“Mass Effect’s inventory screenstill pains me to look at it,” says Norman of the first game’s fiddly and confusing equipment screen. “We needed to make a much better, much more awesome inventory but we needed to support up to twelve squad members plus Shepard. I spent a long time looking at various RPG inventory systems and I couldn’t find anything that would work. Nothing could handle that huge number of characters.
“So, we went with the squad inventory system. We changed it to a system which says ‘Tali you can use this shotgun’ and you don’t have to take it away from someone else. We do have an inventory but it’s just so simple some people say it’s not an inventory system. It fits better into our fiction where you can manufacture anything you need – it’s always been a little weird that you’re Commander Shepard with the most advanced spaceship in the galaxy out to save the world but he has to go and haggle to get a rifle for his crew.”
There were moans from forums about the inventory system but it was a triumph, especially if you got to really think about it. Mass Effect made you juggle hundreds of different pieces of equipment but did they really make any difference to the game? “We ended up with 19 weapons plus pre-order exclusive weapons,” says Norman. “Some people say ‘19 different weapons plus heavy weapons? That’s amazing! That’s so much variety compared to the first game where you basically had four weapons and other people say ‘no, Mass Effect had a thousand weapons!’ but really it didn’t, you know? In Mass Effect the level four version of one weapon feels the same as level five or six.”
Mass Effect 2’s weapons each have their own feel and identity which makes every gun unique. It’s something Norman puts down to tweaking hundreds of variables on each weapon and a system flexible enough to match any weapon in any other shooter. She suggested that if you can’t make Halo’s Battle Rifle using your weapon modelling systems then the system needs work. That’s not to say you should re-create Halo’s Battle Rifle, only that it should be an option, though you’ll find a lot of similarities between Gears of Wars’ Lancer and Hammerburst and Mass Effect’s new Assault Rifles. So is it fair to say that Mass Effect 2 does take the RPG out of Mass Effect? “It really comes down to how you define ‘RPG’,” says Hudson.
“If you define an RPG as a game where you equip your hero by sifting through an inventory of hundreds of miscellaneous items and spend hours fiddling with numerical statistics, then yes – those things were intentionally removed from the Mass Effect experience for the sequel. For me however, the best part of role-playing is being the character and that means never being pulled out of the immersion of the world to be reminded that you’re playing a game. In Mass Effect 2 we focused on what we love about RPGs – an awesome sense of exploration, intense combat, a deep and nonlinear story that’s affected by your actions, and rich customization of your armour, weapons, and appearance.”
Going into Mass Effect 2, BioWare were tracking 700 decisions made by players of the original game which could impact on the events of the new game; by the end of Mass Effect 2, that number is in the thousands. Spreading complex RPG decisions over three games was a mammoth task which only gets bigger with each new game and piece of DLC, but BioWare have ways to keep on top of it.
Casey Hudon explains: “We do plan out the larger plot points of the story from one game to the next, but it would be impossible to plan it all in advance. More importantly, we would never be able to plan as many fun and creative opportunities if we had to do it all up front. Instead, we record what a player has done in a playthrough, and then we have all of those choices available for writers to refer to as they build storylines. Many of the connections are made as we’re developing new storylines, and we find places where key characters can be ones from a previous storyline, or where the plot should work differently based on decisions you’ve made in the past.”
Your save file ticks boxes based on every major choice you make; some are almost certainly dead-ends BioWare will never touch upon again, while others became key points in Mass Effect 2. Whether you saved or sacrificed thecouncil, who you romanced, and whether you managed to keep Wrex alive are all landmark moments which define the experience of ME2.