It’s no exaggeration to say that Mass Effect 3 was one of the hottest titles on show at this year’s E3 expo. The hugely anticipated game is, of course, the third title in BioWare’s acclaimed RPG franchise, a series that was planned as a trilogy from the outset. The previous two games have been right up there among the best in AusGamers’ Game of the Year features for their respective years so all eyes are now on number three with E3 2011 having been our first chance to see it in action.
Our demo was hosted by Executive Producer and Mass Effect veteran Casey Hudson who made no attempt to temper expectations as he explained that “this story is really as big as we could tell it, it’s an already ambitious series but this really is the main event”. In Mass Effect 1 and 2 we were introduced to this rich Universe and encountered the Reapers, giant sentient machines that want to harvest all life in the galaxy. Mass Effect 3 is all about the actual arrival and war with these and your apparent task to unite the scattered forces of the many species of galaxy in order to defeat them.
Mass Effect was always planned as a trilogy so once again your characters from the previous game, and by extension the game before that, can be imported to carry on and retain the weight of the decisions you’ve previously made. The most prominent differences this will make to your story will be whether certain characters are still alive or not, particularly since it was possible to lose your entire crew (and even the death of your own Shepard player character) at the end of ME2.
Interestingly, Casey also talks Mass Effect 3 up as “the best place to start for new players” with the reasoning that even though two games have come before, this chapter is the beginning of the biggest events yet and the self proclaimed “best game in the series”. We’re not really sure on the reasoning for this however, as surely being able to continue your story across three games is a big selling point for the series and starting with part three would mean missing out on that feature.
Getting into the gameplay, the demo kicked off with Shepard attempting to destroy a Reaper base and our first exposure to the game in motion was a bit of a departure from anything seen in the previous games. It features the player manning a turret cannon firing at a giant lumbering attacker in an on-rails segment in a vast open environment. There’s some impressive depth-of-field effects at play here and the scale of the combat taking place is enormous as Shepard calls in air support from Joker, the familiar pilot of the iconic Normandy and an orbital strike from the friendly fleet of starships under his command. An epic introduction, no doubt.
Following this we’re whisked into a more conventional scenario to demonstrate the changes to the combat mechanics this time around. In this mission, Shepard is attempting to rescue “someone that holds the key to an alliance between two factions”, who we later discover is a female Krogan. Those who have played Mass Effect 2 will understand why this is such a big deal and another familiar character, the eccentric doctor Mordin explains that an alliance between the Krogan and the Turian species is vital for the fight against the Reapers.
I can also confirm that this mission featured Garrus and the Geth android Legion as your wingmen and Krogan Urdnot Wrex in communique, all returning characters from Mass Effect 2 (but only if they survived in your version of the game). Other returning characters we spied over the course of the demo are Tali, Ashley, Admiral Anderson and Liara.
Empowering the player to choose the way they want to play is one point that the presenters really wanted to nail home this time and the three variations on offer are reasonably obvious. You can play tactically by taking cover and micro-managing your squad commands and abilities, you can take a stealth approach to surgically dispatch your opponents or you can suit up for a run-and-gun style approach.
For stealth, they’ve introduced a couple of new features. You can now move between cover much more fluidly and there’s also a new heavy-melee weapon called an Omni Blade for quiet (and satisfyingly animated) takedowns.
As a tactics example, we were shown some examples of enemies with more complex behaviours than the previous games -- Indoctrinated Cerberus Guardian troops with heavy blast-shields can’t be attacked from head on with light weapons. These could be taken on by issuing commands to your squad to flank them and equipping incendiary ammunition and -- new to ME3 -- hand grenades.
Those who want to run-and-gun will need to tweak their equipment to support that style of play and we were shown how weapon and armor customisation has been altered once again for ME3. Weapon benches that will be available throughout the game allow you to examine and modify your arsenal with the various modifications that you find or purchase along the way. Casey explained how you can tailor your weapons and armour with various modifications that change how they look or fundamentally operate.
