Mass Effect 3 E3 2011 Preview -- War Comes Home and Punches Us in the GutBy Jake Gaskill - Posted Jun 11, 2011
A terrified young boy with golden blond hair spots us standing aboard the Normandy just moments before scrambling to get on a rescue ship of his own. As we fly away, we watch the child’s ship and a second one take off from expansive rubble, but after just a few seconds in the air, two laser beams tear across the sky, cutting down both ships, and scattering their fiery remains into the water below. This is how our E3 2011 demo of Mass Effect 3 ends. But let’s go back.
BioWare has set some might high goals for itself with Mass Effect 3, the final chapter in its acclaimed sci-fi epic, not the least of which is to make the third installment the best yet from top to bottom. It all starts with scope, and by that I mean, our demo starts with scope. The first sequence we were shown is specifically designed to show just how much work has been put into crafting an experience on a scale unlike anything seen previously in the series.
When the scene opens, the sun blinds us as we look out over a stunning desert vista filled with canyons, arid mountain ranges, and desert sands whipping through the air. We weren’t given much backstory on this particular assault, but we were told that Shepard and company have arrived in this particular area are infiltrating a Reaper base, and to kick things off, Shepard calls in an airstrike by targeting a blast shield using a new laser-guided marker device. Once it’s locked on, a ship roars overhead, the scene shifting seamlessly to a brief cinematic showing the ship unleashing a rocket strike on the silo. I mention this transition from gameplay to cut-scene because it happened quite a lot during our demo, and each time I was stunned by just how subtle the shift actually was, and how much it elevated the overall flow and presentation.
Unfortunately for Shepard, this attack prompts a towering Reaper mech to climb out of the underground facility, kicking off a spectacular chase sequence with Shepard manning a turret on the back of the escaping ship. With the sun beaming brilliantly through the ensuing behemoth, Shepard fires furiously, eventually bringing down the mech. But it’s only temporary, as the beast slowly crawls back up and the chase begins anew. If you want to take a look at this sequence for yourself, check out the full run through video from EA’s press conference.
BioWare showed off the second portion of the demo on the X-Play stage, and in this section, Shepard and his crew must fight their way through a series of heavily guarded checkpoints on their way to freeing a Krogan princess. Here we see a lot of the improvements to the combat, namely Shepard’s devastating omniblade (think the hidden blade from Assassin’s Creed only holographic) and the new cover system, which now brings up an arrow so you can tell Shepard what cover you want him to move to next. A straight arrow indicates that you’ll move to the next cover over whereas a bent arrow means you’ll move forward to the next available cover. This gives you more control over Shepard on the battlefield since it lets him move between positions more easily.
Another big addition to ME3 are proper grenades. Not much to say about them other than that they pack a serious punch. Given that you’re able to upgrade the rest of your arsenal, chances are the game will feature a wide variety of tricked out grenades as well. Speaking of upgrades, we got our first look at the new weapon customization system, which, in this case, was accessed by one of the many weapon benches you’ll encounter in the game. Once accessed, you’ll see your weapon lying on the bench, and you’re able to swap out found or purchased parts at will.
You can also manage your crew’s stats at these benches too. Building on the skill upgrading systems of the previous games, ME3 now includes various “flavors” within the various attributes. For instance, instead of simply upgrading your combat effectiveness, you can now pick from a variety of options including influence, damage, or mechanical damage. The screen flashed by too fast to catch the details of each of these options, but the point is that players will have even more options when it comes to personalizing their characters than ever before.
Now, while the two previously mentioned sections were certainly impressive and action packed, the closing portion of the demo was breathtaking on an entirely different level. The sequence is actually from the opening of the game (seen briefly at the end of the live action E3 2011 trailer), just after Shepard’s military tribunal hearing is interrupted by the all-out Reaper invasion that kicks off the events of ME3. When the scene opens, Shepard and admiral David Anderson, are on a rooftop looking out over an alien invasion straight out of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. Hundred-foot-high mechs litter the landscape, as fire and smoke fill the horizon. The sheer scope and level of detail in the scene is staggering, and the sound design is off the charts. Every few seconds, the mechs let out a brain-shaking boom, again, straight out of War of the Worlds, but the best part about the booms is that they are somehow tied into the musical score as a kind of environmental bass note. Like I said, stunning.
Shepard maneuvers through the rubble, leaping over gaps (there will be a lot more exploration and verticality this time around) and fighting through waves of zombish Husks and gnarly cannibal hordes, before eventually facing off against a soldier in a drivable mech suite that players will have the chance to use themselves later in the game. After bringing it down, Shepard and Anderson move ahead, until Shepard encounters a little boy hiding in a ventilation shaft. Shepard is given the option of offering to save the kid or leave him behind. Shepard offers to take the kid with him, but the boy says it won’t matter anyway and runs away.
Shepard and Anderson push on, only to find themselves overrun by waves of cannibals. After a certain point, the Normandy comes screaming overhead, bombing the hell out of the cannibal stronghold, and once again perfectly blending between gameplay and mini-cutscene. With the path clear, Shepard scurries to get onto the nearby Normandy. Anderson doesn’t board, telling Shepard that there are a lot more people who still need help. Before the ship departs, Anderson tells Shepard he’s been reinstated and that he needs Shepard to gather every ally he can and return to earth to repel the Reaper invasion. As the Normandy pulls away from the chaos below, Shepard spots the little boy from earlier. The two locks eyes just before the boy scrambles onto one of two transport ships evacuating people from the area. Shepard watches as the two ships lift off, with a towering Reaper in the background. After a few seconds in the air, the Reaper’s lasers blast the ships out of the sky.
It’s been BioWare’s goal from the beginning to make the Mass Effect trilogy one that pushes interactive storytelling to the next level by letting players carry over their stories and their experiences from one game to the next, so as to craft a rich and deeply personal journey unique to each player. While BioWare insists that ME3 will be a fully standalone experience, capable of being enjoyed by gamers who are playing it without having played the previous games, the full impact of what BioWare is aiming to create in the final chapter will be a bit less than it would if you had followed it along from the beginning.
When you read the opening graph about that boy being killed, without any context, it was inherently affecting, but when you found out that Shepard might have been somewhat responsible for his death, despite having offered to save the kid (because who knows what might have happened if we’d threatened to leave him behind), it takes on an added dimension. Maybe it would have had the same outcome, after all, ME3 is expected to dive into some pretty dark territory, so perhaps the boy’s death was simply designed to drive home that some tragedies are unavoidable, regardless of your actions. Either way, the more you know, the harder the conclusions will hit you. And with this gut punch still stinging our insides, the demo ends, making us all too aware of just how far away March 6, 2012 actually is.