Mass Effect 3 Preview

15 Feb 2012

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Electronic Arts
Developer:BioWare Corp.
Release Date:2012-03-06
Genre:
  • Role-Playing,Action
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
If there's a big game release set to turn heads this March, it's Mass Effect 3. Not only does it represent the latest in BioWare's well-regarded sci-fi shooter-RPG series, but it's also the capstone on the series' three-part story. Though leaks left and right regarding the game's plot and features have made their rounds throughout the Internet, the actual gameplay footage that players and press have had access to doesn't reveal all that much save for a few key scenes, the Reaper invasion of Earth chief among them. With the release of the game's demo, we managed to get some hands-on time and are here to deliver some impressions on how the game's shaping up.

Mass Action

Immediately upon starting Mass Effect 3 (the demo seems to include the very beginning of the game), the story picks up more or less where Mass Effect 2 left off. Commander Shepard is spending his (or her) time relaxing after stopping the Collectors in Mass Effect 2, but it doesn't take long before the alarm comes in: the Reapers have returned, and they aren't just stopping by, they've brought a full-scale invasion to Earth. The game's opening sequence is full of action and intensity, with explosions left and right, massive Collector ships descending to wreak destruction, and transformed Reaper drones, including Husks and the brand-new Cannibals (big, ugly things that act as foot soldiers) all tearing up the cityscape.

The demo's second mission, meanwhile, involves Shepard and friends traveling to the Salarian homeworld in order to pick up a fertile Krogan female as part of a peace bargain. Things, predictably, turn pear-shaped when Cerberus soldiers arrive to secure the female for themselves. What proceeds is a corridor-crawling fight highly reminiscent of Mass Effect 2's sequences, although perhaps not as long or monotonous, as each encounter brings a new enemy to fight or a new tactic to take advantage of. The end, of course, concludes with a big boss fight against a towering mech suit. This sequence is cut in the middle, presumably for time or space constraints, so it doesn't quite represent the full portion of the game.

It's very clear from this demo, and from much of what we've seen of the game elsewhere, that Mass Effect 3 is being marketed as an action game first and a role-playing game second. While that was true of Mass Effect 2 as well, there are few dialogue options or choices to make during the demo, and the focus on forward momentum and moving through one set-piece to the next serves to reinforce that Mass Effect 3, at least on the surface, is more interested in paying tribute to Gears of War than Knights of the Old Republic.

Of course, we can't draw any definite conclusions about how Mass Effect 3 will turn out in practice - Dragon Age II's demo also had a heavier focus on action than the final product - but at the very least, Mass Effect 3 is looking to be by far the most accessible in the series to date, if its dialogue-choice-free "Action Mode", shaky-cam cinematics, and emphasis on bigger and louder explosions is anything to go by.

Combat, Refined

While it's impossible to judge Mass Effect 3's overall focus, it's certainly possible to examine the ways the game has changed mechanically. For fans of Mass Effect 2, the good news is, all for the better. The game's combat, which follows the same cover-shooting model, is a good deal more intense and interesting than Mass Effect 2's, while still feeling familiar. All the same features are there, from the pause-and-play functionality for ordering your squad members, to the breadth of powers to unleash on enemies, to ammo types and armor types, but it's been expanded in some key ways.

BioWare elected to build upon a good thing with Mass Effect 3's gunplay. Things are a touch faster-paced, aiming weapons feels tighter and more responsive (probably due to less spread when firing), and there are more options for moving around the environment, including rolling, diving and vaulting over ledges. The game's enemies are also much more aggressive, willing to rush you in melee, circle around behind you, use suppressive fire to pin you down, or grenades to flush you out. In one situation, enemy engineers dropped down turrets during the firefight, making enemy prioritization an important factor. Again, many of these things are standard in cover-based shooters, but Mass Effect 3 spotlights just how far behind the curve the previous game really was in the action department.
There are a few new toys to play with as well. While the basic weapon selection seems to include most of the standard Mass Effect 2 weapons, frag grenades have been added to the mix, to bring Shepard up to par with the enemies. Rather than the disc-shaped grenades in the first game, which were thrown in a straight line and remote-detonated, the new grenades are the same old lob-thrown potatoes that populate just about every action game, which I admit I'm a little disappointed to see. There's also a renewed focus on melee in combat, with Shepard able to use the omni-tool to form a powerful blade and impale enemies with it (biotic Shepards use a biotic-style attack instead). While I'm not sure this make sense canonically (since when was the omni-tool corporeal?), it does make melee a lot more viable than it was in Mass Effect 2. However, melee isn't always an instant kill, and takes time to wind up, so you will need to invest more points into the skill tree to take proper advantage of it.

