Yesterday was not only Valentine’s Day, but also the release date of the Mass Effect 3 demo. This story-driven sci-fi action/adventure opus hooked me with the first of three games in late 2007, and the full version of the third and concluding installment hits retail shelves on March 6th of this year. The advance demo released yesterday is a bit like a valentine from developer BioWare to all the Mass Effect fans, the numbers of which are now legion. As we’ll soon see from my initial impressions of the demo, the winning formula that makes this series great is back in full force, with hints of a slightly different flavor that some might enjoy…while others find less than palatable.
Since I’ve played, finished and thoroughly enjoyed both of the previous games, importing my custom character into Mass Effect 2 to create a contiguous experience, I am anxiously awaiting the conclusion to the Mass Effect trilogy. Yesterday’s demo, which I played on my Xbox 360, gives us a taste of two different portions of the game: the first appears to be an opening mission wherein the Reapers attack Earth, and the second is a key mission on the Salarian homeworld. Besides the combat which the demo focuses on, there are also some conversation choices to make along the way, although none of the ones presented here will carry much weight in the overall narrative.
When you launch the demo’s single-player mode, you’ll first need to create your own personalized Commander Shepard character, since the demo doesn’t have the ability to import your saved games. The full character customizer is here, but I just opted for the “default male Shepard” for now — a somewhat disorienting choice, as I’m used to “my” Shepard looking like a clean-shaven dude in his late thirties with longer hair! You’ll also be asked a couple of questions about decisions you would have made in earlier games (most notable of which is whether you sacrificed Ashley or Kaidan on Virmire in the first game), and as a new twist, you’ll also be asked to pick from one of three game experiences: “Action”, “Role Playing” or “Story”.
This is one of those new flavors I spoke about, the mere existence of which has reportedly twisted the britches of a few fans. “Action” mode removes all dialog choices and makes conversations play out like simple cutscenes, which some have taken as evidence of the further “dumbing down” of the Mass Effect experience. Personally I don’t have a problem with this, since “Role Playing” mode lets you play the game the way you’re used to, with conversation trees aplenty. In fact, going even further in that direction, “Story” mode apparently broadens the available dialog choices while reducing combat difficulty level, for those who prefer narrative over gunplay. This might be an interesting mode to explore.
After you’ve made your choices, you’ll see some opening cutscenes, complete with some voiceover by fan-favorite Lance Henriksen’s Admiral Hackett. Then, as Shepard’s old friend and former C.O. Admiral Anderson exposits, two years have passed since the events of Mass Effect 2, and the Alliance still doesn’t believe Shepard’s warnings that the Reapers are due to arrive imminently to destroy all life in the galaxy, starting with Earth. Shepard himself is no longer on active duty, relegated to some kind of adviser position after all of the controversial stuff he pulled while in Cerberus’ employ. “Any other soldier would have been court-martialed,” reminds Anderson when Shepard has the audacity to complain about it.
If you’ve played the previous games in the series, you’ll be treated to some familiar faces right away — such as the aforementioned Admiral Anderson. Additionally, depending on which team member you sacrificed back on Virmire, you’ll bump into the surviving squadmate at Alliance Headquarters: either Ashley Williams or Kaidan Alenko, both of whom were absent from the second game almost entirely. In my case it was Ashley Williams, recently promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Commander and frankly looking a whole lot hotter than she did in the first Mass Effect. The wonders of higher poly counts and sharper textures! Indeed, the amount of detail in these characters’ faces is so extreme, there is actually a noticeable and somewhat distracting reduction in texture quality from the neck down.
The opening exposition shifts into high gear pretty fast as the Reapers descend abruptly upon Earth, and to be frank, this played out just a little too suddenly for my taste. Furthermore, as the crisis begins to unfold, the dialogue writing really takes a turn for the generic, filled with “we’ve got to pull together” and “we fight or we die” clichés that have been done to death by every sci-fi/action flick in existence. The visuals are epic, though, and as Earth’s cities began to come under attack, I found myself wanting to get into the action of saving them and get the cheesy lines over with.
Fortunately the demo does just that, and — interspersed by some impressive action set pieces — you and Anderson make a run for the Normandy SR2, which apparently has been confiscated from Cerberus and returned to Alliance service. All kinds of evil shit gets in your way, which you’ll naturally have to shoot at, punch or spear with your new Omni-Blade in order to keep making progress. I have to say here that the new default pistol is truly a joy to use, with a punchy sound and feel. There are also some gimmicky sequences designed to highlight the fact that Shepard can jump over gaps and climb ladders now, which are presented in such a way as to make us feel like this is brand new tech that’s never been done before in a game. A little bit silly.
