BioWare seem to be making good on their promise to give very little of Mass Effect 3′s plot away in advance, and the twenty-minute mission on show at last week’s Eurogamer Expo – the same slice of combat that was seen at GamesCom – discloses all but nothing. Even so, I’m not going to go into very many specifics here: because if you’re anything like me, you don’t want to hear it. If you’d like to know who you’re fighting and why, that information is available from any number of other sources: and, if rumour has it right, this same demo will be made available to the public within the next month anyway.
The demo saw Shepard and two companions battling up a multi-tiered facility in order to protect a valuable asset from waves of enemy soldiers. Combat has had an overhaul, but one far less aparrent then the shift from the first to second game. Movement is a good example: Shepard can now dive-roll, and snap between cover with the aid of context-sensitive icons projected onto the environment. These additions feel like they’ve always been there, and lend credibility to Casey Hudson’s claim that Mass Effect 3 will include everything expected from a modern third-person shooter.
This extends to a new ‘look at this’ button which pops up when key events occur. In the demo, it was used to lock Shepard’s perspective to a gunship hurtling through the level in pursuit of a fleeing shuttle: however, Mass Effect 2′s interventionary cutscenes were still very much in effect for the introduction of key enemies. Its inclusion lends credence to the idea that Mass Effect 3 will be the most cinematic game in the series: indeed, the main thing that this demo reminded me of was Mass Effect 2′s better DLC – particularly the handcrafted action-movie feel of Lair of the Shadow Broker.
Demo Shepard was armed with the Mattock Heavy Rifle from the second game’s Firepower Pack DLC, which has been beefed up to – as its name suggests – fire single shots with palpable impact and weight. Weapons now have slots for upgrades, and in the demo these included increased heatsink capacity and muzzle velocity. Best of all, these add-ons have a visual effect, extending barrels and tweaking textures. It feels a lot like Mass Effect 2′s armour customization in practice, and it’ll be interesting to see if any of the original game’s more nuanced upgrades (scanners, explosive rounds) make a reappearance.
Snap headshots and strategic deployment of powers are still the order of the day, despite the marketing campaign’s increased focus on melee combat (the best evidence for which is the fact that I now own a comically small inflatable Omniblade.) In actual fact, it doesn’t seem like a huge amount has changed: tapping the melee button now launches Shepard into a three-hit combo, rather than a simple rifle bash, and holding it fires off a canned Omniblade strike. In play it feels like a cosmetic overhaul of the system already in place. The Omniblade is also a little counter-intuitive: the animation very much looks like a deathblow, but isn’t, often leaving Shepard exposed afterwards. Likewise, crouching enemies helpfully snap to a standing position to receive their holographic beatdown, demonstrating that there’s still work to do to fit the revamped melee into the whole package.
It also appears – though this is difficult to confirm from the brief sample available – that power usage is less restricted than it was in Mass Effect 2, with shield and armour status no longer locking out certain abilities. If so, this is a promising return to the more strategic play of Mass Effect 1′s higher difficulties, while the retention of the second game’s universal cooldown maintains the much improved rhythm of combat.
The demo also included a new enemy type – riot-shield carrying shock troopers – that were easily countered by the tactical deployment of a biotic singularity. It seems like BioWare are looking to expand the array of humanoid enemies on offer, and grant individual factions a little more variety and character. That said, an end-of-demo boss battle against a new foe played out very much like a fight against a YMIR Mech from Mass Effect 2.
Character progression is the area which best symbolises the merging of the two previous games. Mass Effect 2′s system restricted customization to the last item in each skill-tree: this has been overhauled so that significant decisions emerge sooner. While the choices themselves remain familiar – for example, making individual abilities more powerful as opposed to extending powers to the whole group – these branches can now be upgraded in and of themselves, making the upgrade paths significantly longer. It’s also possible to spread skill-points around to take the initial levels in a number of possible upgrade paths: a flexible system that more closely resembles the first game.
Put together, these changes make for a broad-ranging and very promising upgrade to the existing system. Crucially, however, it hasn’t been necessary to re-invent the wheel and few radical alterations seem to have taken place – and given that the timing between each iteration has been roughly equal, that means more time for content. The promise of a full-length game of Shadow Broker’s quality makes March seem very far away indeed.