Electronic Arts recently held a closed media event to showcase the latest build of the third chapter in BioWare’s sci-fi RPG franchise, Mass Effect. PC World was one of the selected publications invited to cover the event and I was able to go hands-on with Mass Effect 3 ahead of its official release.
The first hour
The first level that was showcased at the event was based on Earth, which is actually an unfamiliar setting in the Mass Effect games. A series of epic cinematics at the beginning of the game, both pre-rendered and in-game, introduced the story.
The previous two games focused on how Commander Shepard and his crew were investigating the return of a deadly alien race called the Reapers, so the third and supposedly final entry in the series begins with the Reapers invading earth.
I had a chance to start the game from scratch from the main menu, so that meant engaging in character creating. The female Shepard, commonly shorted down to FemShep, has been heavily touted with Mass Effect though I predictably chose the stock male Shepard as my protagonist.
A visual upgrade
The graphics are highly detailed, with expressive character models and dense environments. The game was running only on the Xbox 360 at the event, so I had no opportunity to compare it to the PlayStation 3 version.
Since Mass Effect 2 looked and played almost identical on both consoles, I’m expecting that will be the case with the third game. The controls were a bit different to what I remembered, but once I got hang of them, I was in familiar territory.
Setting the game on Earth was an interesting move by BioWare, and the depiction of the Reaper invasion of earth has to be seen to be believed. There is something deeply unsettling about seeing a utopian future earth being swiftly destroyed by an alien race and people being systematically turned into cybernetic zombies by being impaled on giant spikes.
The quest continues
After going hands-on with the Earth level, the game skips ahead to the Mars level in the game. This is more familiar territory, as the more open world feel displayed in the opening sections of the game is given way to closed-off passages and rooms in a space station.
The amount of combat with enemies is also significantly ramped up, forcing you to rely on your two selected partners. The gun based combat that is accompanied by special attacks from your team members has been carried over from the previous Mass Effect games, and feels more evolutionary overall than the significant upgrade witnessed between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.
After playing the somewhat simple earth level, the large leap in difficulty in the Mars level caught me by surprise. Leveling up of the character was needed, and so was careful management of assist attacks. I also found myself running out of ammunition a lot of the time, which added a new layer of difficulty to the game.
Cover based shooting has been a permanent fixture in the Mass Effect games, and based on what I played of the Mars mission, I am expecting that a lot of the battles with be structured around this new mechanic.
I am a big fan of the Mass Effect trilogy and I’ve enjoyed every installment of the game, even though as a PlayStation 3 owner I was forced to find an Xbox 360 to play the first game. Fortunately, Mass Effect 2 was even better than the first one and its multiplatform nature meant that I was able to enjoy it on the PlayStation 3.
The hallmarks of the Mass Effect series for me is the advanced graphics, memorable setting, mature narrative, high caliber voice acting and moody music. The sequel improved on the formula and provided a high immersive and enjoyable sci-fi experience, and based on what I played of the game at Electronic Arts’ preview event, I expect Mass Effect to continue the tradition when it gets released.