Mass Effect 3 Demo Impressions: Single Player Campaign On XBLA
The good news about Mass Effect 3 is that combat is mostly great. This is partly at the expense of certain RPG aspects, as now all classes are able to use every available weapon. And unlike in Mass Effect, where the player took huge penalties with weapons outside of their class’ skillset, all three of the different classes I played were able to pick up weapons and use them with no penalty at all. Fortunately, it doesn’t create a series of interchangeable cogs. Each character will still have a class-specific weapon speciality. For example, the Engineer comes with a sniper rifle.
The Omniblade is largely unchanged from what we saw last year; it’s a neat idea that is simultaneously very silly, but they managed to make it essential in combat. More than once, I managed to extract myself from an otherwise overwhelming close-up attack by employing the enhanced Omniblade punch option to push an enemy away so I could run. The attack didn’t deliver one-hit kills, but it did give me time to find cover and heal. Better still, using the Omniblade doesn’t deplete your tech or biotic power reserves.
For their part, Biotic and tech powers remain functionally identical to previous games, though it seems, at least from the demo, that cool-down times have been reduced. This may be simply to keep things brisk in the demo, as the new leveling up system (more on that shortly) retains the acquisition of reductions in cool-down times that were present in previous games. Even so, I didn’t feel the same impatience I normally did waiting for my powers to recharge.
The best improvement to combat is to NPC AI. There is now a much greater emphasis on strategic fighting. As we saw last year, your party members offer suggestions and point out obstacles or cover that you might have missed. This is especially useful to people jsut getting started, and though it might annoy some of you, I didn’t feel like it contributed to a dumbing down of the game. If anything, it helped keep me focused on the environment around me. I can also verify that they also don’t tend to run in front of your line of fire, instead engaging in tactics that feel developed to win battles rather than one-on-one tests of skill. This improvement also extends to enemies, who attempt to encircle you, cut you off, or pen you in rather than relying on chaotic zerg rushes. I’m sure there will still be a fair amount of truly chaotic battles, especially when human Reaper husks are involved, but it’s nice to know that not every battle will be a matter of fighting off zombie hordes while the local enemy leader enjoys near-immunity against your squad’s attack.
Fortunately, it isn’t just combat that feels promising; overall gameplay, with a couple of caveats, also appears to have been done right.
First and foremost, the best improvement to the overall playing experience BioWare has managed is a now-seamless transition from cut scene to combat that removes even the briefest hiccup in the game’s rhythm. The player will now experience a simple change in camera position indicating a switch to cinematic perspective, creating a much more immediate, fluid experience that suggests a more movie-like quality for the overall game than anything previously seen in the series.
Connected to this more cinematic feel, the graphics are greatly improved, even for a demo. The scope is huge with amazing views at every turn (the Coast Mountain Range in the first sequence is stunning). The textures of clothing, built objects, even non randomly-generated faces also now look far more authentic. In the initial cutscenes, Anderson looks positively fleshy, as do Kaiden, James Vega and Ashley. A particularly nice touch is the way everyone looks visibly older, even the default male and female Shepards. The galaxy of Mass Effect 3 has a very lived-in look and characters really appear to have gone through hell and lived to tell about it.
This is aided by the new character creation process: though limited in the demo, it has clearly been expanded compared to previous games. New, slightly hipper hairstyles and colors are a nice touch, as are a new receding hairline option that makes your mail Shepard look like a man in his 30s rather than a fresh young cadet. For female Shep, there are new makeup options including a couple that suggest aging around the eyes. Best of all, subtler facial adjustments indicate it might finally be possible to make your character look more like a unique person instead of the horrid plastic surgery disasters of the past, and I’m looking forward to trying them out on my imported character.
Players will also have more ways to get a unique experience with every new game. The use of experience points to level up has been changed. Instead of a linear improvement path for your powers and abilities, once you purchase the third level of improvement, 2 separate paths will open; once you select which path you want, you’ll be stuck there (unless the game contains a reboot option similar to the medical bay upgrade in Mass Effect 2).
You can also now choose from one of 3 game modes: Combat, RPG and Story. RPG is the standard mass Effect experience, and likely the first one you’ll want to pick. Combat mode emphasizes action, with the dialogue wheel removed so all conversations are integrated into the cutscenes. This is likely be a good option for someone playing through a second time with an imported character who wants to skip the story and get to the shooting. Story mode is the weirdest idea. Cut scenes and dialogue, and I assume the wandering, RPG side quests, will be emphasized. This mode will apparently feature extremely easy combat that, if I don’t misunderstand things, might be skippable. We’re not sure how this will affect paragon and renegade scores, and obviously this is not for dedicated gamers, but it might be a fun way for casual types or bored veterans to get the Mass Effect experience in a movieish format. We’ll take a closer look when the game is release.
Though combat and overall gameplay are promising, the Mass Effect series isn’t call of duty. What sucks people in is the (arguably) high quality writing and gripping story. There isn’t a lot of that in the demo; unfortunately, what little there is gives us cause for concern.