In The Mass Effect 3 E3 2011 Demo, Children Exist In The Future
How excited is the world about Mass Effect 3? It was easily one of the top 3 most waited-for demos not called ‘Wii U’ or ‘Vita’ at E3 2011. And we were right there with everyone else, eager as it gets and drooling to see a bit of it. Luckily, we had our press badges and our VIP passes and were able to skip to the front of the line, so we didn’t have to wait as long as some of you to enjoy it. And enjoy it we did, because really, there’s a hell of a lot to look forward to in March 2012.
After filing into the dim showing room, we were treated to a very long demo courtesy of BioWare’s Casey Hudson in all his Canadian goodness. Yeah, we didn’t actually get to play mass Effect 3, but so what. Mr. Hudson said ‘aboot’ so often we think he was tweaking us just a bit, and he showed us footage and gameplay aplenty that blew us away. So much so that it wasn’t until we’d thought about it overnight that we started to wonder about potential problems. Minor problems, probably, but being neurotic about the lack of Mass Effect relays in the real world, we’re going to share them with you.
But we won’t start out negative. First up we want to talk about what we liked, which is almost everything. We saw a huge amount of stated and implied information about Mass Effect 3, so rather than bore you with awkward divisions, we’re just going to get into all of it like Commander Shepherd gets all into his/her single crew mates. Let’s probe away!
We saw three different scenes showing off key elements and improvements in Mass Effect 3:
* Scene One: A battle in an undisclosed location between Commander Shepherd and a Reaper.
What can you say about a scene in which Shepherd, Garrus and Liara square off against a hugely ginormous Reaper shaped like a space crab, during which Legion (the Geth squad member from Mass Effect 2) shows up with a hovertank, followed by Shepherd calling down an airstrike on said Reaper before seeming to barely escape? Besides hell yes, I mean?
Not much about the plot was revealed in this first scene, other than the confirmation that Shepherd’s BFF Garrus, and newly minted Shadow Broker Liara, are back as members of your playable squad. Legion’s appearance would seem to indicate he’s back as a member of the crew too, but as he functions in this scene in a non playable support capacity, it’s possible he’s a plot generating machine instead of a member of your squad but he had us when he emerged on said hovertank with a jaunty ‘We have located a vehicle!’.
Combat in this scene was intense, unlike anything we’ve seen in previous Mass Effect games, particularly due to the newly included ability to call down an airstrike. But it still didn’t compare to the second scene.
* Scene Two: A level focusing on combat between Shepherd’s squad and Cerberus troops.
This was the real money shot of the demo, full of blistering action and a ton of spoilery details. Cerberus Troops were bearing down on Commander Shepherd and co. attempting to acquire a very spoilery character we’ll discuss below, while Shepherd, working for Mordin, attempted to protect the character. This segment demonstrated Mass Effect3 ‘s touted ‘verticality’ (a word we heard during more than one game demo this year), by which Hudson means that combat areas are bigger, and often taller. Ladders have been added enabling Commander Shepherd to climb up to follow adversaries or adopt a different strategic position. We only saw one instance of this new feature in play but it promises to add some real variety and excitement to Mass Effect’s relatively mundane combat.
The level also showed off Mass Effect 3′s improved combat mechanics. Sorry, we mean extremely super improved with extra hardcoreness. And if the demo isn’t just ramped up for public consumption, then Mass Effect 3 definitely encourages you to get the most out of it. Put simply, combat looks a hell of a lot more varied; players can run and gun, fight tactically or take a stealth approach. The demo emphasized stealth and tactical fighting and showed that cover and stealth aspects have been drastically upgraded.
Now, Commander Shepherd leaps from cover to cover and can sneak up on enemies with Shepherd’s awesome new melee weapon, the Omni-blade. The Omni-blade is what it sounds like, a knife generated by your Omni-tool – you’ve seen it depicted in some of the marketing art already released – and it was put to good use here. The demo took Shepherd from one cover to another where he snuck up behind a Cerberus assault trooper, pulled him over a barricade and knifed him to death (eliciting a satisfying death groan from the enemy).
Enemies are also much smarter, and that’s not even taking the awesome new Cerberus Atlas Mech, a full body suit that you’ll apparently be able to pilot during the game (!!!), into account; instead of roaming mindlessly around the map or zerg-rushing you, enemies behave like, well, people who want to survive. They take cover more dynamically, they team up and they coordinate their attacks against your squad.
And speaking of your squad, while more active squad mechanics were introduced in Mass Effect 2, compared to straight shooters they were decidedly meh. Though we didn’t actually get to play, what we saw in the ME3 demo is… impressive. Assignment of actions remains largely the same, but instead of the generic squad banter in ME 2(“Hello, Dead People!”; “Mind Over Matter!”), your squad banter gives the impression they’re thinking strategically. At one point, Liara and Garrus began to discuss how best to take on attacking Cerberus troops, with Liara pointing out the futility of a frontal assault and recommending that Shepherd flank enemies instead.
