In Mass Effect, you'll assume the role of Commander Shepherd, a human whose history, gender, appearance, and skills are all customizable and will have an impact on your experience. The only reason you can't change his or her name, we assume, is because Mass Effect features a lot of voice acting. After creating your own Commander Shepherd, your adventure will get underway onboard the Normandy, which is a spaceship that serves as your mobile base of operations throughout the game. Conversations that you're not a part of will help to set the scene because they contain nuggets of information not only about the current state of the universe, but also about how you're perceived by other characters.
Everything that we saw today was taken from the first hour or so of gameplay, so we can talk about some of the story details without spoiling anything too significant. After impressing your superiors greatly with exploits that occurred before the game gets underway, it seems that you've attracted the attention of the shadow council, which is an elite organization whose members are known as specters. No human has ever been accepted into or even considered for their ranks, but early on in your adventure, you'll be joined by a specter that has been sent to assess you. It's believed that your being admitted into the alien shadow council would serve to symbolize just how successful the current alliance has been, but we'll wager that not everybody likes the idea.
As you walk around the Normandy, you'll notice that the ship's crew appears to be going about its business, which helps to create the illusion that you're about to embark on an adventure in a living, breathing universe. You'll see crewmen working at their stations, leaning against walls while talking to each other, and walking around with a purpose. Characters you outrank will salute you as you pass, and you'll have the option to strike up conversations with anyone of interest. These conversations are a noteworthy feature because there will be a huge number of them, and they're far more interactive than those that we can think of in any other game.
Jack Bauer. In Space!
Shortly before it's your turn to talk, you'll be presented with up to six options with which to continue the conversation, and rather than entire phrases or lines of speech, your choices will comprise just keywords or emotions as appropriate. For example, if someone asks you for help, your options might simply include such responses as "mean" and "kind." Your choices will, of course, have an impact on how other character's react to you, but one of Mass Effect's most intriguing features is the ability to interrupt other characters while they're talking, which will also have consequences. Because conversation options of the same kind always appear in the same position on the small wheel that's used to make your choices, you should have no problems reacting to characters quickly, although you can certainly take some time to consider your next move carefully if you prefer.
Through talking to other characters onboard the Normandy (a number of the conversations are mandatory), you'll learn that your destination is Eden Prime, which is humanity's showpiece colony in an area that's dangerously close to space controlled by aliens. Your mission there appears to be routine, but when an emergency transmission from the planet's surface clearly shows that the colony is under attack, things get a lot more interesting. You'll be tasked with leading a small strike team down to the surface to secure a beacon of some kind. There are survivors to be rescued as well, but it's made very clear in the mission briefing that they're not a priority.
Much like its conversations, Mass Effect's combat can be played at your own pace--at least to some extent. Those of you with a penchant for squad-based shooters can run around and issue simple orders to your colleagues. But if you prefer the pseudo turn-based-style of combat that features in previous BioWare games, you'll purportedly be able to do something very similar. The combat that we got to see during today's demonstration was surprisingly tactical, with objects that provided cover and proved to be all-important. Which of the six classes your playing as, as well as which other characters you have in your party, will determine which skills and abilities you have available to you in a combat situation. Much of our demo was spent watching a soldier, whose skills revolve around weapons and armor for the most part. Other equipment that you've acquired will also come into play, such as the semitransparent shield barriers we saw dropped in front of characters and then used for cover at one point.
The enemies encountered on Eden Prime during the demo included small hovering drones, roughly human-sized aliens that appeared to be almost entirely mechanical, and colonists who, through some unspeakable act, had been turned into what BioWare affectionately refers to as "space zombies." Another enemy that could end up being one of Mass Effect's main villains presented itself toward the end of our demo.