It is safe to say that these are good days over at the BioWare offices in Edmonton.
The founders of the company are set to be inducted into the Academy of Interactive Sciences Hall of Fame, and have managed to get owners of a different console excited with the simple re-release of a year-old game. PlayStation 3 fans are looking forward to the release of Mass Effect 2 on their system, but the larger gaming world is looking even further, to the launch of the trilogy's final chapter, Mass Effect 3.
Details have been revealed and hinted at since Mass Effect 2 was released over a year ago, so for those fans who haven't kept glued to the internet for each and every update, we've gathered them here for your viewing pleasure. Hints and developers quotes are helpful, but viewing the franchise as a whole gives a fairly good idea of where the story is headed.
Those who have yet to finish the first two games be warned, there be spoilers ahead. In a game as large and open to player impact as Mass Effect, it's unlikely that the experiences of two players will be identical, but stop reading if you don't want the big story points ruined.
So without further ado, here are the facts, the rumors, and our hopes for what BioWare has in store for fans of science fiction and dialogue trees when Mass Effect 3 lands next November.
After discovering that all intelligent life in the galaxy was about to be eradicated by an artificial lifeform known only as The Reapers in Mass Effect, super-soldier Commander Shepard went on to sabotage their plan and rise through the ranks to become one of the biggest representatives of the human race. While the harbinger of the Reapers, a ship-sized being called Sovereign had been destroyed, his awakening of the massive Reaper horde on the edge of space was not stopped. The final moments of Mass Effect were not really climactic - more of a warning with Shepard stating that the real fight would continue now that the Reapers were making their way towards civilization.
Since Mass Effect 2 did little to advance this particular plot, fans couldn't have been blamed for feeling somewhat cheated (if they wanted a lot of plot-progression). Aside from endorsing a vast array of Citadel boutiques, Mass Effect 2 was essentially the personal story of Shepard looking out for human settlers whilst assembling a super-team from a variety of species. The VGA announcement trailer for Mass Effect 3 put off any notions that BioWare had forgotten about Shepard's foreboding warning at the end of ME, depicting Earth under full assault from the Reapers.
The narration reveals death tolls in the millions, and the game was leaked on EA's site with a description of what Shepard would have to do to stop the slaughter:
“Earth is burning. Striking from beyond known space, a race of terrifying machines have begun their destruction of the human race. As Commander Shepard, an Alliance Marine, your only hope for saving mankind is to rally the civilizations of the galaxy and launch one final mission to take back the Earth.”
The story is simple enough, but what does that mean in terms of actual missions? Those who played through the various recruitment and loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2 definitely noticed the departure from the classic RPG story of the first game. Where Mass Effect instituted the standard "prove yourself, prove yourself, and save the world" plot that has been used since role playing games thrived on paper and pens, ME2 changed things up with a more cinematic recruitment story.
So at first glance, skeptics may see ME3 as the developers sticking to the second game's formula, swapping out individual team members with alien councils and calling it a day. Not that it would result in anything less than a fantastically entertaining experience, but fans have come to expect bigger and better things with each installment.
The promising detail here is just what might be included in "rallying civilizations." If bringing allies together means venturing to several alien worlds, experiencing unique architecture and societies, then helping them with their own problems so they are able to assist Earth, then you have a game that sounds like it's taken the best parts of both titles and combined them.
For many players, the environments of the first game are one of the most memorable aspects. The images from the PS3 introduction comic are enough to take players right back to the locations being depicted.From the Geth-inhabited snow-scapes of Noveria, to the Geth-inhabited skyways of Feros, the developers showed off their artistic abilities to create fully-realized, fully-functioning environments.
For fans of the Mass Effect novels, traveling into the Migrant Fleet in Mass Effect 2 was a dream come true. Getting to walk into the massive armada that the Quarian race calls home was a step into another culture, and Mass Effect 3 could offer even more. While the Quarians live on ships, and the Krogans live in a tribal system amidst the ruins of their once-great civilization, players have yet to see the homeworld of the human-like society of the Turians.
One scene in ME2 hinted at the unique military and social interactions of the proud species, showing that there is plenty of potential for Shepard to run into characters just as strong and ruthless as himself - or herself:
Shepard's Turian crew member Garrus was one of the few considered important enough to be carried over to the second game, and getting a chance to see the honor-based society that claims military superiority over all other races, including humans, could break into whole new territories of awesomeness. It's strange to think that the game has steered clear from the Turian homeworld, since the feline race was the first extraterrestrial being mankind came into contact with.
There is no mistaking the fact that the Turians could offer the greatest challenge in terms of combat, having both weapons and battle tactics far more advanced than Shepard. Combine a far-more-challenging enemy with a planet that has yet to be seen or even mentioned, and it might just be the most compelling chapter in this story so far.
The clash of egos and weaponry of the two species led to the First Contact War, in which former crew member Ashley Williams' grandfather became the only human general ever to surrender to an alien race. The history between the two societies is a constant source of tension and conflict in the Mass Effect novels and the rarely-skimmed in-game codex, so don't be surprised if it becomes a major setting in ME3.
If Ashley rejoins the game - which would follow the trend established with the latest DLC - then we may have another Wrex-esque stand-off. Although, family tension may not be the only reason that Ashley may have a bone to pick.
The fact that Shepard has to gather allies to fight the Reapers on Earth implies a few things. First, that the game may employ the same ticking cl0ck mechanic as ME2 to decide human casualties. In ME2, the longer the player took to take on the Collectors the more of the Normandy's crew would be lost.
