Comic-Con 2011: Hands-On With Mass Effect 3

EA’s Mass Effect 3 presentation at E3 was pretty cool, but somewhat of a let-down thanks to having been a bit too fast to catch all the details and, naturally, to having not been playable. Weak. Luckily, they’ve more than made up for those errors in judgment at Comic-Con 2011, with a somewhat lengthy playable scene that not only revealed some major spoilers, but also showed off the many ways combat has been significantly amended for the final installment of the Mass Effect trilogy.

Phil Hornshaw and Ross Lincoln were on-hand and in addition to their sweet interview with ME3 producer Jesse Houston, they managed to get some significant time in the playable demo. Here’s Ross’ take.

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The first thing to bear in mind is that, despite the super spoileriffic information provided at the demo, the playable scene wasn’t long, nor was it new. It was the second of the three scenes we saw in unplayable-demo form at E3, the one involving a Krogan female, Mordin and the touted new ‘veriticality’ in Mass Effect 3. The demo took approximately 5 to 10 minutes to complete, and appears to have ended about halfway through the intended length of the scene. I’ll have more to say about the spoileriffic story details shortly, which includes details about the level itself, but for now I’ll focus on combat, which is the bulk of the demo’s new content.

The combat system in Mass Effect 3 is definitely ramped up, even by comparison to Mass Effect 2. It’s faster, more intense, and there’s a lot more going on in any given battle. Also, Commander Shepherd doesn’t just have the hip new omni-blade (which is as cool as it looks, more about that in a moment), he’s also been spending a lot of time in the Alliance dojo, because he’s learned a few new melee combat moves. It isn’t Street Fighter; no multi-button combos or anything, just tap the B button to attack. Tap once and Shepherd does his Shepherd PAWNCH move. Tap twice and it’s PAWNCH elbow. Tap thrice and the combo is ended with a shove.

These changes make hand to hand combat feel much more immediate rather than the same old point and click, especially when an enemy rushes at you. In previous Mass Effect games, you’d push your enemy away with the PAWNCH but would subsequently have difficulty following up with additional hits. It was also difficult to combine melee attack with your fired weapon. Now, however, you can combo-punch an enemy to death rather easily, or, should you simply hit them once they’ll actually be stunned long enough to leap back and pick them off with a gun.

Speaking of leaping back, Commander Shepherd also has a brand new tumble move. If you’re moving forward and you tap the A button twice, he’ll roll forward. If you’re crouched against cover or fighting an enemy and you move your l-stick back while clicking the A button, Shep will roll backwards. The move is very useful for evading incoming fire or leaping away from cover that has become far less covery.

Now, about the Omni Blade. It’s just what you think, a knife generated by Shep’s Omni tool. You can sneak up behind an enemy and kill them Assassin’s creed style, or you can rush them full-speed and jab the knife into them in a pretty sick animation that shows Shep literally ramming the blade into his enemy. The animation isn’t finished yet, so it isn’t bloody, but it still looks insanely cool. Better, your character’s class will affect how the Blade generates. A Soldier class gets a single blade, while the Sentinel gets to generate 2 of them, one from each hand. No word on how many variants there will be, since the demo only allowed players to choose 3 classes (Adept being the last), but based on what we saw, it’s likely each class is going to get to see something a little different.

In case you’re wondering, selection of biotic powers, weapons, or giving commands to your squad function identically to Mass Effect 2. One big difference is the way your squad interacts. Now they banter, barking suggestions at you and each other that give valuable hints as to how best to survive a battle. Their advice isn’t mandatory – you can ignore Liara’s suggestion that you use stealth and simply bumrush the enemy and you’ll still survive, but it’s a nice touch.

Even at this stage in development, combat works very well, but things are far from finished, and it shows. The biggest problem is that the commands get a bit sticky. More than once, I was rushing to attack an enemy and found myself thrust into cover against my wishes, stuck fast against the wall next to the enemy I was attempting to kill. It was doubly annoying because it’s difficult to snap out of cover, so you’re getting pounded by the enemy while you remember to click the correct button. The developers are aware of the problem and I was informed it’ll be fixed soon, but it’s still worrisome, particularly as Mass Effect 2 suffered from similar, if less pronounced issues, in the final release.

