In-depth: Everything we know so far about the next Mass Effect
As 2012 was nearing its end, Mass Effect fans were still knee deep in the newly released (relatively speaking) Mass Effect 3. The ending game to the sci-fi opera trilogy was released in March of that year to much critical and fan acclaim, though backlash from its fans regarding its ending was admittedly quite vocal and widespread. With a new generation upon us, a new Mass Effect game is well into full production. As I scour the net for clues, follow every BioWare developer on Twitter as I can, I’m allowed to say I anticipate every morsel of information I can get on the game. With that, let’s take an in-depth look at everything we know so far about the next hotly anticipated game in this quality franchise.
In late August 2012, fans were fresh off the release of new content for Mass Effect 3. Called “Leviathan”, the DLC delved into the past and origins of the Reapers. Fast forward to Sept. 18 however, and we were dealt a most welcome announcement. In an official blog post, general manager of BioWare Aaryn Flynn confirmed that executive producer Casey Hudson and his teams had plans for a new game set in the Mass Effect universe that were already under way.
“But the Mass Effect universe is vast, and Casey and our teams have plans for another full game. “Where to go next?” with such a project has been a question a lot of us have been asking, and we’d all love to hear your ideas,” he said.
This was our very first statement regarding anything on a new Mass Effect game. It was quite an exciting time for fans, and being a Mass Effect junkie myself, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t need a fresh pair of shorts that day.
Commander Shepard is no more
Exactly one month later, BioWare Montreal producer Fabrice Condominas officially killed any idea that the new game would see a return of Commander Shepard, saying:
“There is one thing we are absolutely sure of—there will be no more Shepard, and the trilogy is over.”
Condominas continued to stress the universe and world of Mass Effect is indeed a rich one. Making a Shepard clone was not in the cards it seemed.
“This is really our starting point. Now the Mass Effect universe is vast, and very, very rich. So at this point in time, we don’t even know what kind of time frame we’re going to be in. All we’re doing is more gathering ideas from the teams, gathering feedback to see several things.”
“So first, we don’t want to make ‘Shepard 2′, or Mass Effect 4 with like, ‘oh there’s no more Shepard but you’re a soldier in the universe’. So this will be a very, very different context for sure, and nothing has been decided on the rest.”
A fresh and new experience
Almost six months later, a retrospective Mass Effect panel was held at PAX East in Boston on March 23, 2013. The panel was in tribute to the recently concluded trilogy, which also happened to give out miniscule details on the new game.
“We are starting to get ready to develop another Mass Effect game, and it’s going to be a new thing,” shared executive producer Casey Hudson. “We want to be able to give fans an opportunity to get back into the world with these things you’ve come to know and love about the Mass Effect experience but start something fresh and new—a new way for you to explore the whole universe in Mass Effect.”
Powered by the beautiful Frostbite 3
Obviously games in development are each powered by an engine that gives developers the tools to render what you see onscreen. The decision on what engine to use is made fairly early on in games development, and Mass Effect is no exception. With EA positioning Frostbite 3 as its flagship engine for its internal studios, making that a choice for the new game wasn’t exactly a startling revelation. It was nice to have a confirmation nonetheless thanks to general manager Aaryn Flynn.
The minimum that we can gather from this is that the thing is going to look downright gorgeous. Frostbite 3 is quite the capable engine (as seen here in a Battlefield 4 tech demo). Expect incredibly detailed characters as is typical in Bioware games, beautiful lighting and particle effects, and the capacity for large open-ended worlds.
Possibilities are discussed: Potentially play as Garrus? The Illusive Man? C-Sec investigating? Oh my!
Fresh opportunities are always at the forefront in the minds of developers when they’re starting fresh on a new game in a known IP. In May 2013, Official Xbox Magazine sat down with the folks at BioWare to discuss what direction the new game might take, including potential protagonists.
“There’s so much that could be told in the Mass Effect universe,” Hudson said. “It’d be cool to do something completely unrelated to the larger storyline, like a story about a private investigator on the Citadel. Or maybe something detailing Garrus’ time in C-Sec.”
Level designer Dusty Everman was also rooting for our popular avian-like squaddie:
“While being one of Shepard’s most loyal friends, Garrus has also had some of the most driven personal goals. He’s a hero in his own right, as Archangel and beyond. Who wouldn’t want to see the further adventures of the bold, charming Garrus Valkarian (there’s a lot of guns out there to calibrate).”
For his part, however, lead designer Preston Watamaniuk felt that,
“a game centered on brutal Krogan combat with more of a melee focus could be pretty exciting. I’m sure Grunt would be up for it.”
Lead writer Mac Walters was a little more conflicted:
“Aria. The Illusive Man. Kai Leng. Any henchman. The list goes on. I think most of them could have successful spin-offs of their own in some fashion.”
