Last month, I journeyed north to Canada to take an early look at three lengthy missions from BioWare’s upcoming epic sci-fi RPG Mass Effect 3. You can read an in-depth report on my experience with the game in the February 2012 issue of Game Informer, but while I was there I also had a chance to sit down with BioWare executive producer Casey Hudson. We discussed the monumental task of finishing such a complex, interconnected series, new game mode options being introduced in Mass Effect 3, and what he sees in BioWare’s future.

Game Informer: What struck me immediately with the stuff I just played in Mass Effect 3 – I’ve actually been replaying Mass Effect 2 on insanity difficulty the last couple of weeks, so it’s very fresh in my mind what the gameplay and missions are like in that. The missions I played in Mass Effect 3 have a little more variety. Things get switched up more. In Mass Effect 2, the missions get into this very recognizable cycle. It’s a cycle I enjoyed, but it was very much, "talk to somebody, go down a hallway, enter a room with some cover, fight some guys, and then repeat." In 3, it seems like you’re mixing things up a lot.

Casey Hudson: It starts with the high level of Mass Effect 2 being a kind of dirty dozen story, so it’s kind of a collection story. That applied a certain structure to the way Mass Effect 2 worked. In Mass Effect 3, it’s more of a narrative weaving through a war story. It’s about campaigns and twists and turns versus knowing where you’re going and getting ready for it in Mass Effect 2.

But then also, once you’re inside the actual gameplay, we wanted to be able to break up the idea of coming into an area and knowing that it’s an area made for combat or an area made for talking or whatever. Part of the idea of that was to give Shepard more things he can do to explore the environment. You’re going to climb up ladders and fall down things and leap across gaps. Shepard  reacts to all kinds of things in the environment that makes these little mini-cutscenes that you’re still in control of. Once we added all those tools to the toolbox, we challenged the designers to figure out ways to make the missions and the story unpredictable.

One of the things we wanted to address, for example, was in Mass Effect 2 often you would see where you’re going down at the end of the hallway and know, that’s settled, that’s where I’m going. In Mass Effect 3, we constantly try to change your perception of what you need to do. You’ll be at point A, and you’ll look over at point B and think that’s where you have to go, but halfway there something changes – there’s a redirect, or people come in from a different direction, or you fall through to a lower level.

Or a Reaper cuts through with a laser. [laugh]

That’s right. So now you have a different objective. Things change, and the characters react to that.

You mentioned that mission structure of Mass Effect 2 – you’re collecting these crew members by going around and recruiting. Does Mass Effect 3 have an identifiable mission structure like that? The feeling that I started getting from the bit of the story that I got to play was that you’ll be recruiting the different races in this one and getting them to come help you, but does it play out in that identifiable way?

No, it’s different, because it’s unclear to Shepard and the player what you have to do to win the war against the Reapers. Part of what you’re trying to do is to explore the story and the galaxy and the experience so that you can understand what has to be done. Some missions start to shed light on what you need to do. As things progress in the high-level storyline, we’re constantly trying to do redirects. You think you win the war by doing one thing, and then you realize it’s something else.

There is a progression mechanic to the story, however, which is that it is in a way almost a World War II story. Since everyone is involved, you want the war to go well so that you have high morale and you have people that are going to fight. You want to conquer territories so that you have lots of assets at your disposal. That’s part of what you’re doing as Commander Shepard is the war to obtain all these assets. Some of those come through in the high-level story – large campaigns that involve entire civilizations. What you do in those missions to resolve those storylines will give you some really big assets, like the Quarian fleet, massive armies, and stuff like that.

Then there are other things, going all the way down to individual characters that you’ll talk to. That’s where we can fill the entire experience with very granular stuff that contributes in some way. It’s kind of a more sophisticated version of the loyalty system in Mass Effect 2, where instead of figuring out if each character you have is loyal, now you’re still building something, but you’re building something as big as an entire fleet of spacecraft or something as small as an individual you talk to on the Citadel and convince to join your army.