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Mass Effect 2: Christina Norman Interview

He can be a girl too. It's a special power.

You may have noticed one or two trailers for Mass Effect 2 recently. One or two a day. And it’s arriving very soon – the 29th of this month in fact. So we grabbed the opportunity to speak to lead gameplay designer Christina Norman to ask a few questions that have sprung up in the last couple of months. Below we find out a bit more detail about why certain combat decisions were made, why players might choose to die on purpose, whether Jennifer Hale will return as the female Shepard, and the possibility of lizards in bikinis.

RPS: Mass Effect 2 looks even more like a third-person shooter than the original game. Obviously the combat from ME1 was a contentious point for many. How have you balanced the desire for more action-orientated battles without losing the sense of playing an RPG?

Christina Norman: Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 are both shooters/RPGs. We’ve dramatically improved the quality of our combat. Weapons feel accurate and powerful right from the start. Player control and cover animations are fast and responsive. We’ve added in new shooter features like headshots, and location based hit reactions. All these changes make Mass Effect 2 a better shooter, without detracting from its capabilities as an RPG.

We’ve also added in real-time power usage. In ME1 you’d frequently pause the game to use powers, but in Mass Effect 2, you can play entire levels without having to access the power wheel during combat. You can play Mass Effect 2 exactly like you played ME1, but I think most players will enjoy our improved real-time combat.

It's a big angry robot!

RPS: Do you think it’s necessary to sacrifice a potential section of your RPG audience by taking a strong action focus? (Presumably in exchange for another action audience.) Clearly among RPG players are some very hardcore fanatics – can they be won around?

CN: Our primary RPG audience is Mass Effect 1 players. I don’t think improving our shooter gameplay is going to alienate those players any more than improving our art, sound design, and writing will. Improving one aspect of a game doesn’t have to detract from another. Many RPG players also appreciate good shooter combat (I’m one of them). Those players will enjoy the improvements we’ve made to our shooter combat, and to our RPG systems. Will our improved combat attract new players? I certainly hope so!

RPS: Which of the new biotic skills do you think is going to wow us the most? Do you have a particular favourite?

CN: The biggest wow factor for biotic players is going to be real-time power usage and our fast cooldown system. In ME1, every power had a long individual cooldown. This encouraged pausing, and spamming all your powers in every fight. Now all powers can be activated in real time and every power shares a fast cooldown. This has two benefits. First, you can use powers continually throughout combat. Second, you are rewarded for choosing the right power for the right situation.

As far as favourite biotic powers go, I’m torn between Charge and Singularity. The Vanguard’s Charge power is flashy, impressive and radically alters their gameplay compared to other classes. The Adept’s singularity is a powerful tactical tool to shape combat. I’m still working on mastering singularity.

He is a sad spacepanda.

RPS: There have been a number of changes made to various aspects of using equipment, from the heat sinks for weapons to the removal of weapon and armour skills. How did you go about making decisions over which elements to change?

CN: Our design process involves identifying a problem, brainstorming possible solutions, and then discussing in detail the impact of those solutions. We then quickly prototype the solution (get it in game) and try it out. Fast iteration lets us quickly test and improve changes. Nothing is sacred. If it doesn’t make the game better, it gets axed. We accept ideas from the anyone on the team. Some ideas I was initially skeptical of were proven fun by this process, and made it into the final game!

RPS: Having created a world that’s entirely BioWare’s own, do you find the lack of the confines of a pre-established IP gives you greater freedom? Or can the lack of boundaries make creating and controlling the game’s fiction more challenging?

CN: We have our own IP-experts on team to make sure everything we do fits the Mass Effect IP. It’s nice having these experts on the team. It makes working with them fast and easy. I enjoy working with the Mass Effect IP. It’s rich and inspiring, with endless possibilities for creating cool creatures, abilities and telling epic stories.

Isn't that the glove from Doctor Who?

RPS: BioWare has been very public about the potential for Shepard to die at the end of this game. Bearing in mind that the player will inevitably see Shepard die quite a few times throughout the game, prompting a reload of the last save, how do you go about making a plot-based death feel a valid part of the way the game plays?

CN: Story death is a very real possibility in Mass Effect 2, but it’s different from combat death. Combat death is usually the result of some short-term error made in the heat of battle. Players already understand this kind of death. Story death is different. We don’t just kill the player; their death becomes a core part of the narrative. If you die in Mass Effect 2, you’ll understand why you died, and realize it’s not because of some simple error. Player death is the result of many choices the player has made, and no simple reload will fix a story death. What makes these deaths satisfying rather than frustrating is the overall presentation. Think of it like a movie. Some great movies end with the death of the protagonist. In the same way, if your Shepard dies in Mass Effect 2, it will be meaningful death, and it will make sense.

RPS: Bearing in mind players know a third game is coming, do you think people will be less likely to make a self-sacrificing choice, now they’ve seen how carrying their save of Shepard over can work?

CN: I think most players will want to survive Mass Effect 2, but part of what makes Mass Effect 2 an exceptional game is that every time you play it you get a different story experience. I fully expect that some players will purposefully try to die while playing Mass Effect 2 so they can experience the story events leading up to Shepard’s death.

See, I would notice the watery shimmery lady.

RPS: Can you confirm whether Jennifer Hale will be reprising her role as female Shepard in the game? Lots of us have missed our Shepard in all the promotional material.

CN: Absolutely! The talented Ms. Hale is back, and she’s done an outstanding job voicing our badass female Commander Shepard!

RPS: A lot of people have drawn the comparison with ME2 and The Empire Strikes Back, it being your more serious, darker-themed second part of a trilogy (during which we presumably learn that Liara T’Soni is Shepard’s twin sister). Does this mean we can expect gold bikinis and space teddies in part 3?

CN: Krogan in gold bikinis are confirmed for Mass Effect 3. (Just kidding!)

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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