Co-op effect

Mass Effect 3

So it’s finally official, Mass Effect 3 is to include a multiplayer mode. When the news first broke yesterday, no one quite knew what the details of this mode and naturally the fears of a compromised single player campaign floated to the top of the internet. After all, it has been said that ME3 will be the most accessible for newcomers or a wider gaming audience and tacking on a multiplayer mode would certainly help this. But before things got out of hand, BioWare forum aficionado Chris Priestly posted on the official site that the multiplayer component will actually be a co-operative mode, mostly separate from the campaign. I say mostly because, as Priestly stresses, the new addition is designed to compliment the campaign not withhold content to solo only players. The better you do in co-op, the higher Commander Shepard’s ‘galactic readiness’ stats go up but you can just as easily do this on your own in the campaign.

Good news then. If you want Mass Effect 3 to be a one player only game then you can have just that. And the development hasn’t been affected either. A new studio was formed in Montreal to take care of all things multiplayer while the folks at Edmonton got on with the main game. Remember that infamous job posting from June last year? This is the result.

The co-op mode will allow up to four players to, well, all that’s been said so far is fight in what’s being called the Galaxy at War System, influencing Shepard’s stats as they do so. Sounds like it could very well be a horde equivalent which would fit within the concept of Mass Effect. And if it is to be as minimally intrusive to single player as BioWare promises, a horde mode that doesn’t necessarily need much narrative feels right. What the co-op will also do is introduce a brand new set of characters to develop because Shepard is exclusive to the campaign and his story ends with Mass Effect 3. But the franchise will not. Bringing in new characters that players can directly interact with is a great way of bridging future Shepard-less titles. And why no deathmatch or usual multiplayer modes? Because that would be stupid.

More details will be coming soon but at least the will they won’t they saga of Mass Effect‘s multiplayer has come to an end that shouldn’t be offensive to anyone. Well, here’s hoping.

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Shepard’s last hurrah

You’d best say your goodbyes to Commander Shepard next March as Mass Effect 3 will be his last appearance in a video game. BioWare ceo Ray Mazuka was asked as this year’s Gamescom by PC Gamer whether Mass Effect 3 will be the last game set in that universe. Echoing comments from previous interviews, Mazuka once again confirmed the company’s desire to further the fiction and world they so painstakingly created:

“We have ambitious plans to continue this franchise going forward. Mass Effect 3 is simultaneously a couple of different things; a thrilling and epic conclusion to the trilogy as we promised our fans we’d provide for Commander Shepard, but it’s also a brand new beginning – it’s an entry point for new fans and it’s also a brand new beginning.”

When asked if Shepard would appear in any more Mass Effect games, producer Michael Gamble said how ME3 will complete the Commander’s storyline and therefore will not be making a comeback.

With the level of detail put into the first two games, following one Commander and their loyal team is just a tiny part of a much larger story. Sure, whether Shepard succeeds or not has greater consequences on the universe as a whole but, like Star Wars, the lesser characters are equally if not more interesting than the one in charge. The loyalty missions from Mass Effect 2 and the franchise’s extensive codex scratch the surface on a vast number of species and personalities all ripe expanding on in someway. I’m curious to find out just how the third game in series can successfully draw in a large number of newcomers but it’s something both BioWare and EA have said a few times now so there’s something going on and I doubt it’s just the optional Kinect features revealed at E3.

Could this latest statement from BioWare add a little more credence to the rumours of a multiplayer co-op shooter set in the universe? It’s been lingering for some time now and was expected to be announced at last year’s Spike VGA’s but never showed up. Some claim it’s an additional mode in Mass Effect 3 whereas others say it’ll be a standalone product. I think it’s safe to say that no one really has any idea. Other than BioWare. And EA. So a couple of people then…

Chronicling success

Currently taking two-thirds of the world by storm at the moment is JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii. I say two-thirds because for some reason, despite claiming they’re still all about the hardcore, Nintendo have been reluctant to release the game in the US. WIth internet campaigns and petitions doing the rounds, American Wii gamers received a slither of hope when region president Reggie Fils-Aime said the company are looking closely at the European sales of Xenoblade Chronicles to gauge whether or not they will listen to the thousands of voices all shouting for it to be released stateside.

