Mass Effect 3 levels: the Citadel, London, Mars and North Korea

BioWare talks building new areas and refurbishing old favourites

It's tempting to gloss Mass Effect 3's art direction as "like Mass Effect, but with more bullet holes". The first two games gave us a decent-sized dose of pyrotechnics, setting the Citadel alight and ripping the Normandy open right under your feet, but the third game goes further. Much, much further.

Reapers are blotting out the stars, planets are being pummelled from orbit, ships are exploding by the hundred. Keeping the original Mass Effect vibe intact amidst the carnage has been a struggle.

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"Yeah it's been quite gruelling," art director Derek Watts remarks, wiping his brow. "Mars isn't destroyed, and the Citadel is pretty much together so we do have those breaks from constant destruction, but it was a concern.

"There are areas which aren't destroyed. In the Citadel you'll still get to go to the bars, the big futuristic areas which haven't seen combat. Other areas are on the edge of the galaxy so they haven't seen the Reapers.

"It was nice to have some areas completely destroyed though, to get the effects going with the lighting and the rubble," he admits, twinkly-eyed. "We referenced a lot of stuff from Baghdad."

Before we discuss what Mass Effect has in common with the Iraq War (among other real world parallels), a bit more on the Citadel - ancient alien facility of disturbing origin, seat of galactic government, and the nearest thing Mass Effect 1 had to a hub city. Mass Effect 2's cut-down variation on the theme disappointed some players, and BioWare has tackled those complaints head-on with Mass Effect 3.

While we've yet to lay eyes on it, the Citadel appears to be a hub environment once again. "We spent a lot of time getting to the phase we wanted," Watts explains. "Mass Effect was so hard to get done, and Mass Effect 2 we were trying to rush through a lot of other things. It usually takes a few phases to get things to where we want them to be. We ended up with a nice open area, with some other areas branching off, like a hub."

The Presidium is now playable once more and bigger than ever. "We changed a few things which bothered us, which people won't even notice. Some things though, like the Presidium - we wanted to open up a lot more and use it. Most of the places in the Citadel you've never been before, we were able to do most of those, as many as we wanted, like some of the docking areas and offices."

As with the writing, BioWare's artists have been liberated by the fact that this is Shepard's final act, free to poke about without worrying about paving the ground for a sequel. It's not complete carte blanche, mind. "You always want to be ambitious with the third one, but story dictates how much time you'll be standing there and thus how much time you can invest in those areas.

The Presidium as you remember it. The new one's bigger.

Expect more Mos-Eisley-style boozing and schmoozing, plus what sounds tantalisingly like the opportunity to explore the Citadel's outer hull. "We were able to get the view we wanted. Bars are important to the licence, and we wanted to get them full of people. We actually get to see the outside a bit more.

"We always designed it from the first game to be able to open up and fan out - each one of the blades is about the size of Manhattan. Citadel is a fun area. The original even had curved floors but we've realised they are a nightmare. It's always a bit of a performance issue because it's such a vast space. The most Mass Effect area in the game is the Citadel."

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