Where I interview Mass Effect 3 associate producer Robyn Theberge

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to start clearing space in your diary for all of  March. Mass Effect 3 is almost here. Oh happy days! Oh happy days!

The much-awaited sequel to Mass Effect 2, my favourite game of 2010, ME3 looks to be bigger, better, faster and stronger than its predecessor   but I’m in a quandary. Apart from a hands-on with an early demo last year, I’ve imposed a personal blackout of all ME3-related material until the game comes out. It’s been excruciating: my fingernails are short and I curse every time a new trailer is released, but I don’t have long to wait …

Robyn Theberge, who worked on DragonAge 2 before moving onto Mass Effect 3, tells me her main role was to oversee the game’s audio, graphical user interface and visual effects teams.

Many of the ME3 team had worked on the series since the first game, so they “definitely want to do their best and don’t want to let the fans down, as much as for themselves as fans as for those people who aren’t on the team”.

For newcomers to the series, Mass Effect 3 was a great starting point, she says.

“For those people who haven’t played an ME game yet, this is a really good entry point to the series. The game adapts and rewrites itself based on  whether a player is importing a save [from ME2] or not. In the case of a new player, the game adapts the dialogue to add more context to things, to give them [new players] more back story. But this is the breakout of the war in the galaxy so it’s a really good place to come into the franchise.”

Theberge said Mass Effect 3’s combat had been refined, something fans had been asking for, and the game was an even blend of role-playing and action.

“We wanted players to have a lot of choice in terms of the kind of experiences they have. We’ve also added game experience types in ME3, so players can select story experience  the traditional RPG experience or action experience, and that allows then to tailor how they play the game. In Action it’s more cinematic, with more difficult combat, in Story mode it’s more story-driven and you play through all of the dialogue, there’s lots of exploration and the combat is a little easier and RPG (mode) is kind of the middle ground for our traditional fans who want the dialogue as well as the challenging combat.”

Theberge said studio Bioware had listened to what its fans wanted. “We’ve taken up our different classes a notch and added new abilities and powers, so I think we’ve listened to our fans and heard what they thought about the different classes and what they were looking for. I imagine I’ll be doing several playthroughs but just trying the different classes alone can open up so many different play-through options.”

So, what is it about the Mass Effect series that gels with gamers?

Theberge believes it’s the characters and the narrative. “Like a good book, you want to keep going back and reading to make sure that your favourite characters are OK, you get connected to them and invested in them. The thing about ME is you have really good squad mates and depending on how you play the game, they can become your best friends or your enemies. So you want to go back and take care of them and keep them at bay if you’re going the renegade route.”

Many gamers completed the original Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 as a female Commander Shepard  known by fans as FemShep.  But was Bioware surprised that so many gamers wanted to play as female Shepard?

“No. We listened to feedback and listened to how many people wanted to play as female Shepard and that’s why for ME3 we have an iconic appearance [of her] that we’ve created after fans selected one on our Facebook site. That’s how she’s going to appear in-game. What the fans wanted was the opportunity to play as a female Shepard.”

Mass Effect 3 is the first game of the series to make use of the voice control offered by Microsoft’s Kinect device  and it makes the game so much cooler, says Theberge.

“Kinect for Mass Effect 3 makes it so fast, especially for people who are more into controlling their squad mates and are more hands-on with their squad. It’s so immersive  you forget that you can’t thank them [your virtual squad mates]. You can ask them to [provide] cover, which means you can run into more intense combat situations. You can change weapons on the fly without pausing the game and it really adds some intensity to the game play. It has really taken the game play to another level.

“Also, you can have squad mates cast [biotic] powers, whereas in previous ME games you’d have to use the bumpers on your controller to pull up the powers menu to get them to cast a power. Now you just shout out `Liara, singularity’ and she fires it to wherever your camera is pointing.”

Although, it sounds like the standard answer you’d expect from a game maker, Theberge said she is most proud of the team that has worked on the game.

“A lot of the team have been on it since ME1 and they keep bringing new ideas to the table and sink their heart and soul into it because they believe in what they are delivering.”

Mass Effect 3 is out in a stupidly short time on Windows PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. In fact, it’s out next week! Hup, hup, huzzah!

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