E3 2011 first look: Mass Effect 3

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If you haven’t played the previous Mass Effect games, the third title in the trilogy may be enough to make it worth your while to go back and catch up on the series. The story concludes the trilogy of the coming of the Reapers, the ancient, machine-based, and nearly god-like entities that have perpetrated a cycle of wiping out all organic life in the galaxy. They have done so many times before, and are preparing to cull the galaxy of all organic life once again. The first two games set up the scenario for part three, which begins with the fall of Earth.

In the demo displayed at E3, there are two things that stood out. The first is that the combat will be even more of an influence than in the previous games, and the gameplay is much more action oriented. The second game was a huge jump in the combat mechanics over the first, and the third game seems to be following that trend. There was never any question that the original Mass Effect was an RPG in the same way that Bioware’s classic Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was. You had combat options, but they were limited and the emphasis was on the leveling mechanics. The second game moved away from that towards a more action-heavy experience, and the third looks like a pure third-person shooter that also happens to have a leveling and experience system.

Mass Effect 3 plays more like Gears of War than it does the first game in the series. The cover mechanic has been streamlined, and the character movements are much more fluid. A new combat role is paired with a fire-from-cover option. You can do simple movements like climbing a ladder now, and you can also use cover to sneak past people for flanking or stealth kills. You can even throw real grenades this time.

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The enemy AI is also much smarter, and they will constantly try to find better cover. If you advance, they will retreat to a new location while their allies lay down covering fire. And if you stay in the same place, they will attempt to flank you, or they will do everything they can to dislodge you and force you into the open. There is even a new melee attack which makes it possible to fight hand-to-hand or to execute instant kills, which are unique to each class.

It is almost difficult to call Mass Effect 3 an RPG anymore. There are still the RPG elements from previous games, but fans of pure shooters will be right at home here.

The team mechanics return as well, and if you have a Kinect, you will be able to issue voice commands to tell them where to go and what to do. It isn’t necessary, but it is an interesting addition as long as you don’t mind yelling at your TV.

The second thing that stood out about the Mass Effect 3 demo is that the Earth is screwed. The first game was all about exploring the galaxy of Mass Effect, while the second was about preparing for the coming war. Well, the war is here, and Earth has been conquered.

The game begins following the events of the Mass Effect 2 DLC The Arrival. Shepard is on Earth facing trial for his actions — because what would a sci-fi game featuring a military structure be without the hero being accused of something — when the Reapers arrive. This isn’t a battle, nor is it an invasion, it is suddenly an occupation. The war on Earth ended the moment they arrived. As Shepard, your goal is to take charge and assemble a fleet for the counter-attack.

As you travel the galaxy in traditional Mass-Effect style, you will see the effects of the war on every planet. This is a galactic conflict, and while the Earth is ground zero for the game, nowhere is safe.

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The choices you made in the first two games will carry over and even change the ending to a degree. If you chose different woman to have a relationship with in the first two games, you will be involved in a love triangle in the third. Characters will also remember you and how you treated them, which will affect their attitude to you. The conversation trees are back as well, and if you like, you can use the Kinect to speak your choice, but honestly it isn’t much more than a gimmick. There will be more conversational options than before, though.

The scale of the game is incredible, and the variety of gameplay options are interesting, as is the shift towards a third-person action style. There will be the standard cover-based firefights, but you will also take on enormous entities using mounted guns, turrets and other classic third-person shooter techniques. If all out assault doesn’t suit your style, you can play the game in a much more stealth-oriented fashion. If you want to use the cover mechanics to slowly advance, you can do that.

Mass Effect 3 looks to be the most accessible game of the series, which may be enough to get people that weren’t fans of the first game’s gameplay to give it another look when it is released on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on March 6, 2012.