January 8, 2012

BioWare Raises the Bar for Immersive RPGs and Unreal Engine 3 with Mass Effect 3

By John Gaudiosi

BioWare is changing the way players interact with virtual characters with the culmination of their award-winning Mass Effect trilogy. The Electronic Arts-owned game studio is now utilizing Kinect for Xbox 360, allowing gamers to interact with characters in-game as they journey through the new science fiction role-playing game. 

“When we started Mass Effect 3 we were really looking at new tech options,” said Jesse Houston, producer of Mass Effect 3 at BioWare Edmonton. “We did a lot of work on the game’s engine. One of the things that we looked at was voice recognition and Kinect. We felt that it added a very nice integration into our game. Instead of just making a tech choice, where only programmers could fiddle with it, we could also from a very design perspective figure out what the player wanted to do, what the player wanted to say, and actually have that option. It really allowed us a nice wide breadth of options.”

Kinect integration is just one of many new features in the critically acclaimed franchise, known to consistently push the boundaries of interactive entertainment. And the technology running below the surface, allowing BioWare to bring this epic story to life, is Unreal Engine 3.

Mass Effect 3

“We’ve been working on this series for quite a few years now, and so much has changed,” said Casey Hudson, executive producer on the Mass Effect series at BioWare Edmonton. “When we began, the Xbox 360 hadn’t even come out yet, and yet we had to design a game for it. Now, looking back, we’ve been working with Unreal Engine 3 for quite a few years. Even with Mass Effect 3, we’ve been able to find huge new improvements to the performance. That’s allowed us to do everything from getting much better acting with the characters to introducing better storytelling methods. In addition, the engine allowed us to create a richer world and bring more entertaining cinematics. We’ve also utilized the improved performance of the engine to bring more enemies on-screen at once, so there’s a lot more stuff happening in this game for players to contend with.”

Houston points to the progression from the original Mass Effect to this third installment as a testament to how far Unreal Engine 3 has come.

“If you look at _Mass Effect 1_ to Mass Effect 3, they’re almost completely different games at this point,” said Houston. “You’ve seen major changes in combat. You’ve seen major changes in RPG. You’ve seen massive lighting changes; real graphic fidelity that is just so much better than it has been historically. You’re going to see performance improvements. We’re 30 frames per second yet again, locked across the board. You can really feel the difference in the controls.”

Mass Effect 3

One of the showcase improvements to Mass Effect 3 are the beautiful light rays and massive vistas. The team at BioWare Edmonton utilized the latest improvements to Unreal Engine 3 in combination with proprietary technology to create a bigger experience.

“We’ve really opened up our environments in a big way,” said Houston. “You’ve never seen environments this open in the Mass Effect franchise. You can really interact with them in a big way now, too. The cover system is so much more involved in the actual environment. You’re also going to see a lot of environmental obstacles, where you’re going to be jumping over pits. You’re going to be climbing up ladders. This is all new gameplay we’ve been able to add to the franchise thanks to a lot of changes that we’ve made graphically.”

“We’re ultimately an Unreal Engine 3 game, and Unreal Kismet and Unreal Matinee are a major part of any kind of cinematic experience,” said Houston. “Our team has been able to utilize Kismet and Matinee to create Hollywood-style cinematics that bring the story to life and enhance the gameplay experience.”

In keeping with the players’ choice structure, each Mass Effect 3  game will evolve differently based on decisions made in the first two games. Hudson said that emphasizing the action experience was a top priority, and something that improvements to the game engine opened up.

mass effect 3

“We’re delivering really intense action in this game,” said Hudson. “You’re going to see Commander Shepard doing combat roles and leaping over cover while running. We have a bunch of things where you’re falling and climbing. There are lots of little cinematic action moments built right into the gameplay.”

Mass Effect 3 also introduces the Omni Blade, a new melee weapon that directly complement's Shepard's agility. This weapon is designed to blend in with the new cover system, in which players are able to reach over and around cover to perform brutal finishing moves. Hudson compared the new weapon to a switchblade version of a hologram, which adds a whole new level of brutal attacks that Commander Shepard can execute.

But BioWare is also returning to its RPG roots with the third installment in the series, so players can expect to experience a healthy blend of action and role-playing.

“We really focused on building a deeper RPG experience that players remember from Mass Effect 1, and maybe thought was missing from Mass Effect 2,” said Hudson. “We added a lot of customization and a lot of the decision-making for players as they progress through the levels. For example, players can take their weapon and modify it by adding pieces they’ve found or purchased in the game. They can plug them in and physically see their weapon change and then have additional power when using it on a mission.”

Beyond weapons, players will also be able to build up powers and customize their characters throughout the course of the game. Every time a player advances a character’s powers, they’re actually making a choice about which version of the power they want and what flavor. Hudson said this is part of the overarching theme of putting control of the game in the hands of players. 

Having Unreal Engine 3 take care of the heavy lifting allowed the team at BioWare to focus on creative aspects of the game, enabling them to add what they wanted to the franchise in past games, but simply never had the bandwidth to do.

Mass Effect 3

“We really wanted to end the series on a high note,” said Hudson, “and make sure that we take this story and create the biggest possible ending to the series. Throughout the game we’ve been talking about the coming war against the Reapers; Mass Effect 3 is the story of that war. We’re taking the most intimate relationships that you’ve developed over the course of the game, and using that to really tell the biggest possible story that we can.”

Mission accomplished. The team at BioWare has leveraged the power of Unreal Engine 3 to create an epic journey that stands alongside some of the greatest Hollywood science fiction franchises. But with Mass Effect, players take on the lead role.