E3 2011: Mass Effect 3
Watching someone play a demo of a game is an interesting experience. Sometimes it’s terribly boring and you can’t get any impression of the game worth sharing. But on a few occasions, the demo impresses. Crowds will get into the experience, hooting and hollering, cheering and laughing. And, living up to my expectations, the Mass Effect 3 preview that I took in on Wednesday fell into the latter category.
The demo opened in what Executive Producer Casey Hudson described as a level in the middle of the game. The level is lush – sunlight illuminates a sprawling compound surrounded by high cliffs and tropical plants. Waterfalls can be seen pouring down sandstone cliffs. It looks like the kind of place people vacation to. But Shepard doesn’t have time to appreciate any of this. The mission opens with Shepard tasked to take out a dangerous target. Using a laser targeting system, Shepard calls in an airstrike – or in this case, an orbital strike. After targeting the object, bombs fall from the Normandy and a fleet of ships above.
Shepard was too close to the blast and is sent sprawling to the concrete below. Further complicating things, Cerberus commandos have shown up on the scene. With limited cover and no allies, Shepard dispatches his foes with precision, rushing forward and calling in to let the team know of the ambush. A quick cutscene drew the first cheers from the crowd, showing off some returning characters. We see Garus, Liara T’Soni and Legion in another area of the compound, apparently tending to a Krogen female with some sort of illness that demands quarantine. Shepard alerts them of the danger and tells them to get moving.
As the cutscene ended, we finally got to see what Shepard was targeting – a giant, four-legged metal reaper. It is massive, casting a shadow over a huge area that Shepard, of course, happens to be standing in. Shepard takes over a turret and starts pumping rounds into it. It collapses to the ground, smoking, but it doesn’t stay down long. Shepard’s bullets are useless against it, but he somehow manages to escape. Another cutscene gives a better understanding of what Shepard is actually doing there – apparently, he’s playing diplomat between the Krogan and Turian races.
The crowd gave a heartfelt cheer when the lovable Mordin Solus appeared on the screen. The crew is attempting to get the Krogan female to the Normandy so that Mordin can hopefully cure her illness and Shepard can win her favor. But to do so, Shepard must punch his way through enemies that seem to be coming in every direction. Shepard is now in command of the squad again. Good timing too because shielded enemies have appeared. Fortunately, hand grenades have been added into the game, making these foes easier to dispatch than they would be without.
The weapon system has been redone as well for the final chapter, offering more customization options in an effort to strike a balance between the overwhelming amount of potential upgrades from the first release and the dearth of upgrades in the second. Upgrade items can be found in the field and in stores, which should improve the limited in-game economy that characterized previous releases. This also compliments an expanded leveling up screen. On first blush, it looked familiar to the original game, but a closer reveal showed that each category in the menu had various subcategories that give further upgrades such as increasing the effectiveness of headshots and presumably other abilities.
The crowd’s next cheer occurred when Shepard performed a move out of Sam Fisher’s playbook. Sneaking behind some cover, Shepard lined up behind an enemy on the opposite side of the barrier and performed a contextual melee attack. He grabbed the foe by the neck, pulled him over the barrier and stabbed him with an omni-blade, a new tool for the arsenal. It was brutal, but silent and effective. For the rest of the demo, Shepard and the team moved from room to room, taking out foes as they worked to keep the Krogan out of Cerberus hands.
With safety in sight, Cerberus resorts to desperate measures and employs what Hudson referred to as the Atlus. The powerful mech crashed through the ceiling and brought serious firepower with it. Hudson assured us that we would be able to take control of mechs like this during our play, but unfortunately we didn’t get to see that.
We also weren’t able to see what happened with the Krogan female because the demo shifted to a much earlier point in the game. In fact, it was the earliest point possible – Shepard is back on Earth, attending hearings on the Reaper threat. We don’t see any of this because the debate and deliberation is interrupted by the Reaper invasion. It has begun. Shepard is outside on a bright, blue sky day and in every direction, we can see are dozens of fireballs falling toward the surface. The demo driver then turned the camera and we can see the tallest skyscrapers on the skyline crumbling. They are dwarfed by massive, massive Reapers.
In addition to this threat, the Reapers have launched Husks to the surface. Shepard, now partnered with Admiral Anderson, works his way toward where the Normandy will rescue them. Along the way, Shepard discovers a child hiding in a vent shaft. The demo driver selects the dialogue option to help the child out, but he refuses Shepard’s assistance. Shepard turns his head for a second and when he looks back, the child is gone.
Shepard and Anderson continue on and we can take in the destruction that even this brief attack has already unleashed. A new enemy, called the Cannibal, emerges. We only saw a very brief glimpse of these enemies, but they were about the same size as a Krogan and looked just as mean. Shepard and Anderson fire at a huge swarm of them, but eventually both run out of ammo. It’s obvious that no one was prepared for a Reaper invasion. Thankfully, the Normandy saves the day yet again as it swoops out of orbit and drops a bomb on these strange new foes.
Shepard climbs aboard and attempts to pull Anderson up. He refuses and gives Shepard an order to go out and get help. Before he can give an answer, we see rescue ships landing on the roof of a nearby building – and a familiar face running toward them. The child from the vent shaft climbs up into one of the rescue crafts, but the rescue attempt proves to be useless. Out of nowhere, a Reaper launches an attack against the three rescue ships, obliterating each as they attempt to flee to safety.
It was here that Shepard took up the task assigned to him. Anderson throws Shepard back his dog tags and Shepard is brought into the fight to save the galaxy. The crowd cheered the loudest at this somber and resolute moment. The designers at Bioware seem to have taken the suggestions made by critics and fans of the first two games to heart and have expanded greatly on the Mass Effect series. It’s just too bad that we have to wait until 2012 to get our hands on ME3.