Mass Effect 3: Omega is the next solo expansion from BioWare. VG247's Dave Cook goes hands-on and speaks with the studio about Shepard's return, 'that' ending and what the future of Mass Effect may hold.
By and large, Mass Effect campaign expansions have typically been great value, from the sprawling and plot-heavy Lair of the Shadow Broker, to the enjoyable Stolen Memory pack that saw Shepard go a little 'James Bond' at an interstellar cocktail mixer.
However, Mass Effect 3 is no stranger to controversy. Forgetting about the widely-debated ending for a moment, another cause for concern was the day-one DLC pack From Ashes, in which Shepard fraternises with Javik, the last known Prothean in the universe.
As Protheans have been so integral to the Mass Effect canon since the start, many gamers felt cheated and assumed that any expansion so significant to the core fiction could only have been left off the Mass Effect 3 disc intentionally. People weren't happy.
“The set up is promising, although from the short sample that we experienced, Omega presents more of the same cover-shooting action that you’re used to, and seems to offer little in the way of new thrills.”
To make amends it seems as if BioWare has listened to fans with Mass Effect 3: Omega, as the titular space station is arguably one of the trilogy's most prominent locales. The studio has stated that fans wanted to see Shepard return there, so alas, off we go to raise some hell.
VG247 sat down to play through the opening areas of BioWare's expansion to see if it recaptured the essence of Mass Effect 2's dark and treacherous asteroid colony. The plot revolves around Omega kingpin Aria, who asks Shepard for help in driving Cerberus forces out of her home.
Typically an emotionless and tough character, Aria's demeanour has changed drastically. This could be an attempt by BioWar to prove that under the threat of Reaper annihilation, even the bravest of faces can give way to fear and desperation - especially when a person's home and way of life becomes compromised.
The set up is promising, although from the short sample that we experienced, Omega presents more of the same cover-shooting action that you're used to, and seems to offer little in the way of new thrills. Sure the backdrop has changed to the dark metallic corridors you remember from the second game, but the gameplay remains largely unchanged so far.
That is, save for the new skill sets of Aria and Nyreen, the first female Turian to appear in the series. Nyreen is an ex-military huntress who has been using Omega's vast tunnel network to stay alive, avoid Cerberus detection and pick off stragglers when she can. Together, Nyreen and Aria are a force to be reckoned with.
Nyreen's 'Biotic Protector' is a neat skill that creates a bubble shield around her and the surrounding area. It roots her to the spot while active, but it makes for handy ad hoc cover for Shepard and Aria to use during one of Omega's many Cerberus gunfights.
She can also hurl grenades using her biotic powers, while Aria can use Lash to topple foes off balance, rip enemies to shreds using Carnage, or hurl them around using Flare. Nyreen's shield skill is by far the best on offer, but both characters are tough allies who watch your back constantly.
“It’s about Aria’s history and as you say, we’re used to her being kind of a badass, but pretty calm. Now she’s in a position where she has been humiliated, she has been ousted, and she’s not calm any more. So she’s looking for revenge.”
We're also told that the expansion will see Shepard and Aria return to the sections of Omega seen in Mass Effect 2, including the Gozu district and the Afterlife nightclub, which is no longer a pole-dancing joint, and instead serves as a makeshift Cerberus headquarters.
Taking players back to these places is a neat way of bringing the series full circle, but our hands-on experience was too short and too familiar to what has gone before to really get us excited. It wasn't even half of the full picture, so we can't say if the expansion is worth 1,200 MS Points or not, but to really warrant a purchase it will have to deliver more than just a couple of hours of cover shooting.
With our play-test over and our expectations dampened, we turn to BioWare producer Fabrice Condominas to ask him why the studio has taken Shepard back to Omega, and to throw him some questions about Mass Effect's next step.
VG247: Why go back to Omega in the first place?
Fabrice Condominas: After Mass Effect 2, we had so much feedback on Omega as a station, as an iconic place, and also on Aria. People were asking so much about her background, so it was kind of a natural choice, but also within the team, we are especially attached to Aria and also to Omega.
It's a very specific place in the Mass Effect universe, so the team had a desire to do something about it. Player feedback confirmed that we should.
Aria has always been a stubborn character hasn't she? Was this an attempt to show another side to her character and to reveal more of her backstory?
Absolutely, and this is one of the main focuses of the DLC. It's about Aria's history and as you say, we're used to her being kind of a badass, but pretty calm - not exactly a 'Paragon' type - but she was calm and just ruling Omega.
Now she's in a position where she has been humiliated, she has been ousted, and she's not calm any more. So she's looking for revenge, which feeds into the character background we had at the beginning when we created Aria, and there's also a reason why she's a very powerful biotic.
You can dig into all of that, but we also have a new character Nyreen, who is the first female Turian of the trilogy. This character has an entire history with Aria, and with Shepard being the middle of that relationship, this is where you learn a lot about Aria's history.
“The success of multiplayer has been a surprise and it was a bit of a bet. We had been thinking about doing multiplayer since the first Mass Effect, so it wasn’t new, but we had to find a way to put it into the narrative, and when the opportunity arrived we viewed it as a ‘nice to have’, rather than a ‘must have’ feature.”
Can Nyreen join Shepard's squad after the DLC ends?
No, she won't be available after and there is a very strong narrative reason for that.
We didn't seen them in the demo, but will players go back to the classic Omega locations from Mass Effect 2?
