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- Written by Eric Schwarz
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Page 2 of 2There 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.
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.
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.
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.
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