Last Friday saw the debut of Xenoblade Chronicles and online retailer ShopTo.net revealed that demand was so high, they were unable to fulfil all the orders straight away with stock supplies running low. That certainly bodes well for the US. Now, after the first weekend of sales, the all format chart for the week ending 20th August shows the massive RPG came in at a respectable number seven (via GamePro). It may not have been as high as Nintendo would’ve preferred to see but five out of the six games above it all appear on multiple platforms so their numbers were likely to be higher. Strip away that variable leaving the individual formate chart and Xenoblade Chronicles looks a damn sight better at number three.

I tried to pick up a copy over the weekend with little luck as everywhere I tried appeared to have sold out. It’s still available via some online retailers and with such rave reviews hopefully Xenoblade Chronicles won’t only stay in the charts for a while but will also be ported over to NSTC discs relatively soon. I find it odd that Nintendo of America wouldn’t want to at least give the game a shot in the US, especially when the types of people who are attracted to the kind of experience it offers are also the hardcore fan base loyal to Nintendo systems. But then again, Nintendo isn’t really in the position to just test things at the moment and in pure business terms, the money raised by selling the game isn’t guaranteed to cover the cost of bringing it to the US. I always find it weird when you read posts about how gamers are almost duty bound to support a game but in the case of Xenoblade Chronicles, I myself do feel some kind of necessity to buy it in order for other to enjoy. What’s the worst that can happen? I end up with one of the most highly praised JRPGs to come out in this generation. I can live with that.

BioWare’s massive effect on the female gamer

Having only ever played the Mass Effect series as a male character, I’ve only ever heard the celebrated voice work of Jennifer Hale, who plays female Commander Shepard, on the odd occasion. But word is Hale out performs her male counterpart and has done so relatively unnoticed by the majority of players so far. Because the games give you the choice to change pretty much all aspects of Shepard from appearance to attitude, BioWare had to design a default character to work on advertising campaigns and box art and until now, it’s always been a dude. But for the third game, the company have begun including the default female Shepard and so far she’s been spotted in a trailer and collector’s edition packaging with BioWare marketing chief, David Silverman, saying there could be more of her to come.

In an interview with VG247, Silverman discussed the debate over male and female Shepard and rattled of a few statistics to boot. Like how only 13 per cent of players use the default Shepard with the rest opting to make changes as they see fit. In total, 18 per cent of gamers will play Mass Effect as a female so whether or not Hale provides the brilliant performance that she does, it starts to look less like stereotyping and sexism that the male Shepard has always been the hero. Not to say that perception can’t change or at least make way for a co-hero. As Silverman points out in the interview, the games industry is lacking in strong female leads so the fact Mass Effect has one is worthy of celebration. But not just because she’s voiced by a talented actress but because a female Shepard represents a quality that BioWare are masters of; giving players choice. Despite a few angry forum posters, gender and indeed the choice of sexuality is something BioWare, for the most part, treat with a great deal of respect. In Mass Effect 3, players can now choose for their male Shepard to be gay which was only reserved for the female Commander in the first two games. Hopefully the implementation will be as humorous as it is poignant since most male Shepard players only chased women in Mass Effect 1 and 2.

On the subject of sexuality, Silverman defended BioWare’s inclusions of the many, many, butt shots and general curvature close-ups of Miranda in Mass Effect 2. Being a guy, I wasn’t overly bothered by them though did find them a tad gratuitous but according to VG247, female players were less than impressed. Silverman insisted the shots were necessary: “The fact is, some characters are defined by their attractiveness, such as a woman who is genetically engineered to be perfect. Camera angles help tell the story and portray key aspects of each character – in Miranda’s case, her curves and sexuality. We had similar shots of Jacob.” I didn’t notice the scenes of Jacob but arguably I wasn’t really looking. While I fully understand the fact that Miranda was meant to be ‘perfect’ so showing off her various curves helped get that point across, I can’t help but think the angles were mainly conceived to show off a nice butt. Now the adolescent heterosexual in me may be shouting “Yay, bum!” but if I listened to him for too long, I’d only be playing Dead or Alive games.

The spirits within Mass Effect

I must be in a very small group of people who actually enjoyed Square Enix’s CGI flop, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within but at least some of the people in my gathering include BioWare’s art team. Derek Watts, Mass Effect 3’s art director, chatted with Xbox World 360 magazine about the franchise’s influences which pretty much owes a lot to the 2001 movie.