If the same mechanic is used to decide how many millions of casualties the Earth suffers, or if players can gamble on recruiting only certain allies in the interest of time, then BioWare once again opens up the floodgates for replay-ability and variable endings. Since the team is reportedly bringing 1,000 variables forward, Mass Effect 3 will hopefully be the most player-shaped title to date.
Mass Effect 3 director Casey Hudson stated how the third installment of the series would have a much lighter tone, and putting Shepard into situations with former lovers, condescending alien races, and more opportunities to explore the relationships between the team members assembled in ME2 would certainly do that. The Normandy's pilot, Joker, got more entertaining as his character was fleshed out. The exchanges between he and the ship's new AI were genuinely funny - so fans can expect the team to continue to build on these types of interactions.
One fact that has been overlooked is that, in the announcement trailer, a sniper seen perched in Big Ben takes aim at an unknown enemy attacking a woman and child. The one question that no one seems to be asking is: what kind of enemy could it be? The Reapers are the size of dreadnaughts, and the enemy being killed is certainly not a Collector - the henchmen of the Reapers.
The series so far has seen human beings being mutilated and brainwashed into Husks and Thorian Creepers, so perhaps the attacking Reapers have a way of turning Earthlings into beings that will attack their own kind. If that's the case, then ME3 could manage to be lighter in tone for a majority of the game, while still carrying some heavy plot points.
Anyone who played through the first two installments of the franchise is likely aware that the adjustments made to the combat and inventory systems are here to stay.
The fully-voiced dialogue system in the series has only gotten better since it was first implemented over the unvoiced system in BioWare's other RPG Dragon Age: Origins. The first looks we've had at Dragon Age 2 make it clear that the team is set on carrying that model forward, which means that in their eyes, Mass Effect has only gotten more successful.
The dialogue system is also being adopted for The Old Republic, but it isn't the only sign that the developers won't be bringing back the extensive inventory, upgrades, armor boosts, or looting that was present in the first game. While this may not be good news for RPG fans, the removal of extra features did lead to a far more successful and streamlined shooter.
Mass Effect 2's Lead Gameplay Designer Christina Norman was responsible for the moving of the game further into the shooter genre, and has given a hint at what the team is bringing to the table. Norman tweeted in March that her team was undertaking a new challenge for the game, but didn't go into any detail other than the codename:
"ME3 Trivia: Today I started work on "Project Wombat" for Mass Effect 3."
"Project Sasquatch" was the name used for the new ammo and inventory system introduced in Mass Effect 2, and while some RPG fans would argue that Norman is personally responsible for a large amount of content being removed from the series, the redesigned radial menu and attack orders were undeniably streamlined.
While the similarity in name may get some fans hoping that the inventory system will be making a return, it's just as likely that the small burrowing marsupial is the name of a new vehicle for fans to drive around - or through- alien worlds. If that is the case, we're all for the inclusion of more vehicles in any shape or form.
The biggest rumor surrounding the upcoming game is the presence of multiplayer. The speculation began when BioWare revealed that they were hiring multiplayer programmers in May, specifically for the Mass Effect franchise. The exact goal of the team was made clear in their description of the importance of multiplayer programming:
"We are working on Mass Effect, one of the industry’s most acclaimed and beloved franchises… Multiplayer programmers ensure the game engine and game systems work reliably and efficiently in a multiplayer environment. They… take existing single-player user experiences and make them multiplayer safe."
I know what you're thinking: how could this possibly be a rumor if the developer themselves made it clear that they were including multiplayer components in the series? The rumors were seemingly put to rest when a moderator on BioWare's forums made it clear that the series was a singleplayer experience, and there was nothing more to it.
Certainly a blunt dismissal, but one that must be taken with a grain of salt coming from a 'Volunteer Community Moderator.' Not to suggest that the information is false, but a figure from the development team has yet to state whether or not there will be a multiplayer component. The job posting leaves little to speculation, but there is a chance that the multiplayer aspects are under construction for future installments in the Mass Effect universe.
BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk previously stated that Commander Shepard's arc wouldn't be the only story told in the massive universe that the developers have created, so perhaps a squad-based or cooperative shooter is on the drawing board. At this point it is still completely unknown whether Mass Effect 3 will contain any multiplayer, so err on the side of caution. If one thing is for sure, it's that BioWare knows how to create worlds that are bigger than any one game, and the mix of weaponry, ammo types, and biotics would make the lack of a multiplayer Mass Effect title a real shame.
As for the differences between ME2 and ME3, we'll have our first idea of what direction the franchise is headed when PS3 fans get their hands on Mass Effect 2. Producer Jesse Houston made it clear that PlayStation fans would have an experience worth the wait when he revealed that the PS3 version of Mass Effect 2 had been built in the Mass Effect 3 engine.
What does that mean for the trilogy? Fans will have an idea of how the game will look and feel different from the previous two, and the adjustments they've made to the more faulty game mechanics (we're looking squarely at you, planet-scanning) will give a good idea of the changes in store for next November. BioWare knows how gamers played the game, and have a wealth of data on player choices to inform the development of ME3. Mass Effect 2 on PS3 should be a sign of just how much they've taken player feedback to heart.
That's all we know so far, but we can be sure that more details will continue to be released between now and the game's launch next year. As always, we'll do our best to keep you up to date on wombats, multiplayer, and much much more. These are the hints and details that we think give the clearest picture of the game BioWare has in store for their fans.
There may be just under a year left until we can get our hands on the game itself, but that also means we can spend more than a few months dreaming of what Mass Effect 3 could be, regardless of how the game turns out. If you think we've left anything out, or have some theories of your own on where Shepard will take us, fill us in. At this point, your guess is as good as ours.
Mass Effect 3 releases on the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC on November 8, 2011.