Mass Effect 3 Hands-On Preview -- See You at the Party Shepard!By Adam Rosenberg - Posted Feb 09, 2012
Something amazing happened earlier this week. I got to play through most of an early mission from Mass Effect 3, amounting to my first hands-on and non-trailer eyes-on of the game. I'll drop in a big, fat SPOILER ALERT right here; for most of the demo, I actively tuned out as much story as I could, but there's one teasing, little fact that I'll share in this preview. Those who want to remain completely unspoiled in the realm of all things ME3 you've been warned.
The demo I played through was set during what I'm told is the game's second mission, and Shepard's first act after the start-of-game events on Earth. The demo's Shepard was male, so I'll be using masculine pronouns for the rest of this preview. He's on a mission to Mars with Ashley Williams and newcomer James Vega his side. They're there to investigate something having to do with a Prothean artifact and possible Cerberus presence.
The first thing I noticed about the Martian landscape, and the overall look of things in Mass Effect 3, is that it's freaking beautiful. The evolution of the graphics from the first game to the second one was pretty impressive, but the move from the second to the third is even more so. There's a photo-realistic quality to the environments and characters, a move away from the slightly more stylized feel of Mass Effect 2. People will throw around words like "darker" and "grittier" to describe the look, but it's more than that. From the red rock cliff faces and dusty ground to the roiling thunderstorm--you can literally see it roil--in the distance, there's a sense of ME3's Mars being a real place that I never felt in either of the previous Mass Effect games.
The controls feel silky smooth, a definite improvement over what's come before. Shepard can dive-roll in any direction with the press of a button, and the response time from button-press to on-screen action is immediate. The last two games always felt a little chunky to me on the control side, and there was no sense of that during my ME3 play time.
The mission starts with the team landing their shuttle on the outskirts of some kind of human-controlled research facility. It's an impressive structure, a thin, white building that cuts straight up into the storm-darkened Martian sky. Chunks of rock and abandoned ground vehicles become points of cover for Shepard and his squad as they approach, since Cerberus is already on the ground when they arrive.
Which brings us to the combat. It really just picks up where ME2 left off, only with tighter controls this time around. You're still managing ammo resources, and having to switch weapons or dash for ammo pickups mid-fight during the longer engagements. The newly enhanced melee attack is very useful for when enemies rush in...and rush you they will.
The different weapons--we were all using soldier builds for this particular demo--all feel heftier, again with that improved button-press-to-on-screen-action response time and some satisfying sound effects. The enemy response to bullets as they find their mark is similarly satisfying, especially with powerful single-shot weapons like the sniper rifle and shotgun.
Powers works in much the same way that they always have, with LB/RB (on an Xbox 360 controller) pausing the action as radial menus pop up for switching between your different weapons/powers and having your party members do the same. There's a new feature here too; you can actually map one power each from your two party members to the left and right buttons on the D-pad. It otherwise works the same as it would for ordering a party member to attack with a power; you hover your crosshairs over the desired target and press the appropriate D-pad direction.
The mission continues to unfold as Shepard and his team fight their way into the facility. They meet up with Liara in one of the first rooms, as she escapes through air vents from pursuing Cerberus forces. Shepard sends Vega back to cover the team's eventual exit, much to the subordinate's dissatisfaction, and the veteran character takes his place in your squad.
All of this of course unfolds using BioWare's now-familiar radial selection dialogue mechanics. The actual function here is very much unchanged from what we've seen previously. The big difference that I immediately noticed relates more to the presentation.
As great as BioWare is at telling stories, I've always had a beef with the way the actual back-and-forth of a dialogue exchange is presented. It typically uses a very basic shot/reverse-shot format in which the camera cuts back and forth between two static angles on each speaker's face. The style has evolved over time, but it seems to have hit a new high in Mass Effect 3.
In all of the dialogue sequences I played through during the Mars mission, there was a much more artful sense to the entire presentation. The camera looked on from different angles while also obeying some of the most basic rules of filmmaking. Characters behaved like more than just talking heads, whether it was Shepard reaching out with a comforting hand or Vega screwing up his face in frustrated resignation. They felt less like dialogue sequences and more like staged performances.
The rest of the mission unfolded as a fairly linear gauntlet, with Shepard and his team battling Cerberus forces in rooms, corridors and, at one point, from the confines of a moving, elevated tram. There's some light puzzle-solving as well. In one case, I needed to operate a set of controls in order to lift a large container into the air, providing access to an elevated walkway that had been cut off by a Cerberus saboteur.
RPG fans who were disappointed at how stripped-down the previous game was in certain respects will be pleased to learn that the environment was fairly littered with weapons and armor upgrades. I found at least a half-dozen pickups overall, plus two entire pistols. You're presented with an armory screen whenever you pick up a new weapon, allowing you to swap in or out different ones, just like you would from a weapons locker.
If you've been reading through this preview and wondering where that spoiler I mentioned is, we're getting to it now. This is your last chance. Keep reading at your peril.
Still here? Okay, good.
Roughly halfway through the mission, after a particularly heavy Cerberus attack, a cutscene plays out in which Shepard inspects one of the dead, helmeted soldiers. He removes the helmet's faceplate and immediately reacts in surprise when he sees the face of what appears to be a Husk beneath it.
Why is there a Husk, or Husk-like being here, wearing Cerberus armor? Whatever the reason is, it's not made clear during Shepard's mission to Mars. We'll all have to wait until March 6, when Mass Effect 3 arrives for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PC platforms, to find out for ourselves.