The Mass Effect series is one that hardly needs an introduction. Bioware’s epic space drama has, in my opinion at least, become the best thing to happen to the sci-fi genre since Star Wars. So it was with more than just a little anticipation that I entered the tiny theater in the EA booth to see Mass Effect 3 in action. Though there was only room for me to sit on the floor at producer Casey Hudson’s feet, it didn’t matter. I knew I was in for a real treat, and Mass Effect 3 did not disappoint. Head past the break for my eyes-on impressions.
The demo was broken up into three stages to demonstrate the game’s scope, combat and story. It opens with Shepard, Asari heartthrob Liara T’Soni and trusty old Garrus Vakarian attempting to destroy a Reaper stronghold on an unnamed planet. Also helping Shepard out in the background is Legion, your friendly Geth teammate from Mass Effect 2, so there’s one returning character confirmed. It’s unclear if he’ll actually join your party at any point, but it was nice to see him there anyway. Shepard and friends fight their way through a number of Cerberus soldiers who have been indoctrinated by the Reapers, demonstrating streamlined cover mechanics as well as the devastating new Omni-Blade melee attack. As they progress through the base, the team comes face to face with one of the massive, sentient machines and a thrilling chase ensues with Shepard using the gun turret on the back of a moving tram car. It’s hard to appreciate just how large a Reaper really is until it’s literally inches away, bearing down on you.
The demo then jumps ahead to a scene on the Salarian homeworld of Sur’Kesh, where Shepard and company are trying to rescue a Krogan female and repair relations between the Salarians and the Krogans. Krogan females, rare and highly prized in Krogan society, are kept hidden and wear outfits not unlike burkas to keep themselves from being seen. In this scene, meant to demonstrate deeper combat mechanics, we get to see two more returning characters – musically inclined Salarian genius, Mordin Solus, and all around baddass, Urdnot Wrex.
Shepard must fight his way through yet more indoctrinated Cerberus agents and this part of the demo showed off the new options for doing so. Moving from cover to cover has been vastly improved and looks far more rapid and responsive now. It allows Shepard to quickly close the gap between him and his enemies, moving into range to use the Omni-Blade. Moving around the environment outside of cover has also been improved, as Shepard will now hop over gaps and other hazards automatically, as well as being able to traverse ladders. Hand grenades, notably absent from Mass Effect 2, make their glorious return in Mass Effect 3, allowing you to flush your enemies out or eliminate groups of them at once. And while we’re on the subject of things returning from Mass Effect 1, weapons can now be modified at work benches to augment their abilities.
In addition to the normal Cerberus soldiers, a new variant that carries riot shields is introduced here. These enemies can not be defeated from the front immediately, you must first relieve them of their shields. The way this was done in the demo was to have Liara use her biotic pull ability to yank the shields right out of their hands. The squad control commands look mostly the same as they did in Mass Effect 2, allowing you to send them to cover and map their powers to the d-pad for easy access in the middle of combat.
Speaking of powers and abilities, the new upgrade tree was shown off and now features a lot more options. Rather than advancing a skill in only one of two ways, each branching skill path now has several more directions it can branch into, allowing you to further personalize your abilities. You’ll need to be strong to face off against the new Cerberus “Atlas” exosuits, essentially 15 foot tall walking tanks. If you’re careful, you can take out just the pilot and hop behind the controls of the Atlas yourself. Mech combat in Mass Effect? yes please!
The final part of the demo jumps to an earlier point in the story when the Reaper invasion of Earth is just beginning. Shepard is on trial for working with Cerberus in Mass Effect 2 – known throughout most of the galaxy as human centric terrorists – utilizing their resources to stop the insect-like Collectors from starting the Reaper invasion. Of course, once the invasion begins, people stop doubting Shepard in an awful hurry. We join Shepard and his old friend, Admiral Anderson, as they attempt to rendezvous with the Normandy and escape the chaos raging all around them. Reapers make their way slowly across the city, destroying everything in their path and touching down all over the place. At one point, a massive explosion off in the distance throws Shepard and Anderson back against a wall in a dramatic shockwave. They must also fight their way through new Reaper Husk enemies called Cannibals who happen to carry firearms of their own.
This scene also demonstrates how the story can take more emotional turns than in the previous games. In the midst of the confusion, Shepard happens upon a small child hiding in a ventilation shaft. Shepard offers the boy a hand, which he refuses, saying simply “You can’t help me now”. Hesitantly, Shepard withdraws. As the demo comes to an end, Shepard sees the boy boarding an escape shuttle and takes a sigh of relief, only to see it blasted out of the sky by a Reaper a few seconds later. The look of pain on Shepard’s face as he observes this is quite apparent, and you can’t help but feel sorry for him and for that poor child. It’s an emotional moment and the game will likely have more of these instances.
The demo ended with Shepard being reinstated into the Alliance by Anderson, who orders him to leave Earth and rally as much assistance as he can from around the galaxy. As the Normandy exits Earth’s atmosphere, the scene fades to black and I know I’ve just seen something special. The Mass Effect series holds a special place in my heart, and Mass Effect 3 truly looks to be bigger and better than the previous two games combined. I really couldn’t be happier with what I saw on display in that tiny, crowded theater. 2012 simply can’t arrive fast enough.