Finally, producer Michael Gamble felt like our lonely surviving Prothean friend could use some time in the spotlight, saying,
“Following the story of Javik a little bit more would be pretty cool. As the last remaining member of a lost race, I think that we could tell a lot of stories about his adventures in the Milky Way, and coming to terms with his place in the new Galaxy.”
What can a debut trailer reveal?
In the following month, studio director Yanick Roy had a question for fans:
‘When the game takes places (as in time period’) and ‘who the main protagonist is‘ were the two biggest requests received, Roy later noted. One thing we can extrapolate from this is that the debut trailer will likely reveal these two features of the game, and that’s not too surprising, as they’re two of the most important aspects of the game after all. Fans and the gaming media have been having conversations on whether it will indeed be a sequel or prequel. Given the story of Shepard has ended, a sequel wouldn’t be a ‘sequel’ in the official sense, but it would carry on in a period after the war with the Reapers.
Retaining likeness with previous games
In the same conversation, Roy also confirmed that the new game would indeed play in the same vein as the previous trilogy.
So we know for sure that it’ll play like the past games. It’ll be a third person shooter with exploration, RPG mechanics, dialogue systems, etc. Phew! What, you guys didn’t think they’d actually go through with that dating sim thing did you?
Same-sex romantic relationships
There was one last thing that was commented on before finishing the conversation. A series fan asked the studio director if same-sex relationships with other characters would still be in the new game in the same vein as the trilogy. No need to fret, said Roy:
A Gears of War producer joins the team
In a surprising tweet, former producer on Gears of War 3 and Gears of War: Judgment Chris Wynn announced that he had entered the fray as senior development director on the new game.
Looking back on it now, my immediate reaction would have been to question where the new game will go gameplay wise. However, a producer’s job is to bring together multiple facets of the various teams in the studio, coordinate effectively between them, manage budgets, and oversee overall efficiency. While a knee-jerk reaction, thinking the high octane, heavy action gameplay from the Gears of War series would now become meat and potatoes of this new Mass Effect isn’t too unreasonable, but there’s no need to worry. Developers are adaptive and their ways of thinking can change from game to game. The Gears of War games were excellent in their own right and are among my favorite of the last generation, but the essence of what makes Mass Effect the series that it is are the deep characters, wonderful lore, and allure of the open galaxy.
A milestone is reached
We first started hearing of BioWare devs playing around in the new game a few months later in September. As always, producer Casey Hudson was happy to talk of the progress they’ve made:
So progress was coming along well. Being able to finally go into the game engine and run around in the world is an accomplishment, and things were heating up. Games in development routinely have ‘milestone reviews’. These reviews help establish the direction the game is taking and ensuring everything is on track to continue moving forward. Once again Hudson took to Twitter to give just a little tease.
Mass Effect-y indeed! In just under a year after it was first announced, substantial progress was being made on a consistent basis. Exciting!
Shepard’s story may not even be referenced at all
Be prepared to say goodbye to all your old pals and escapades as Shepard, according to lead writer Mac Walters. In an interview with Complex, any hopes to see Commander Shepard’s story or events surrounding him or her to be even touched upon are quick to be dashed.
“Well, I can’t get into details, but the idea is that we have agreed to tell a story that doesn’t relate necessarily to any of the Shepard events at all, whatsoever”, explained Walters.
“That’s what we’ve been deciding for a while. But throughout it all, one of the key things is that it has to be Mass Effect. It can’t just feel like a spin-off. It has to feel like a Mass Effect game at its heart, at its core. Just without the Shepard character or the Shepard specific companions.”
Our first glimpses into the new world
With N7 day just around the corner, eager fans were salivating at any chance to get any snippet of information on the next game. Boy did BioWare deliver on that one! On Nov. 7, 2013, a slew of cryptic Mass Effect tweets were released to fans around the world. Let’s analyze them piece by piece.
The first to be tweeted was by producer Michael Gamble. “The next chapter of Mass Effect is upon us!!” he exclaimed to the picture seen here:
First thing’s first, what’s that in his hands? An Xbox 360 controller eh? Obviously our first thought would be to assume the game would at least be released on the Xbox 360 right? Not quite. We should note at the moment of publication of the tweet, the PC drivers for the Xbox One controller weren’t quite ready yet, and the 360 controller is the default when testing on PC units.
What seems apparent to me is that he is looking at the screen on the right, however, the image is cut off just enough to the point of obscurity. So what of the left? It becomes clear that the picture is in fact concept art, a desktop wallpaper. We can see a humanoid character standing in the center of the screen on what looks to be a command center or holodeck-like room. Peering out to the horizon, we see a dreary brown desert landscape, complete with dunes and hills. Could it possibly be one of the new planets we’ll get to land on in the new game?