“Yeah, you know we actually reference a lot from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. We used a lot of their GUIs and the way they did their ship – that was kind of like in some of the early designs for the Normandy.” Of course! It’s so obvious once it’s pointed out! The funky holographic GUIs on Shepard and his (or her) compadres look a lot like those in the film. Blade Runner is the usual comparison but come to think of it, that’s a bit too gritty. Watts wasn’t shy of just how much he and his team use Final Fantasy as a well for concepts: “Our attack helicopters are loosely based off that movie. There’s some great stuff, especially their glowing GUI screens; we used those a lot. I keep a folder of that stuff and I still actually tell the guys ‘just go back and look at that. Change it like that!'”

What particularly tickles me about an off-shoot of the Final Fantasy franchise is how the end of Mass Effect 2 made me cancel my pre-order of Final Fantasy XIII. I completed an incredibly action orientated sci-fi space opera that still resinates to this day and shortly after began watching a new trailer for the Japanese RPG. The complete difference in style and execution left me wondering if a traditional JRPG was the kind of game I wanted to play at that moment in time (I have played it since then…). So to think one of the reason why I love the Mass Effect series – its art – is so heavily influenced by a frequently ridiculed aspect of Final Fantasy amuses me so!

EA’s mass tweaking

After the news that Mass Effect 3 will be delayed until next year and to coincide with the release, a handheld/mobile version is also in the works, EA boss John Riccitiello spoke to investors yesterday (via Eurogamer) about the franchise and his plans for the third game. Some may interpret it as dumbing down and others opening up Mass Effect 3 but either way, I’m not sure what to make of it: “One of the things that Ray Muzyuka and the team up in Edmonton have done is essentially step-by-step adjust the gameplay mechanics and some of the features that you’ll see at E3 to put this in a genre equivalent to shooter-meets-RPG and essentially address a much larger market opportunity than Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 began to approach.”

Considering Mass Effect 3 is supposed to end the trilogy for Shepard, trying to broaden the franchise to a larger audience seems a little odd. I guess a lot more people will potentially by the game regardless if there are anymore to come. Like Mass Effect 2 on the PS3, it’s said to come with a digital summary of the previous two games so you don’t necessarily need to play them to get the full story. But you’ll be greatly missing out if you don’t. It’s hard to imagine what else can be done in order to tweak it even more to the genre of RPG shooter since Mass Effect 2 tread the lines between the two blurring them as it went along.

One thought is that Mass Effect 3 will include a multiplayer component, often denied by BioWare but with EA hungry for the Call of Duty pie, anything is possible. Another idea could be the inclusion of motion controls by means of Kinect and PS Move but where would that leave PC gamers? Depending on how it could be implemented, they may not even want motion controls. EA has previously spoke of a desire to have some kind of connected experience in all future games with Frank Gibeau saying how the publisher’s job is to ‘inspire’ developers to “edit and tweak [their creative vision] so it’s a bigger commercial opportunity.” Sounds familiar huh? Who knows, maybe Facebook integration will be a part of Mass Effect 3 but without any more details, we’ll just have to wait until E3 when EA will reveal how they plan to extend (or insult) the franchise.

Beyond the Labyrinth looks ace

One of the main grumbles about the 3DS is lack of software with more promises of future releases than actual dates and with the launch games predominately being revamps of old titles, consumers have been reluctant to upgrade of buy the system in the numbers Nintendo had hoped for. Along comes Tri-Ace, the team behind Resonance of Fate and Star Ocean, with Beyond the Labyrinth and jaws are pleasingly dropped at the first screenshots (via Siliconera).

The game may still lack a release date and for that matter any real detail but from the look of it, Beyond the Labyrinth is at least making good use of the 3DS’s processing power. Famitsu bagged eight screens in total (see them all here) and state the game is a dungeon RPG featuring a talkative female who may or may not be the lead but is clearly important since she’s the first character shown. It probably goes without saying the look of Beyond the Labyrinth is reminiscent of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus which is another exciting prospect.

But other than the handful of screenshots and it being called a dungeon RPG, very little else is known. Though Tri-Ace do like to experiment with combat mechanics, opting to not always stick to the regimented ideas of JRPGs. It’s possible Beyond the Labyrinth will continue this tradition but it’s just as possible that there could be no fighting whatsoever but instead an emphasis on exploration and puzzle solving. Either way it’s worth keeping an eye on this game’s development for the art-style alone if not anything else.