Eurogamer 2011: Mass Effect 3 Hands-On
“No one wants to admit it but humanity is under attack. One very specific man, might be all that stands between humanity and the greatest threat of our brief existence”
Two years ago those now immortal words were uttered by Martin Sheen’s Illusive Man as what is widely accepted as one of this generation’s finest games began in spectacular fashion. Fans of the series were not only treated to a continuation of the epic story of the galaxy’s battle against the Reapers but a brand new combat and control system which while moving it closer to the shooter genre and farther from the original game’s RPG roots, appeared to improve the gameplay substantially. We’re now just six months away from the arrival of the Reapers and the conclusion to one of the most ambitious gaming trilogies in recent memory, but can it improve upon what has preceded it?
If the demo is anything to go by, Mass Effect 3 will be more of a refinement of a concept rather than a radical change like we saw in the transition between the original Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. Rather than scrapping a game that works rather well for a second time, BioWare have taken Mass Effect 2 and refined every aspect of it, while also bringing back some of the customisability and RPG elements that were lost between the first and second games. What you end up with here then is not only a conclusion to the series, but a combination of the first two parts to potentially create the best Action RPG ever made.
The level I got to play will be all too familiar to fans keeping up with BioWare’s preview coverage of the game. Set in what I can only assume is a relatively early level of the game due to the lack of spoilers revealed by the characters, the demo takes place on Sur’Kesh, the Salarian homeworld, where your mission is simply to retrieve a Krogan Princess for everyone’s favourite Krogan warlord, Wrex. It’s clear right from the start of this mission that large parts of the game are going to lean heavily on fan service, giving us continuations and ultimately conclusions to character arcs that started in the games leading up to this. While Mordin and Wrex were relegated to cameos, Liara and Garrus return as squad members, featuring a very similar arsenal to what they had in ME2. How this scene plays out if you killed Wrex, Garrus or Mordin in the previous games is still unknown, but BioWare have promised plenty of permutations to cover every eventuality.
One of the first things I noticed while playing the demo was how much more impressive the audio quality is. While the backing music was ripped straight from ME2, and some of the character voices were not finished yet, both of which will be changed by the time the game launches, the overall audio presentation has been improved substantially. Bullets now feel extremely impactful, as do grenades which rather than making a weak bang like in ME1, now sound like they are ripping the ground apart. It’s actually surprising how poor the ME2 audio seems in comparison to ME3, as BioWare have certainly focussed on this as an area of improvement and taken it to the levels seen in the biggest shooters of the year, namely Battlefield 3.
Other improvements have also been made to the overall audio presentation, with the squadmates now talking a lot more during battles. Gone are the days where Garrus will endlessly say “scratch one” every time he unleashes a Concussive Shot, and instead you get conversations between the squad, allowing narrative points to be expanded mid-combat. Surprisingly this doesn’t impact upon your concentration at all, and if anything helps to build not only the supporting cast up more, but also a sense of realism and urgency to the proceedings.
While the gameplay itself remains primarily the same as ME2, subtle changes have been brought in to improve manoeuvrability around the battlefield. Shepard can now perform combat rolls and dodges, as well as being able to move much more easily in cover. While on the whole this works well, this early build of the game did seem to have problems identifying when you were trying to move into cover and not perform a combat roll, leading to some awkward moments where I rolled into a barrier and just rolled on the spot. I would expect bugs like these to be fixed by release, as on the whole, the new rolls make movement around the battlefield much easier.
The other big addition to combat is the new and upgraded Omni-Tool, the Omni-Blade. Coming in as a new melee attack (standard melee beatdowns are still available and can be combo’d now) the Omni-Blade gives you the chance to perform one hit kill takedowns on enemy units. But this comes at a cost. Not only are you open to return fire during this attack, but it’s also slow so the enemy can move out of the way if you do not position yourself correctly. It’s an interesting payoff that not only draws you out of cover, but also prevents the move from making combat trivial. It’s usage in cover is also looking good, as you can now pull enemies over walls to kill them, although this did seem a bit buggy in the demo; a bug I’m sure will be resolved in the future.
On the whole, the level design features significant improvements over ME2, with enemies in particular being far more intelligent than they have ever been before. Enemies will now effectively make use of cover and move to flank you, and will react to what is happening around them. If an enemy spots you outflanking them, they will call in back-up to cut off your planned attack route. It is here that the new cover system becomes vital, as it allows manoeuvrability in the shadows to ensure that your attack plans play out correctly. The newfound intelligence of your enemies also further promotes the use of squad attacks, making it more vital than ever to utilise your team, none more so than the new Atlas Mech, which is one of the more difficult units BioWare have ever put into a Mass Effect game. Suicide charging it is simply not an option.
As I said earlier, ME3 brings with it a return of some of the RPG elements from the original Mass Effect, but it still very much retains the feel of those seen in ME2. The level-up system from ME2 remains exactly the same as before, with only a few more additions to the list of available upgrades (mainly grenades and attacks), until the player reaches the cap of four upgrades found in ME2. From this point on, upgrades are dealt with on a choice by choice basis. Do you want a larger blast radius or a more powerful explosion? Do you want a greater range of attack or more accuracy on the throw? Each option can only be chosen once, so choices must be taken with some thought. While the choices may seem very trivial, it in fact allows a much more personalised experience, as given that levels carry over from ME2, players from the previous games will get to these customisation options much earlier.
The other big RPG element returning are weapon upgrades, but thankfully it is much simpler than the insane Inventory from ME1. Simply find a weapon bench, choose your weapon and then select attachments and modifications for it. It’s an incredible simple system which involves scrolling through the various different parts you currently have to tailor the stats to your liking. It’s not a huge addition, but as with the level-up improvements, it adds just that little bit more customisation to the game. However, weapon usage is much more limited in the game, as you can now only carry two weapons at any time plus a pistol. As a soldier class player I found this incredibly limiting and given that the series has already found a way to explain holding many weapons (by collapsing them) it makes absolutely no sense to suddenly be limited in their usage.
Perhaps the only thing not to receive a significant tweak are the graphics, which while being slightly improved, look similar to the ME2 graphics. While it’s true that the draw distance appears much greater in ME3 and there is certainly more activity both in the levels and in the backgrounds, the facial animations and features do not appear to be hugely upgraded from ME2, which is a shame. One of my personal problems with the game is that Liara appears to have a very low resolution face model, but BioWare assure fans that this is temporary, so hopefully it will be replaced by the time the game hits store shelves.
While Mass Effect 3 is not a ground-breaking reform of the entire series, it is in fact much better than that; BioWare have taken not only the best of Mass Effect 2, but also the best from the original Mass Effect to create a game that feels like a true finale to one of the most impressive new IPs to hit the market in the last decade. While it’s hard to gauge what the wider game will be like, if the gameplay itself remains as good or improves upon the demo then at the very least playing the game itself will be great fun. But of course, in a series like Mass Effect, the gameplay always takes a back seat to the story, so while BioWare have seemingly perfected their gameplay style, we now all need to wait to see whether they can match it in terms of plot. And if the rest of the series is anything to go by, I can’t see any reason why it won’t be.