The next tweet is a lot more exciting. Sent out by our good chap Yanick Roy, it shows a developer working on some interesting concepts. “…with new characters to fall in love with…”, it reads.
On the left, we see 4 drawings of what appear to some type of hand-cannon. This is quite the reveal. Previous games in the series all featured your standard assault rifles, shotguns, pistols, etc. What these drawings showcase are new types of offensive weaponry. Each has a different form in the image. Perhaps we’ll get multiple types and be able to upgrade and customize these blasters to fit our gameplay styles. On the right, we can see a character that looks to be a human in a suit of armor. Is it our protagonist? Maybe…maybe not. The suit somewhat resembles Cerberus battle armor, but that’s pure speculation.
We got another exciting one here! Tweeted out by level designer Gary Stewart, we catch a look into another environment.
Obviously another piece of concept art, we can use it to deduce some more snippets of information. You can see human figures walking near the bottom. The two in the front appear to be soldiers of some kind walking in water. The world appears dank and gloomy. However, something stands out with the one in the back. Notice the blue silhouette on his/her back? A little reminiscent of human husks wouldn’t you say? The character’s walk also seems strange compared to the two in front. It might be my imagination, but it almost looks like there’s an arch in the neck, with the arms clenched as if it were some form of zombie creature. It could very well just be another marine.
What does capture the eye right away in the larger part of the image is the tall structure in the center. Fungi-like in nature, it spirals upward in an almost insectoid manner. It even resembles a Reaper spire artifact as seen in previous games in the original trilogy. Does it have anything to do with the Reapers? Given the new game will reference nothing from past games, and given the fact the Reaper war is over, I’d say the chance of it being anything of Reaper origin is unlikely. Right, on to the next one!
The next picture isn’t huge on the details, but we can at least determine facts about the setting. “…and new worlds to explore!” was tweeted by gameplay designer Manveer Heir.
We can tell it’s dark (no way!). A nightly stroll near a rocky outcrop? Massive rock structures dart the land in this piece of concept art. A part of a planet can also be gleaned from the background sky. Obviously this is a planet we’ll be able to land on, as detailed art like this isn’t made for nothing. What planet is this? Who calls it home? What’s our mission there? All unanswered questions at this point!
Thought we were done? Not yet folks. Sent out by lead designer Ian Frazier, we get to see an old friend! Poor Mako…I do miss that floaty and…err, unweildy bugger. It’s the note that went along with the image that caught my attention though.
“…so we can draw inspiration for the future,”. Is that a hint?
That’s a Mako alright, but what does it mean? Drawing inspiration for the future game from past games, in this case, the Mako, indicates an intention to return to the more fleshed out exploration aspect of the original Mass Effect. In the previous trilogy, fans were a little dismayed at the limited scope of discovery and exploration in Mass Effect 2 and 3. Does signal a possibility of actually landed on planets, taking a vehicle for a ride and heading out into the unknown? Anything’s possible at this point, and frankly I’m out of my seat with excitement. I missed the ability to explore ancient ruins, abandoned military outposts, barren wastelands and tundras.
A fitting end to the series of tweets came by way of none other than Casey Hudson. We didn’t get a specific image to look over and analyze, but rather an overview shot of the studio at work (thanks everyone!).
“We continue working hard to create amazing new Mass Effect experiences for you. Happy N7 Day everyone!,” it read.
Alright, if I had the vision of a hawk, I might be able to discern exactly what’s on screen on the monitors in the back, but I’m no miracle worker here. What’s obvious right away is a menu shot there on the middle screen. Look familiar? That’s because it is. It shows the customization screen from Mass Effect 3‘s multiplayer mode. What does that tell us exactly? What’s most likely happening here are designers using the multiplayer from Mass Effect 3 as a reference point and building on to it. We’ll see large changes and updates for sure, but it’s clear that it’ll be a starting point for the next Mass Effect‘s multiplayer. We also know the new game will continue to implement the same post-release DLC as previous games, as noted in a job listing by BioWare.
I quite enjoyed the multiplayer myself so this is most welcome news.
Leaked information from a private fan panel
Here’s where things get interesting. In the deepest corners of the internet, on an obscure forum that has relatively low traffic, a very, very intriguing post was made. A few weeks before PAX East earlier this year, BioWare sent out invites to Mass Effect fans who wanted to see a little something fresh at the expo behind closed doors. Non-disclosure agreements were signed and things were kept hush-hush. I would know as I was actually sent one of these invites myself. The post was killed shortly after being posted, likely by a cease and desist order from EA. Why else would a random post on a small random site detailing what was seen at this gathering be nuked? Because it was most likely true information.
