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Mass Effect 2 Flirts With Permadeath

If you hadn’t heard already, the first quarter of 2010 is the new holiday season. Seemingly not a week has gone by of late without a major title bailing out from the usual end of year bloodbath into the now increasingly warmer climes of January – March next year. Having already booked a slot in off season, Bioware rocked up at E3, still blissfully unaware their secluded winter party was soon to get a whole lot busier. Luckily for them, Infinity Ward didn’t have a monopoly on hotly anticipated sequels that impressed on the show floor. What the good doctors did show of Mass Effect 2 appeared to deliver.

Interestingly, Bioware didn’t just want to talk about the raft of improvements you might expect from a big hitting sequel. That’s not to say they aren’t there. Players of the first Mass Effect, a game always a little rough around the edges,  would certainly reel off a list of what was required and check them off as they go. Better combat, fine-tuned engine, more interesting environments, no elevators. Just a few of many, all present and correct. But unusually what Bioware really wanted to talk about in Mass Effect 2, was the end.

One of the complete endings to Mass Effect 2 has Commander Sheperd dying, permanently.

Casey Hudson – Project Director

Sheperd’s fate had been a matter of debate amongst fans since the original teaser trailer, apparently showing the original’s protagonist in robotic form. E3 answered this but only in part. In Mass Effect 2, we now know you will reprise the role of Commander Sheperd. Set against a backdrop of humans disappearing across the galaxy, your Sheperd will be building a team for a dangerous “suicide” mission that comprises the game’s finale. Whether you ultimately prove the naysayers wrong and survive for Mass Effect 3, or lose a character you may have invested 60+ hours in over the duration of both games (importing your Mass Effect 1 saves was confirmed as a feature) will ultimately be down to decisions you make earlier in the game.

The emphasis on “earlier” is key. Permadeath is a controversial topic and usually restricted to the most hardcore of MMORPG’s and Roguealikes. Even then it is by no means the norm. The primary idea is to dramatically increase the potential consequences of failure in order to lend more significance to decisions the player makes in the game. In a traditional single player RPG this has been near impossible to achieve. Even in the original Mass Effect, if you weren’t happy with how the scene on Virmire played out, you could reload another save and go back. In Mass Effect 2, however, Bioware is angling at getting a little closer to achieving some real permanence in player decisions. If your fate has been set by a string of choices over the last 10 hours of gameplay, reloading and doing even part of that again is suddenly not so easy.

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This strategy isn’t without risk of course. Traditional complaints against permadeath center around unduly upsetting the player who may have poured hours into building up their character, experience, loot, and in this triology’s case, a rich backstory. Bioware, for their part, say that players will have a good chance of knowing whether they are likely to survive the suicide mission, even to the point of delaying it to make further preparations (and with it, the implication that a save at this point might be an idea.)

So for Shepard we have a permadeath that doesn’t have to be permanent but is at least flirting with it. Knowing that Shepard can die will at least likely make players think twice about being reckless, and there will always be some who play the game and accept that as the ending, thus having a much different experience to everybody else. Not a shabby achievement by any means but if that’s the case for Shepard, does it necessarily apply to other characters in the game? Not if Bioware’s intentions are to be believed.

Squad-mates killed off in the first game will stay dead, if you import your save. Is the Mass Effect save you want to use the one where you have all the cool Spectre gear but chose to kill off somebody just to see what happened? Then you have a choice to make. Replaying the original game, if you have it, to change these things is even more of a barrier than reloading a save. Indeed, the sheer amount of data present in the save games about literally every decision allows Bioware to do pretty interesting things. Hudson picks out the example of Conrad Verner;-

Conrad Verner was a fan of Commander Shepard’s that you met in the first game, and it’s like you meet this guy in an alley and you can be nice to him or you can be a jerk to him, and at the time you might have been thinking of it as just a trite role-playing convention, good-guy bad-guy, and that’s that.

Jump forward two years. Now you’re playing Mass Effect 2, and oh my god, who’s this, it’s Conrad Verner! And based on what you’ve done, you realize that while the moment in the first game maybe seemed throwaway, now Conrad’s back and involved in another plot in a game you’re playing two years later…and what you did two years ago is meaningfully affecting what’s happening. That’s a small example.

Allow us to speculate for a moment about how this might play out. Perhaps you were rude to the guy and now he won’t help you save a squad mate in the second game? Better still, perhaps you were nice to him and during an encounter in Mass Effect 2, Verner sacrifices himself to save you. A very plausible scenario where there could be literally nothing you could do to save him. In either case, there won’t be a short section of gameplay to replay to change things.

With another part of the trilogy still to come then, you might be thinking twice about who you upset in Mass Effect 2. Bioware it would seem don’t want you to have it so easy. Another facet of the E3 demo was the re-introduction of the “interrupt” system. A feature that was in the original game until the very last minute, it has now been re-worked back into the game. Hudson expands a little more about what was shown at E3;-

We pepper the game with moments like these. They’re in every level, so it’s a system that’s fully supported. It’s not even really an interrupt system, it’s more of a “take action” system. In Mass Effect it was more about dialogue and could you interrupt somebody verbally. Now it’s more like you’re talking to somebody because you think they’re in danger and you see they’re about to get shot by a sniper and for a moment you have the ability to push them out of the way. That’d be an example of a paragon interrupt. Or like we showed at E3, there’s a guy that’s hassling you, and you have a moment where you can push him over a ledge. That moment can pass, and if it does, you have to deal with the situation in other ways.

Whilst Hudson was keen to reassure players that the interrupt moments would not require twitch reflexes, it does highlight an interesting tension. Bioware wants to give your actions more significance and permanence whilst at the same time, putting you under more pressure to take them.

Living with reckless decisions is part and parcel of life and at the very least, Bioware are attempting to make that less easy to avoid than it used to be. As excited as I might be about a world without elevators, uncharted worlds actually worth visiting and liaisons with new alien species; making Shepard’s story uniquely your own is the most interesting thing.

3 comments
reprados
reprados

The introduction set the tone for the whole game.

dcdelgado
dcdelgado

Excellent summary of the 'Permadeath' situation, Bioware and ME2 will be in Germany Gamescon so i hope to see and hear much more.

Czartim
Czartim

Great, now I have to finish the first one.