Better still, we saw no indication that your squad will keep running in front of your line of fire, or hog cover. When you run to cover near one of your squad, they move, either making room for you or finding new cover. Thank you for that, BioWare. Because seriously, it was a major pain having to deal with cover hogging in Mass Effect 2.
And about those spoilers we mentioned? They’re kind of huge. Dialogue between Shepherd and Liara indicates the Cerberus troops have been indoctrinated, which might explain why Cerberus is gunning for Commander Shepherd regardless of your Mass Effect 2 outcome. More interesting that that is the fact that the ‘package’ you’re helping Mordin protect is a Krogan female who appears to be in the early stages of indoctrination. And biggest of all? Mordin is heavily implied to be working on a cure for indoctrination.
Make of all that what you will, but leave some room because in the final demoed scene, we were treated to something never before seen in Mass Effect: Commander Shepherd finally learns how to end a conversation like a normal person!
* Scene three: Taken from the beginning of Mass Effect 3, possibly the very first playable mission (though that wasn’t made clear).
We were informed this scene occurs shortly after Commander Shepherd returns to Earth to face trial for his actions in Mass Effect 3, (implying that Vancouver is a major Alliance city). We’ll obviously know more once the game is released, but it appeared to us as though Vancouver and Seattle have grown into a single city, and Vancouver has spread across the strait from British Columbia to Vancouver island. The Coast Mountain range is visible in the distance, and Vancouver’s distinctive architecture is apparent, if futurified. And it was gorgeous. Which contrasted nicely with the bleak setting of Mass Effect, fully established by the dozens of Reapers descending on the burning city in the final invasion of Earth.
Shepherd and Anderson fought their way past ugly Reaper Husks that GameFront’s Mark Burnham believed were Batarian, through a burnt out apartment complex, finally reaching a pickup location for a rescue courtesy of the Normandy. During their escape, we saw what might be the most interesting new aspect of the series. As we winded through a wrecked apartment, Shepherd encountered a human child hiding in an air duct. The child’s face was expressive and genuinely emotive but most important, was actually unique. He might have been the most expressive character we’ve seen in the series (though he did have that creepy mo-cap look, alal Zemeckis animated films).
You’re right in thinking this is the first time we’ve ever seen an actual minor in the Mass Effect universe, and that, combined with the female Krogan we saw earlier suggests that Mass Effect 3 is going to get a lot deeper into the nuts and bolts of galactic life. This is presumably about raising the stakes as much as it is about universe building but it’s a welcome addition to the series. Also welcome: One of the most annoying things about the Mass Effect series is how non-plot characters’ faces are clearly created randomly using the character creator. As a result they all look the same, men with identical burned out, weather beaten eyes and women with the same soft chin and huge eyes.
It’s especially galling when Shepherd is interacting with a character who’s supposed to be teenaged, and they looked about 60 years old (like Mouse, or the would-be merc, both from Mass Effect 2). The possibility that NPCs will have realistic looking faces and haircuts instead of the ugliness we’re used to makes us really hopeful. We’ll see.
But back to that kid. Shepherd spent a couple of seconds looking super emo about him; that emo look returned every time Shepherd paused in order to take in the attack and the devastation being delivered via Reaper. The scene ended with a brutal callback to the earlier moment with the kid that made it clear whatever else Mass Effect 3 is going to be, ‘bloodless’ isn’t it. Lots and lots of people are going to die.
At this point, Ashley Williams who, it should be noted, looks waaay hotter now than she did previously, made a last minute appearance. Apparently 2 years+ away from Commander Shepherd gave her time for a fancy new haircut. No word on whether or not her racism problem is cured, but it’ll be interesting to see how she’s changed now that she’s a part of your crew again, especially if you hooked it up with someone else in Mass Effect 2. As the scene ended and Commander Shepherd and Anderson parted ways, Shepherd wished him luck. Mark Burnham thinks he should have said ‘I should go’, and we think it should have been ‘how about goodbye!’ but we’re sure Commander Shepherd will get his awkward goodbyes back later in the game.
The demo was exciting, but while we saw a lot of how combat and the Mass Effect universe have been changed, we saw almost nothing demonstrating that BioWare’s previous statements about the return of more RPG elements were accurate. Some of what we did see looks promising. Weapons modding has been added, allowing players to customize weaponry via a workbench Commander Shepherd can access on the Normandy. We were also shown how powers upgrade via a branching tree system rather than the more linear way specific powers upgrade in previous games. We like all that, but what we want to know is whether or not the series returns somewhat to its action RPG roots or if, as GameFront’s Phil Hornshaw quipped, it’s just Mass of War.
Time will tell. In the meantime, consider our minds blown and our pants soiled. Despite misgivings, Mass Effect 3 looks pretty goddamned wonderful.