Then there’s your character and class abilities themselves. In our demo, Shepard was a standard soldier class, however, when upgrading the passive “combat mastery” ability, we were shown how you can opt for a damage variety of it that would increase your combat strength or an influence version that would make you more persuasive in dialogue. For RPG fans worried that too much customisation may have been stripped away in pursuit of accessibility, it’s looking like there’s still plenty left.
Although it wasn’t demonstrated, we’re also told that level environments have been spiced up with more verticality and even a Cerberus Atlus mech that Shepard can take control of and “stomp around the battlefield” with. The galactic exploration element appears well and truly intact with many different worlds you can jet around to, but we weren’t able to confirm if you’d still have to play the grind-for-resources mini-game that was introduced in ME2.
For the final segment of the demo, we’re told that they won’t be showing this part of the game again prior to the game’s launch. It appears to be a very early moment though, where Shepard is still on Earth, right at the dawn of the Reaper’s planetary invasion and this is where we’re most gloriously reminded of the cinematic strengths of Mass Effect’s interactive storytelling.
Dressed in formal military attire, we discover that Shepard has been detained in court hearings and stripped of his command as he attempts to explain the actions of the last game. But having not headed his warnings, these monolithic robots have now arrived and are crushing the cities of Earth.
Here we get another big dose of the scale of this game as the giant Reaper towers overhead, trumpeting that distinct warbling electronic noise as it wades through the city, crumbling buildings in its path.
In the cover of a building Shepard encounters a small boy hiding in an air vent. Dramatic slow piano music begins to play and through dialogue choices, the player attempts to comfort him. “We need to get you some place safe, take my hand” Shepard says. “You can’t help me” the boy replies and when he turns around for a moment, he’s gone, back into the vents where Shepard can’t follow. Tugging at heart strings and no-doubt setting up consequences later in the game.
As Shepard attempts to reach the landing zone for extraction, the Reaper seems unstoppable and an attacking starship is effortlessly taken down by it which crashes and causes more destruction, altering the terrain and changing the paths available in a dynamic manner that eclipses anything in the previous games.
They locate a radio and call down the Normandy while fighting off smaller invading robots in close combat and are greeted by one Lieutenant Ashley Williams (presumably this would be Kaidan Alenko if you have made the alternate decision at that pivotal moment in Mass Effect 1).
As Shepard goes to board, Anderson opts to stay behind to lead the forces of Earth and orders Shepard to go about getting some galactic-scale help. “we need every species, and all their ships to even have a chance at defeating the Reapers” demands Anderson. “Now go! That’s an order!”.
“I don’t take orders from you anymore, remember?” replies Shepard to which Anderson quips “consider yourself reinstated, Commander. You know what you have to do”.
As the Normandy takes off, the view pans out from the city in real time and we see at least four of those giant Reapers wading through the ruins. A view of Earth from space then shows several cities around the globe under siege as yet more epically dramatic music plays with that terrific sci-fi flavour that Mass Effect always does so well.
It might seem premature to be singing so many praises from only a twenty-minute taste of a game that will offer many hours of content, but the Mass Effect team at BioWare have yet to steer us wrong. So after seeing the combat and customisation changes and the engine improvements that promise an even more epic scale than before, it’s hard to expect anything less than a home run from Mass Effect 3.
On top of all that, there’s also the voice-control functionality being implemented for Kinect-enabled Xbox 360 players that will allow you to command your squad mates and speak directly to the game in dialogue sequences. It’s difficult to asses whether that will be a worthwhile addition, but it’s certainly not going to take anything away from the experience.
A recent delay has unfortunately pushed the game back a few months now, but March 8th 2012 (March 6th in North America) can’t come soon enough.
If you need more Mass Effect 3 and haven't seen it already, be sure to check out Steve's interview with BioWare marketing director, David Silverman right here