Mass Effect 2 was largely heralded as an improvement over its highly revered predecessor.
Critics everywhere almost universally concluded that the changes and tweaks made to the formula set in place by the first – subtle or drastic as they may have been – were generally for the better. It’s hard to dispute that many of the changes made the game more accessible to a wider audience. But many aspects were dumbed down or simply removed altogether, isolating those die-hard RPG fans that invested in the series from day one.
It’s a problem that BioWare has acknowledged, and whilst our brief PlayStation 3 play session hardly allowed a comprehensive insight, it provided an initial glimpse at the developer’s plans to rectify it.
But first, the context: Shepard, Liara T’Soni, Garrus Vakarian and Mordin Solus find themselves on the Salarian homeworld, tasked with the extraction of a fertile female Krogan. Given the Genophage back story familiar to those who’ve played the previous two games, this rare Krogan could prove to be vital to the continued existence of her race. She’s held, along with Solus, in quarantine, and Shepard’s squad must access a series of computer terminals in order to safely transport her to Urdnot Wrex. Of course, a small army of Cerberus troops is seemingly hell-bent on preventing the former Spectre from doing so.
It was easily missed in this combat-heavy demonstration, but there is a deeper statistical process when it comes to assigning and upgrading the various abilities of Shepard’s squad. Instead of simply levelling a chosen ability to its limit and then choosing one of two similar bonus perks, players are forced to choose between two different perks at various points in one ability tree. Once one option is chosen, the other is closed off, so players will be forced to make many more tough decisions in progressing the abilities of their squads. Of course, those who care little for the finer details of RPG stat allocation can simply opt to auto-level.
A playthrough of this section was still relatively easy (if fairly underwhelming) without making use of any of the stat points whatsoever, leaving each squad member with just one pre-assigned biotic ability. Mass Effect 3 seems to cater a little more to RPG players, but it looks as though particular care with stats isn’t absolutely vital to success in combat.
The combat component was undeniably one of the weaker elements of the first Mass Effect; the latest instalment, however, appears to continue the series’ tactic of borrowing proven features from the likes of Gears of War. Shepard can now aim from the left or right sides of cover when prompted by an arrow indicator that appears at the edge, as opposed to the limitation of peeking directly over the top only inherent in the previous game. And if cover is close enough, Shepard can also quickly and safely manoeuvre between objects. The thought of performing commando rolls has also seemingly dawned on Commander Shepard in the time passed since Mass Effect 2, which presents a rather useful evasive manoeuvre in the heat of battle.
Some of the Cerberus troops that Shepard and his cohorts encounter in this section sport blast shields, which render weapons ineffective. Predictably, biotic abilities must be used to cause the troops to drop their guard, exposing vulnerable areas to gunfire. None of the additions to the action sequences are anything unique, but these refinements simply bring Mass Effect’s combat aspects – historically a lesser-considered component for the series – further in line with popular, dedicated third-person shooters.
The game’s visuals, while undeniably an improvement on its predecessor, don’t constitute the significant upgrade that, say, Mass Effect 2 was to Mass Effect. From the outset, it all feels very familiar; Solus’ character model, for instance, looks very much as it always did, and so too the environment style, with the Salarian homeworld sporting a striking resemblance to the wards and planters of the Citadel. If not for the additional mechanics, it could be easy to assume the content on offer is more in line with a Mass Effect 2 downloadable content pack.
Thus far, it seems that Mass Effect 3 largely represents some meticulous tinkering under the hood with the existing foundations rather than laying down new infrastructure. Certainly, the combat-heavy section presented by this preview build showcases a more refined experience, rather than a reinvention of the wheel. But the early signs are there that BioWare could well be a significant step closer to finding the ideal blend of action shooter and RPG.