There’s also a somewhat maudlin but dramatically effective scene involving the very real casualties of the Reapers’ destruction of Earth, involving the death of two escape shuttles filled with innocents, including a young boy whom Shepard only just helped evacuate moments before. It really seals the emotional deal, and you can see the anger-fueled determination cementing itself on Shepard’s face as he watches, helpless, from the Normandy’s loading ramp. And then you’re off to the galaxy at large, with the objective of warning the Citadel Council of the Reaper invasion and amassing a huge fighting force of all the willing sentient races to strike back.
Unfortunately we don’t get to see any of that, for here is where the demo shifts into its next phase, taking you to a later point in the game. You’ll find yourself about to engage in some kind of rescue op on the Salarian homeworld involving, you guessed it, the Krogan Genophage. Apparently Dr. Mordin Solus, your fast-talking Salarian squadmate from Mass Effect 2, is planetside with a very rare prize: a fertile Krogan female. The idea seems to be that if Shepard’s team can get the Krogan breeding again, they’d make for a very effective infantry against the Reapers. Obviously this is a tremendous risk, and there are lots of moral choices afoot.
…None of which we’ll be dealing with here. This is a straight-up combat mission, and the game gives you a chance to level up your squadmates as well as yourself before you charge in. Speaking of squadmates, the intro to this mission is like a Who’s Who of favorite Mass Effect characters, from Garrus and Liara to Wrex (you didn’t shoot him on Virmire, did you?) and even Captain Kirrahe of the Salarian military. You quickly find yourself in a shooting war with Cerberus ground troops, who have apparently been tipped off that you’re trying to reignite the Krogan birth rate and have arrived to try and execute the female before you can save her.
It’s a pretty frenetic battle, with all the tropes familiar to Mass Effect players. I had a few issues with the controls, having an inordinate amount of trouble getting Shepard to take cover, and the storming / charging you can engage in by holding down the A button felt different, somehow less controllable, like a freight train running amok. Overall, the gunplay was solid, even if the Cerberus troops were a little generic — all except the huge Cerberus power armor “boss” at the end, which was pretty sweet.
A quick word about character skills: while still employed the same way, the process of leveling these up has been redesigned on the back end. Whereas in the previous game you merely put Progress Points into skills until you maxed them out, at which point you got to pick an “evolved form” of the skill, in Mass Effect 3 you must choose which of the two branches you want for a skill much earlier in its evolution. Different branches net you different effects, and with the decision fork coming earlier, you must choose carefully. Weapon upgrading has also gotten more interactive, with parts like scopes that you can attach and detach.
Unfortunately, the dialogue again seemed lackluster during the demo’s second half. The opening cinematic with Wrex was almost painful to listen to, and most of the scant few lines uttered during combat felt very dull. There were some notable exceptions; I laughed out loud after clearing a room full of enemies and heard Mordin reacting over the comm with a line like: “Excellent; affinity for destruction still intact.” I’m going to take a second run through the demo tonight, as a female Shepard this time, and see if voice actress Jennifer Hale can liven up the proceedings. (Whenever I play as FemShep, I always make all the Renegade dialogue choices and throw people out of windows. It’s more fun that way.)
The demo ends with a pretty cool cinematic (I’ll just say that the Krogan female is no damsel in distress), and a fairly anticlimactic interrogation wherein Shepard angrily asks a wounded enemy soldier what Cerberus is doing there, in response to which the guy just dies. Okay then!
This small taste of the Mass Effect 3 experience focuses pretty heavily on the gunplay, at least once it gets going, but it’s safe to say that the battles are just like you remember them from the previous game. I do enjoy the combat, but I dig the narrative-fueled galaxy hopping even more, and I find myself salivating for more of the latter. It’s clear that this demo is intended to prime new players who are unfamiliar with Mass Effect by selling them an experience closer to what they may already be familiar with, like Gears of War or other shooters. That’s the broadest stroke of flavor you’ll detect here, and if you’re not that into Mass Effect’s combat sequences, it might leave you with a bitter aftertaste.
Speaking of which, publisher Electronic Arts has really gone off the deep end with cross-promotions and exclusive DLC for Mass Effect 3, pumping it up with a marketing campaign whose alternating crassness and incomprehensibility have become almost embarrassing to the longtime fan. I hope that beneath all of this glossy trumpeting, BioWare will deliver another well-rounded and compelling game like the one they gave us in Mass Effect 2.
As my preorder’s already in, I’ll be finding out on March 6th.
Edit: I just ran through the demo a second time with a female Shepard character, and Jennifer Hale knocks it out of the park as the voice of FemShep. Amazing how she brings such life to fairly lackluster material. If you don’t have a character to import from a previous game, I suggest creating a female Shepard for your first playthrough.