Mass Effect 3 [Preview] – The first 90 minutes2 Feb 2012
The opening minutes of Mass Effect 3 are big, loud and imposing. This is a sequence quite clearly designed to ramp up the drama and prepare you for what’s to come. This is arguably the biggest game of the year, arguably the biggest trilogy of this generation. We expect things to be big.
Earth is being invaded by the Reapers and its defences are doing little to halt the advance. As the poster boy/girl for the resistance effort you’re shuttled off from Earth, after a relearn-the-controls romp past the Reaper’s ‘Dreadnoughts’, and sent off on your mission to protect the galaxy.
And yet, despite the intensity of the prologue, BioWare have managed to do what they’re so good at – they’ve infused everything with a sense of personal struggle. They’ve managed to convey and amplify the core emotions of loss, isolation, anger and fear from the people involved in the chaos. You want to beat the Reapers, not only for yourself but for them.
By highlighting moments that would be brushed-over (ignored, perhaps) by studios comparatively lacking in storytelling ability – a small child too scared to leave an air vent and follow you to safety, Colonel Anderson stubbornly refusing to let you stay and assist Earth’s population – BioWare have turned what would otherwise be a straightforward action scene into something altogether more serious and memorable.
The biggest problem BioWare have, though, is not providing the quality of narrative we’ve come to expect from them, it’s in making that story feel personal. With the emphasis on decision making we’ve witnessed from the first two games, Mass Effect 3 must deliver engagement that feels truly unique to each and every one of us. The moment we glimpse the first hint of a pre-defined ending or major character arc coming into play will be the moment that the magic is lost.
Of course, having only played the first 90 minutes of the game, there’s no way we can accurately get a feel for that at this point.
If you’re coming into Mass Effect 3 without having played either of the prior games then you’ll need to go through the usual character creation paces before you can begin. Do you want to be male or female? What skin tone would you prefer? Were you a war hero or the sole survivor of a catastrophic attack earlier in your career?
Playing Mass Effect 3 without my own save files from the previous game meant I had to undergo this practice myself, meaning that the Shepard I was playing as wasn’t my Shepard. For that reason, if you haven’t played both Mass Effect 1 and 2 I recommend turning off your computer now and experiencing them both in full before starting the final act. If it’s not your Shepard, it’s BioWare’s Shepard. That’s not Mass Effect.
Characters aside, the gameplay feels familiar. Only small things have been changed; moving between points of cover is easier, extra biotic and tech abilities have been added and the upgrade path for character stats seems deeper.
Rather than simply level up a character’s abilities by adding points to wide open categories, such as weapon proficiency or biotic powers, each has its own options. For example, Shepard’s weapon upgrades forced us to choose between a faster reload speed or increased melee damage. Once you’ve made your choice you can never unlock the one you pass on, instead you’re pushed onto another decision block.
This system provides more possible ability outcomes and could potentially allow you to create a character much more in line with what you want. On the other hand, choices are hard… but perhaps that’s the point.
Immediately after we’ve been shuttled to Earth, we’re sent on a mission to Mars. (In fear of giving away even minor spoilers, I’m not going to tell you why we find ourselves on the red planet.) After disembarking at a scientific research facility and taking in the epic sight of a storm that quite comfortably fills the entire horizon, we find out that our old friends Cerberus have gotten here before us.
For those who know nothing of Mass Effect, Cerberus are the group Shepard was working with in Mass Effect 2 – the jury is out on whether they’re good guys or bad guys.
In this instance they’re bad guys, all hell breaking loose as our team approaches – again, in fear of spoilers, I’m not going to mention Shepard’s squad mates at this point. Having set our Shepard up as a weapon-reliant tank, the battle was won through sticking to cover like glue, popping up for the odd headshot and ordering the rest of the team to use their biotic abilities to pull the Cerberus troops out of hiding.
The rest of the Mars mission continued largely in a similar vein, the mission prioritising action over dialogue and theatrical music over subdued tones. Roughly a third of the way through the mission we did run across an old friend stationed in the facility and, I’m very happy to say he/she, came with us. Whether you’re as happy will depend on your thoughts/feelings/actions from the past games.
Again, we don’t won’t to ruin the surprise for you but you can probably work out who it is from the screens on this page. What we will say is that, as well as the unnamed character, The Illusive Man makes an appearance at the end of the missions and, well, him and Shepard don’t exactly see eye-to-eye…
If anything, the gameplay on Mars demonstrated that BioWare are committed to taking the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach to combat. Everything worked as expected and there were very few surprises. Whether that remains the case down the line with the new abilities promised for users of tech and biotic powers remains to be seen, but as a warrior type that will not likely come into play on my end.
What was noticeable about the sequence however, was the improvement in the design of the environment. On a technical level things are indistinguishable from the second game – textures, anti-aliasing and animations all seemingly unchanged. Artistically they’re better, though.
Whereas past areas of combat felt too blocky, almost Gears of War-like in their construction, the Mars facility felt much more natural and was convincing enough to make you believe things had actually happened there before you turned up. The same can be said for the exterior of Mars and the opening scene on Earth, both harbouring a sense of organic charisma that was perhaps lacking in the cold, mechanical design of Mass 1 & 2.
As I said, the challenge for BioWare isn’t in the narrative or the visuals or the combat – they’ve proved they can do that. The challenge is in proving that Mass Effect 3 is the culmination of the promise they made to provide an epic sci-fi RPG that changes and adapts to your decisions, where each players feels a unique sense of place within its world.
If they can pull it off, then they may be even better at this than we thought they were.