die on the nuke decision on Virmire. I think that was an easy decision for a lot of people, between Kaiden and Ashley. As a character, there are a lot of people who loved Kaiden, and, as a love interest, I know there are a lot of people who have expressed a real interest in having Kaiden back...they really want to see Kaiden come back and be a part of the story.
The other one that was interesting was Tali. Tali is kind of an alternative character, she's an alien, she's mysterious, [you] can't really see what she looks like. At one point I think we were considering whether she should be a love interest in Mass Effect 1, and I remember people saying, "no, people [aren't] gonna wanna have a romance with a girl with chicken feet." But, chicken feet didn't really bother anyone. There was a lot of interest in Tali as a love interest, and Garrus as well. It's kind of a testament to how strong the individual acting ending up being, that people ending up looking at these alien characters that are quite different, and start to develop a relationship with them and like them enough that they would like to see a romance develop.