Speaking of, there have been some positive changes to Mass Effect 3's skill system. Whereas the previous game ditched much of the depth in leveling and featured linear upgrade paths, Mass Effect 3 provides more choices - skills, past level 3, branch off from one another, and you'll need to choose which bonuses you prefer. There are also more options to customize Shepard's attributes, as things like health, biotic power, melee damage, armor rating and so on are influenced by more skill choices than before. One oddity is that experience points are given to Shepard for looting crates and picking up items - why, I have no clue. It's also worth pointing out that, at least in the demo, mini-games were nowhere to be seen. I'd actually be quite happy with such a change, as I was never very fond of them in the previous games.

Presentation

When it comes to presentation, Mass Effect 3 gets the job done without necessarily impressing. The art style introduced in the first game and refined in the second returns (including plenty of reused art assets), and while the game has some good direction and impressive set pieces (the initial invasion of Earth being an obvious stand-out), it's clear that BioWare's wrangling of current-generation hardware is reaching its limits. The game looks good, no question about it, but the low-resolution textures on both characters and the environment, and some occasionally stiff animation, are definitely noticeable next to other games. There was also one point where a cinematic displayed Shepard and Anderson shimmying across a ledge - but when I turned around after the cutscene, the ledge show was nowhere to be found. I'm not one to obsess over graphics, but some of these flaws I just wouldn't expect from a triple-A studio.

The audio side, so far, seems much better off. Mass Effect has always had distinctive sound design and some pretty consistent voice-acting, and that's no different in Mass Effect 3. The old characters who return sound just about the same (save for Mordin Solus, who sports a new actor), and the new ones, what the demo shows of them, are all voiced competently as well. The soundtrack sees a return to more electronic-influenced music, without losing the power of the Mass Effect 2 orchestral score, and it's well-composed around the action on display. Sound effects, however, are the real star. Explosions are punchy and powerful, weapons have a definite sense of thump, weight and impact to them, and overall, the game benefits quite a bit. Apparently, DICE, the developers behind Battlefield 3, were involved in fine-tuning the game's audio effects, and I certainly believe it.

Looming Threats

Like the Reapers set to take over the galaxy, however, I admit that there are some doubts in my mind Mass Effect 3, and the time I spent with the game did not help diminish them. I haven't yet mentioned the game's dialogue yet, and with good reason: to be frank, I found it rather poor. It's clear that BioWare were going for a strong action film aesthetic, with pithy remarks on war and one-liners every few minutes, and it just does not work. Mass Effect, while cinematic, has always managed to avoid going into Die Hard territory... when Shepard utters lines like "we fight or we die!", or watches a young boy get blown up by the Reapers while a soft piano score plays, I found it hard to avoid rolling my eyes. Even picking Earth as an invasion site comes across as a little manipulative rather than dramatic - it seems the "humans are special" rule is in full force here.

Granted, this only concerns a small snippet of the game, and I'm fairly certain BioWare won't abandon their bread-and-butter dialogue and characterization, but the game is being sold this way, and it does not cast an especially good light on the experience. Gears of War can get away with it because it's meant to be big, dumb and explosive; Mass Effect 3's bravado comes across as jarring, anemic, and a bit amateurish, to say the least. Players want more than intense action from Mass Effect, and the demo, unfortunately, doesn't do a good job of showcasing that side of the game.

Closing Thoughts

In short, Mass Effect 3, from what I've seen, is shaping up to be a very solid shooter. Mechanically it is a definite improvement over Mass Effect 2, and I found myself actually getting quite engaged in what, to me, has fast become a stale genre. Moreover, it manages to provide more choices in outfitting Shepard, some of which, like weapon upgrades, return from the original game. At the same time, I don't think anyone who's stuck with Mass Effect this long has been there for the combat, and the shallow action film cliches are a far cry from what most long-time fans expect.

Still, Mass Effect 3 looks like it will offer an explosive and enjoyable experience, and I'm pretty excited to see where the final game goes when it releases this March. We'll have a full review come its release, when the the trilogy finally reaches its dramatic conclusion.