Absolutely. Omega is huge - it's four hours of gameplay - and it's divided into four missions, plus Aria's bunker where you can access side missions. So to give you an idea of the scale: during three missions you will discover entirely new places.
In one of the missions you will definitely revisit places like the Gozu district, and Afterlife - which has been transformed by Cerberus as their headquarters. So there are no more dancers there [Laughs]. But yes, definitely, you revisit those places, but you also discover the rest of the station.
There's an entire mission in the mines, but also as you know, Omega is a smuggling station full of outlaws. So you also go through the smuggling tunnels a lot, and right into the underbelly of Omega.
And where in the Mass Effect 3 canon do the Omega missions take place?
It's right after the Garrus campaign, and you need to have Aria on your side. So after the Garrus campaign you can talk to Aria to trigger the DLC, which basically starts on the Citadel. You will have none of your original squad mates or the Normandy, and there is this entire narrative around how you get to Omega.
Aria and Nyreen also have new biotic powers too.
Yeah there are new powers. Aria has two powers that didn't exist before, that have been designed just for her. They are Flare - a very powerful biotic explosion - and Lash, which basically attracts enemies toward you and inflicts heavy damage in the process.
Nyreen is more of a solider type. She is former Turian military, and also has small biotic powers. She ha a biotic shield that she can deploy around her. The fact that she's ex-Turian military and has biotic powers is contradictory if you know the series history, so this is part of her story and relationship with Aria.
There are also new weapons in there.
There are two new weapons - the N7 Valkyrie - which is an N7 assault rifle basically, and the Chakram rocket launcher, which some people have from Kingdom of Amalur as it was a cross-promotion, but now it's accessible to everyone.
We also have two new enemies. There is the Rampant Mech, which is basically a crowd-control mech created by Omega to keep the populace controlled and the Adjutant, which are Reaper tech-based enemies. People who have read the comics will know about these.
Although the Omega DLC is purely geared towards solo-play, I have to ask about your reaction to Mass Effect 3's multiplayer. People are still playing it, despite initial concerns about its inclusion.
The success of multiplayer has been a surprise and it was a bit of a bet. We had been thinking about doing multiplayer since the first Mass Effect, so it wasn't new, but we had to find a way to put it into the narrative, and when the opportunity arrived we viewed it as a 'nice to have', rather than a 'must have' feature.
We have been totally caught up in its success, and the sense of loyalty from players has just been amazing. This is also why we've decided to keep on producing new content.
“There is one thing we are absolutely sure of – there will be no more Shepard, and the trilogy is over. This is really our starting point. Now the Mass Effect universe is vast, and very, very rich. So at this point in time, we don’t even know what kind of time frame we’re going to be in.“/p>
New content is one thing, but what do you feel have been the keys to sustaining player interest between new DLC drops?
The narrative is important. BioWare is story-driven. Now that the entire galaxy is at war, it makes sense to have pockets of combat you can play, and to play as different race as you are all fighting the same enemy. So I think that entire background also helps to keep multiplayer alive.
With story DLC, BioWare has always delivered decent expansions to the core narrative. Do you have any idea where you might go after Omega?
"Not really. We know that we're going to keep the franchise alive, that's for sure, as well as there will be another Mass Effect game - a full game. I couldn't give you numbers or anything as we don't have a plan. We've already done more than we planned to do, and it's all based on feedback and success or failures."
So the nature of good DLC - besides having strong narrative links - is to be reactionary, and to give fans more of what hey want to see?
Oh yes totally, and I know a few people have complained about how long we've taken to release more DLC, and the complaints about day-one DLC too. We know what the team wants to do like, 'hey this is really cool, the team love this place, that race, or this character', and then we have the player feedback. We try to find a balance between the team and fan feedback.
On the subject of day-one DLC, what would you say to players to reassure them that From Ashes wasn't left off the Mass Effect 3 disc purposely?
Even with Omega there have been leaks already and people think, 'hey, maybe they did this DLC and then waited until after launch', which just isn't true. Omega is a unique case because we knew since a long time ago that we wanted to do more with Omega.
We were sure it was going to be a Mass Effect 3 DLC, and for technical reasons, we wanted to make sure that if something happens on Omega as a DLC, and if you then wanted to go back to Purgatory where Aria was, we couldn't rewrite what has been shipped on disc.
We can't change what is on disc, and we thought it would be a bit lame if there was no feedback from Aria in Purgatory after Omega. So it was a technical question, and the actual development of the DLC started after Mass Effect 3 was done.
Was that the same process as From Ashes?
Oh yeah. From Ashes was a really tough DLC to make because we were ending Mass Effect 3 development - and anyone who has shipped a game knows that ending is tough - you're doing crazy hours, and we had to make [From Ashes] in addition.
It's no secret that there will be a fourth Mass Effect game. Can you tell us anything about your plans for whatever will come next?
There is one thing we are absolutely sure of – there will be no more Shepard, and the trilogy is over. This is really our starting point. Now the Mass Effect universe is vast, and very, very rich. So at this point in time, we don’t even know what kind of time frame we’re going to be in.
All we’re doing is more gathering ideas from the teams, gathering feedback to see several things. So first, we don’t want to make ‘Shepard 2′, or Mass Effect 4 with like, ‘oh there’s no more Shepard but you’re a soldier in the universe’. So this will be a very, very different context for sure, and nothing has been decided on the rest.
Mass Effect 3: Omega will launch on Xbox 360 from November 28th at 1,200 MS Points