There’s no doubt Mass Effect 3 is going to be a blisteringly-paced shooter, but I confess that I’m worried it will not actually contain restored RPG functionality BioWare keeps promising. The scene we saw, limited though it was, was all action, Gears of War style, with very little banter between characters. Sure, Mark Meer’s ‘awesome’ voice acting is still in full effect, but everything we’ve seen about Mass Effect 3 has been fightfightfight. While the Comic-Con demo was fun to play, particularly if you’ve been hungering for new Mass Effect content, as it gets closer to release BioWare needs to make some non-battle content available.

Until then, at least take heart that even if you can’t wander around aimlessly, you won’t get bored.

Phil’s Take

As a big RPG fan, combat as an element of the Mass Effect series has never really mattered to me. Sure, it’s nice that ME is a competent shooter, but I’m in it for the story and the universe-altering decisions. I prefer Shepherd the diplomat, or Shepherd the secret agent — Picard Shepherd rather than Kirk Shepherd.

Still, it’s nice to see ME3 really building off the combat upgrades of Mass Effect 2 and making Shepherd a much more viable soldier than he has been in previous games (at least with some classes). He’s a much more capable marine this time around, able to operate well in a run-and-gun style rather than sitting back and staying behind cover. Of course, cover is just as important as it has always been, but my experience in Mass Effect 2 often boiled down to a lot of hiding behind objects and playing peek-a-boo with enemies to avoid too much shotgun damage to Shep’s facial regions. Additional melee attacks and fast combat moves make him much better on the ground than in previous runs.

But as Ross mentioned above, Mass Effect is more Gears of War than it ever has been before. And it suffers from some of the same defects that have always driven me crazy with Gears — namely, One Button to Rule Them All. The Xbox gamepad’s A button is responsible for all manner of actions: running, diving, taking cover, leaving cover and mantling cover. It’s not as big a deal as it is in Gears, when one wrong move means being blown apart by an opponent in competitive multiplayer, but it still weakens the feeling of general Shep badassery when you mean to take cover and you dive against a chest-high wall five times before you stop what you’re doing and deliberately get Shep to do what you mean him to do.

There are more RPG elements in the customization of Shep as a combatant, though, and that’s definitely nice. There’s weapons modding, which is doable when not in combat at benches in a style similar to Dead Space, and the skill tree requires some hard choices, like opting for Shep’s tech powers to recharge faster, or bestowing that perk on the “henchmen.” Skills have to be leveled up through various option in order, so for the Warp ability, for example, you’ll first be able to lessen its cool down time, then upgrade its area of effect, before choosing whether it will do more damage or recharge faster. The first two options are must-upgrades, while the latter are a binary choice. The branching means you get to customize at least some of what Shep’s capable of, and that’ll mean more variety in characters from player to player. Good things all, although in the demo it was tough to tell just how effective those upgrades were because we were front-loaded with tons of points up front.

All in all, I’m happy with the combat upgrades, but to be honest, I don’t actually care about them. Enemies at least at this stage remain dumb (as they were in the previous games), and so while I now have the ability to smack them in the face repeatedly, stab them with a laser sword, or send my team to flank them, I didn’t find combat especially compelling — fun, but not incredible. But that’s also not what draws me to Mass Effect in the first place.

Jordon’s Take

Time to add my two cents (and not a lot more). I think it’s worth pointing out that I didn’t take as much issue with the controls as Ross and Phil. I won’t say they’re spastic, impatient, ADD-raddled gamers (to their faces anyway) but the combat in Mass Effect 3 seems to require a very distinct level of patience to function as intended.

During my demo I never ran, rolled, or hid without meaning to do so. If each action is deliberate, the controls will respond. Particularly with cover, pulling away with the left stick is a much smoother affair then activating a break away with A.

Where I think the issue lies is in the atmosphere of the fights themselves. These are hectic gun fights against a lot of enemies (several of whom are actively advancing on you) which naturally creates an immediacy to the player’s decisions. The result is trying to do too much too quickly in a system that is built for longer planning and shorter bursts of fighting.

But two out of three writers can’t be (completely) crazy so there are obviously aspects that need to be tweaked. As Ross said, BioWare is aware of this concern and I’m highly confident that come the final release next March, we’ll all be happily managing one intense firefight after another.

If this hasn’t whetted your appetite for Mass Effect 3 info, we also got producer Jesse Houston on-camera for an interview (as mentioned above). You should probably go check that out now.

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