E3 2011 Preview: Mass Effect 3

The final struggle against the Reapers, the closure to a Mass Effect trilogy eight years in the making, is a full scale galactic war. An ancient race of machines known as the Reapers have taken Earth, leaving a path of destruction in their wake. As a soldier of his cluster, Commander Shepard must assemble the legions of the galaxy to create a force great enough to stop the Reapers and take back Earth. At E3 on Tuesday, Mass Effect 3 executive producer Casey Hudson gave us a behind closed doors look at three segments of gameplay, accentuating the game’s epic scale and close-to-home atmosphere.

Mass Effect 3 is “the best game in the series,” according to Hudson. “For long time fans, you’re gonna see all your decisions playing out in Mass Effect 3 — decisions from previous games — but of course, for players new to the series, this is really the best game to start, this is the beginning of the galactic war, and it’s also going to be the best game in the series.”

Our gameplay demo took off on an unnamed planet, where Shepard was attempting to destroy a Reaper base. Providing for extra firepower, the Normandy ship was overhead his location, and a fleet of ships in the planet’s orbit. At the very start of the demo, we got our first taste of Shepard’s new toy — a holographic, but very real, blade reminiscent of Ezio’s hidden blade from the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Utilized for up-close melee combat, Shepard uses the Omni-Blade to strike his enemies across the face and deep in the chest.

Shepard’s Omni-blade in action

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Opening the blast shield on the Reaper base, the Normandy swooped in and fired missiles at the newly opened weakness. A few seconds later, retaliation arrived, Shepard fighting for his life, and his squad mates arriving to assist him. It wasn’t long before we saw Legion, the Geth ally from Mass Effect 2, Liara, and Garrus show their faces. Shepard took to a moving turret, shooting the new giant, spider-like mega Geth following his path. As the spider crawled its way forward and the turret moved its way back, a beautiful draw distance actively highlighted the mountainous rocks in the background. Shortly following the turret scene, Shepard called in an orbital strike from the Normandy, and missiles took out the spider.

Trailing the turrets destruction — or the demonstration of Mass Effect 3‘s epic scale battles — we jumped ahead to a new segment towards the middle of the story. This time, Commander Shepard was faced with rescuing a Krogan female key to the Alliance. At that point, Hudson revealed several approaches the player can take in combat.

“You’ll have your choice of combat styles including a very tactical approach, using squad and cover, or also a stealthy approach,” said Hudson. “And also, of course, a very run-n-gun style.” Later in the demo, Shepard was shown in stealth combat, pulling an enemy over a ledge after climbing a ladder, blood splattered. A side note, Shepard can jump, climb, and fall off ledges in Mass Effect 3.

Getting back into gameplay, Shepard continued his pursuit on rescuing the Krogan female. Mordin Solus, the fast-talking scientist from the second game, was behind glass with the Krogan. She was in a cargo-like container and had to be transported by operating switches. Mordin was doing his best to keep her in good health as she was being transported.

Of course, Shepard had to go through various obstacles in the rescue, facing enemies and traversing the area. Whilst in cover, blue arrows are shown at other cover points where Shepard can safely switch fronts without getting injured. It’s a key feature, as Shepard’s going up against tougher enemies in Mass Effect 3, who use shields and new tactics to stop you in your tracks. To get around these enemies, players must make use of their squad functions and get to the enemy at different angles.

In the heat of combat, I couldn’t help but realize the accuracy of the gun’s sound properties. Every shot I heard felt more alive and awake than any bullet sound out of Mass Effect 2.

Benches, a weapons upgrade system, are new to Mass Effect 3. You can plug in and change Shepard’s weapons, crafting and creating a tool for your play style — specifically, how you want it to look and how you want it to function. Character progression has been expanded in a similar trail, which branches off depending on your class. “If you’re a soldier, do you want to increase your damage during battle, or do you want to increase your influence during dialogue,” Hudson explained. These branch offs add further decision to the plethora of choices already existent in the franchise.

Ending the second segment of our gameplay demo, we were teased with a Cerberus Atlas mecha vehicle you can take control of, and were then taken to the galaxy map, which makes a return from Mass Effect 2. Leaping back to an earlier point in the game, we traveled to Earth for the demo’s third segment.

“That was just one of the worlds you’ll visit,” said Hudson. “Of course, this is Mass Effect, so an entire galaxy awaits you. You’ll command your star ship to distant worlds, it’s really up to you where you want to go and what you want to do as the entire galaxy struggles for survival. As a part of the overall war effort, you’ll retrieve critical assets, you’ll rescue key personnel, you’ll liberate important facilities, you’ll build alliances, you’ll watch your plan come together, [and] you’ll interact with characters through the most advanced digital acting systems that we’ve ever produced.

Mass Effect 3‘s E3 trailer

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“Everything you do in Mass Effect 3 will lead to an asset that will help you in your overall fight to take back the Earth.”

Probably the best showcase of Mass Effect 3, Earth is where the heart of the threequel beats. We’re brought to a planet in chaos, under attack by Reaper drones and ships, buildings collapsing and civilians dying. Commander Shepard and Captain Anderson are fighting their way through the city; the pair jump into a building through a Reaper-damaged rooftop. In the building, an open vent reveals a little boy hiding, scared for his life. Shepard, who sees the child, goes to him, and offers to save him. Depending on what you choose to say, you may or may not be able to rescue him. In the demo’s case, Anderson called Shepard as he was trying to get the boy to come with him; once Shepard turned back around, the boy had crawled away into the vents. “You can’t save me,” he said right before.

Shifting back outdoors, giant spider mechs were crawling the oceans, buildings continued to collapse by the Reaper missles, and a mud-decorated Shepard continued to fight alongside Anderson. The two were seeking a radio, which they eventually found, and channeled the Normandy, activating a defense beacon in the process. In combat, Shepard performed a dodge roll to evade enemy attacks, which I’m pretty sure is new to the series (correct me if I’m wrong).

At last, the Normandy arrived and Shepard jumped from the city’s rubble and debris into the ship’s docking area. Anderson, however, decided to stay behind. “Shepard,” said Anderson. “I’m not going. You saw those men back there. There’s a million more like them and they need me.” A noble decision.

As the Normandy left, Shepard promised to come back for Anderson with a number of fleets. Alliance ships were shown landing on the waste to pick up some of Earth’s surviving citizens. The little boy from earlier climbs into one. As the ship lifts off, it’s shot down by a Reaper laser, presumably killing everyone in the ship. The demo closed as Shepard watched it fall in horror.

There’s no doubt about it. Mass Effect 3 is a game of epic scale, improved combat, leveling and weapon systems, and persuasive decisions. Already proven to be a large step up from Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3 has shown itself to be the ultimate battle for the galaxy’s survival.

Mass Effect 3 launches for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC on March 6, 2012.

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