A brave soul who attended this panel decided to let the whole world in on what he/she saw (thanks for that whoever you are)! Here’s what we learned:
- The panel opened up with a question from BioWare: “What does N7 mean to you?”
- They next asked if fans would like to see a sequel, prequel, or something else. The majority agreed a sequel was in order
- Two new species were demonstrated. One was described as an “arrogant” race. Thin and skeletal in nature, they possess glowing eyes and necks that “frilled up from their chest”
- The second was described as an “ancient, advanced, guardian” race. They looked very synthetic and resembled sci-fi rock golems with glowing lines over their bodies that looked like something out of Tron. Floating fragments also dotted around their body that itself had a color scheme similar to the Reapers
- Multiple species were shown rendered in Frostbite 3: Asari, Salarian, Human, and Krogan
- They intend to bring out uniqueness in model variety in the other species as they do with humans, giving them unique and diverse body and bone structure
- Next, a lineup of the series’ standard main races was shown. Fans were then asked what two races they would get rid if they were forced to, with the majority picking Quarians and Krogan
- Multiple human armor configurations were then shown, and fans were asked what they deemed to be the most iconic.
- Numerous land vehicles shown
- Intention to focus heavily on characters and choices and the idea to bring back the focus on exploration and discovery, with a goal to bring back the feeling of being “a stranger in a strange like Mass Effect 1″
- Various head configurations of Krogans shown with different face plating on the forehead, jaw line, and chin.
- Desire to implement large amounts of customizable armor, down to different individual pieces, colors, textures, materials, etc
- Experimentation with having a type of “debugging menu” in the game for picking plot flags when making a save file. This is so you can have the exact file you want without having to do another long playthrough
More news coming next year
And that about wraps up everything we “know” about the next Mass Effect game at this point. When pressed for more last week, general manager Aaryn Flynn shot down any hopes of hearing or seeing more soon on Twitter.
This doesn’t come as a surprise really. Having just recently released a series of teaser photos last month, the chances of seeing even more new media of the game are slim to none. That leads me to my little points of speculation though!
Speculation: How and when we’ll see more
2014 is no doubt a huge year for BioWare. The release of Dragon Age Inquisition happens in the fall, and we’ll start seeing marketing for it ratchet up intensely as launch closes in thanks to EA’s coffers. Work on their new IP (helmed by Casey Hudson’s team) is well under way, and new information and media on the next Mass Effect will start trickling out. Let’s take a look at previous announcement to launch schedules and see if we can extrapolate from there.
The original Mass Effect was formally announced in October 2005 and launched in November 2007. With Mass Effect 2, the very first details were revealed in March 2009 at GDC, with a release in January 2010. Finally, Mass Effect 3 was revealed at the Spike Video Game Awards in December 2010. The game then saw an information blowout via Game Informer the following May, with a gameplay debut at E3 2011. It was released in March 2012.
So let’s recap where we’re at with this one. It was formally announced last September. Fans were then asked what sort of information they’d like to see in a debut trailer in June of this year. Lastly, we were witness to the first teaser images of the game last month.
What events could possibly harbor new information? Quite a few in fact. As Aaryn Flynn noted, some time in 2014 is when we can expect more. Coincidentally, GDC 2014 is right around the corner in March. With Mass Effect 2 first revealed at GDC in 2009, it’s certainly a possibility to finally get more info there in a few months. I don’t feel that we’ll get more details on things related to the main character or story, but rather on the game’s engine tools, levels, environments, developer techniques, etc. The Game Developer’s Conference is mostly used by various studios to showcase technical aspects of their games as well as hold panels for up and coming developers.
As Yanick Roy asked earlier in the summer, details on the main character, setting of the game, etc will most likely be revealed in an official debut trailer. Fitting. The perfect place to finally blow the lid on it? E3 2014 of course.
So, here’s my projected outlook on what we’ll get:
- March 2014: First details on the technical side of things at GDC
- June 2014: Debut trailer at E3 2014
- Late 2014/early 2015: Gameplay videos and other media start getting released
- Spring 2015 or Fall 2015: Release
The release date prediction varies wildly as I don’t feel confident to really pinpoint an exact time. By Spring 2015, the game would be about 27-30 months in full development. Plenty of time considering the relative ease of use of the new Frostbite 3 engine. BioWare may feel they really need to make a huge splash with the first debut of Mass Effect on next generation consoles and call for even more time that results in a nicely polished game in the fall.
Whatever the case may be, it’s finally comforting to say we can expect more detailed information soon. The original was my top game of the last generation and left an impact on me and showed me what kind of experiences games can deliver. I can’t wait to see where the next one takes us.