When presented with Mass Effect 3, the initial impression is that it firmly follows the law of the sequel – bigger, louder, more – to the letter.
The stakes are immediately higher than in previous Mass Effect games: Earth has been all but lost to the monstrous Reapers, and the role of galactic saviour has again fallen on Commander Shepard’s armour-clad shoulders. Unfortunately the team he so painstakingly assembled during the first two games has largely dispersed, and galvanising the galaxy’s diverse inhabitants into forming a united front against the Reaper’s might is proving tougher than expected.
Provided the bloodshed isn’t taking place in their backyard, other races would rather squabble over pettier concerns than band together to defeat this common and imminent threat. Clearly the creative minds at BioWare have been to their fair share of local council meetings.
The first gameplay section we saw took place on a Reaper base, with Shepard calling Joker and the Normandy in for an airstrike after he opens a blast shield protecting the base’s delicate inner structures. Rather than incapacitating the base, however, Joker’s bombing run simply awakens a Reaper from its subterranean slumber, and Shepard finds himself facing down the titanic insectoid with just a mid-size turret, as Legion pilots their small escape craft across the planet’s desert-like surface. A precise orbital strike disables the Reaper temporarily, but it’s quickly back up on its cruel, sword-like pincers, gnashing at Shepard with its mandibles before the screen fades to black.
The most obvious and least surprising change from Mass Effect 2 on display here was graphical. Everything is clearer, sharper, and possesses a sheen not seen in the game’s predecessors. Some environmental elements still look a bit flat or uninspired, but with the sheer variety of surrounds and races found in the Mass Effect universe, it’s hardly shocking that some generic textures have snuck in. Animation too has been the target of some refinement. Shepard’s movement is much smoother overall; he can now dive roll, and entering and exiting cover appears to be a far more graceful affair, although he still looks amusingly rigid when running.
That this gameplay section was well over half cinematic interludes won’t be a great sign for some either, but that was probably due to the climatic nature of the sequence rather than a reflection on the action within the game as a whole.
The second gameplay clip we saw took place on a Salarian homeworld which was being torn apart by a war between the Krogans and the Turians. Here, Shepard, Garrus and Liara were tasked with extracting an unidentified Krogan female from a well-secured facility, as she held the key to uniting the warring civilisations. Without peace and co-operation between the two races, the Reaper’s takeover of the galaxy was inevitable, we were told. Shepard’s new-found agility was again on display with him switching between bits of cover Gears of War-style, but we also saw melee kills via the new omni-blade (a holographic wrist-mounted switchblade), some of which were of the stealthy ‘pull an enemy over cover and brutally stab him’ variety.
BioWare spoke of greater vertical space for Shepard to explore, and we saw fleeting evidence of it here in the form of ladders to a mezzanine, and later as a path twisted through bomb craters and debris down to the Normandy. BioWare also mentioned that Shepard had fallen out of favour with Cerberus in this particular demo, and the segment closed with the squad facing off against a mid-size missile-launching mech sent by that shadowy organisation. At this point, a skilled player could pull the pilot from the hulking exoskeleton and claim it as his own, or simply destroy it with gunfire. Sadly, the demo ended before we saw either result.
The final clip took place earlier in the game, with Shepard on trial for his actions in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. Cutscenes showcased the new digital acting technology created especially for the game (think: a scaled-back L.A. Noire), but there is little time to appreciate this as a Reaper invasion cuts matters short and throws Shepard into the action once again.
Sprinting outside, we see mile-high Reapers feasting on a dying city, a scene reminiscent of War of the Worlds – not least for the low rumbling blare emanating from the enormous aliens. Amid the confusion and terror, Shepard spots a child huddled in a vent (a nod to another sci-fi classic perhaps?), but the route taken through the subsequent dialogue tree fails to coax him out, and the commander flees, vanquishing husks and a new enemy – the bulging, red-skinned three-eyed cannibal – as he does so.
After a brief encounter and conversation with original Normandy captain David Anderson, Shepard dives into a departing Normandy as a Reaper lays waste to everything in the vicinity. As he escapes, Shepard witnesses the child from the vent board an Alliance vessel safely, only for it to be dramatically destroyed by the advancing Reaper.
It’s a wrenching, if overly-calculated, end to our time with Mass Effect 3.
It’s no surprise that BioWare hasn’t dramatically overhauled anything following the acclaim garnered by Mass Effect 2, but what is heartening is that here at the close of the Mass Effect trilogy, tweaks are still being made to the formula. Sure, many other shooters don’t wait three games to incorporate grenades, stealth and satisfying melee into their arsenal, but Mass Effect has always been about story first and foremost, and no-one does expansive and immersive quite as well.
That RPG elements have been deepened against the current trend of simplification in this area should please current players, whereas those new to the franchise look to be catered to nicely with a ton of action and just the right amount of backstory.
Indeed, from this early sneak peek, Mass Effect 3 is looking like a worthy successor.