Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Mass Effect 3 Demo - Impressions

Warning - Very minor spoilers included in this post. Nothing that would ruin the experience for you but don't say I didn't warn you.

February 14th has long been the day for star-crossed lovers all over the world. This Valentine’s Day however, will be held in our hearts as the day Mass Effect lovers got a little recognition with one of the sweetest gifts of all. A simple card or heart-shaped box of chocolates certainly isn’t Bioware’s style though, and instead of any of that clich├ęd nonsense, they’ve delivered us something many have been anticipating for over a year now: a demo of Mass Effect 3.

An anxious period of download was followed by a start-screen dominated by a war-ravaged Earth; a gloomy foreshadowing of the Reaper invasion yet to come. Following this you are presented with a feature new to the Mass Effect series; game modes. The choice of three distinct game modes is offered: ‘Action’ – An action-adventure inspired affair, in which you play as default Shepard with the conversations playing as cut-scenes – ‘Roleplaying’ – The traditional Mass Effect experience we know and love – and ‘Story’ – An easier version of the ‘Roleplaying’ mode. Being a veteran of the series I opted for ‘Roleplaying’ and then it was on to the character customisation menu.

Character customisation has never been one of Mass Effect’s strong points and little has changed since the first two iterations. Bioware clearly has an idea of what Commander Shepard is supposed to look like and your ability to differentiate from that is limited. Thankfully, I was still able to equip my Shepard with his trademark handlebar moustache; so he was more than prepared to vanquish the Reapers in style. All classes are available to play with in the demo so I elected to go with Infiltrator, just as my previous Shepard’s before him, and then, the action began.

The first half of the demo takes place on a fearful Earth preparing for a Reaper invasion. Commander Shepard has been relieved from duty and is being held in an Alliance detention facility. Human colonies are going dark throughout Alliance space and High Command is faced with the grim realisation that the Reapers are approaching. Shepard and Admiral Anderson are called before the Alliance and before you can say ‘hold the line’ the Reapers descend and interrupt the meeting with a high-powered laser, forcing Anderson and Shepard to flee, and the gameplay to commence.

The movement is very similar to Mass Effect 2 but is dusted with subtle tweaks to help the flow of gameplay. Arrows now appear over vaultable cover and the sprint function feels a lot faster and more responsive than the two previous titles. Levels are also a lot easier to navigate, meaning the excitement is never compromised by an occasional wrong-turn or misjudged sprint.

The main emotional focus in the first half of the demo is an un-named child, first seen from the window of Shepard’s cell innocently playing in their garden. Later that child is met again with Shepard offering the boy help to escape, fearing his life; the child refuses, and crawls off through the air vent he’d claimed as his hiding place. The young lad is seen once more as Shepard escapes earth on the Normandy. The boy clambers clumsily onto an evacuation ship after seeing up-close the horror of a Reaper invasion, just as the ship attempts its escape, a Reaper blast cuts down the vessel and sends it rocketing to the ground in a maelstrom of fire, the chance of any of its passengers surviving is nought. Whereas in other games, a child’s death would be a kind of ‘shock-moment’, in Mass Effect 3 it comes off as genuinely emotional and proves, unquestionably, that Bioware still know how to craft a compelling narrative.

The second half of the demo takes place further on in the game. Shepard, Wrex, Liara and Garrus are headed to the Salarian home-world to extract a fertile Krogan female. Cerberus, getting wind of this, launch a full-scale assault on the facility. This is where the improved combat mechanics really start to shine through. The combat feels infinitely more satisfying than it did in Mass Effect 2 and Bioware have ironed out the creases to a point where Mass Effect 3 could stand up as a great game based purely on its gun-play. Crosses appear on your reticule to signify an accurate shot, ducking in and out of cover feels easier, the radial weapons and skills menu works as well as ever, and the wide variety of enemies will lead you into making many tactical decisions. The Cerberus Engineer for instance, deploys heavy turrets that are far too powerful to be assaulted head-on, so a flanking/biotic manoeuvre is possibly your best bet. Following a few hard fought battles your Shepard will level up, allowing us some hands-on time with Mass Effect 3’s 
leveling system.

The levelling in Mass Effect 3 is similar to Mass Effect 2, but has been streamlined to become more accessible to new players. Every level you earn skill points which are then spent on refining your specific abilities. As an Infiltrator I invested a lot of points in the new ‘sticky grenade’ ability; suddenly those turrets weren’t so menacing. Unlike Mass Effect 2, it’s now a lot clearer how your skill points are being spent. Every ability has a full inventory screen when selected and feels a lot easier to use than both the previous games before it. Meaning new players shouldn’t be intimidated by an ominous levelling system.

Once Wrex and his new paramour are united the demo draws to a close and I’m certain you’ll hungry for more. Mass Effect 3 is shaping up to be an excellent conclusion to the series that should do fans expectations justice. Pack your Assault Rifle and N7 Armour, as when March finally comes, you’ll be in for one hell of a ride.

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