First thing's first: the game is visually stunning. The level of detail in the character models is pretty much a textbook example of what the current generation of video games should look like. Even since its showing at GDC in March, the facial features have improved by leaps and bounds. The eyes have depth and the lip syncing is about as spot on as you're likely to see in a video game. Of course, the real graphical treats are the various alien races, which benefit from not having to tread the edge of the Uncanny Valley. As such, the alien characters seem to have a bit more life and verve to them than even the excellently detailed human offerings. The environments, too, are topnotch.
But what's a pretty game without the gameplay to back it up, right? Fortunately, Mass Effect appears to have that in spades as well. The combat plays out in real time, more or less like your average third person shooter. Now, it's not quite as precise as, say, Gears of War, but the combat is certainly more visceral than turn based RPGs or even BioWare's other real time combat offering, Jade Empire. Characters have a wide variety of weapons from which to choose, and all of these weapons can be customized as players see fit. During our demonstration, for example, BioWare's Greg Zeschuk outfitted a shotgun (from the future!) with freezing ammunition that stopped enemies cold (ba dum bum!). Used in combination with a telekinesis spell, Zeschuk had enemies floating helplessly in the air as he ruthlessly pumped their guts with freezing death. Good stuff.
As entertaining as combat is, the dialogue system is perhaps the real star of the show. Gone are the old dialogue trees and canned responses of games like KOTOR and Jade Empire. Well, the trees are still there, but they are cleverly hidden in a much more emotional system. As characters are talking, you'll be prompted with several choices, possibly including skill based options like persuasion. These choices are not verbatim responses, but more akin to your character's gut reaction. For instance, you might find someone questioning your ability to work peacefully with an aggressive crew member. During your conversation you might select "We'll take him," which leads your character to say aloud, "Don't worry, he'll be safe with us." Using this dynamic dialogue system, we found ourselves actually listening to what our character had to say, rather than simply picking a selection and skipping to the next prompt. A dialogue system that engages us in the story? Yes, please.
Finally, the folks from BioWare gave us an example of the kinds of plot changing decisions you'll have to make in Mass Effect. Having shown us this, they then made us swear never to reveal it, so we can't tell you what happened. What we can tell you is that the decision was definitely big and it was definitely plot altering. This is not a simple "good" or "evil" decision either. There are shades of gray. As the main character, the player must make a choice whilst factoring both its personal implications and those of the overall conflict in the game. Do you do what's best for you, or what's best for the galaxy? Not only that, you might find yourself questioning whether or not it really is the best thing for the galaxy. As Marty McFly might put it, it's heavy. It also makes for a pretty memorable gaming experience, and we were only watching. November is going to be a busy month.