PREVIEW: Mass Effect 3

Gamers unsettled by the leap from the original Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2 will be comforted by the smaller step taken to reach Mass Effect 3. There’s still a chunky storyline, gorgeous graphics, a cast of voices we know and love, and a liberal sprinkling of combat, but nothing much has really changed. In fact, several people who’ve played this pre-release demo have observed that it feels “just like” another DLC pack for Mass Effect 2. That’s not a bad thing, by any means, but after the jarring transition between the first two, we were braced for (and almost looking forward to) a similar jump this time around.

Nonetheless, Mass Effect 3 does bring some new things to the party – namely: Massive improvements in the realm of cover-based combat. Taking some of the guesswork out of things, crouching behind cover will now be accompanied by a handy blue arrow displaying the direction Shepard will take to break cover or switch to a new position. You’ll also be able to dive-roll from cover-to-cover in a not-quite polished mechanic that we’re hoping will be tweaked a little before release.

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Shepard no longer has to hug the fringes of combat – the new cover system is a good start, but throw in melee weaponry like the orange-glowing omni-blade and you’re in for a good time, albeit somewhat more brutal than we’re used to. Don’t worry about learning new buttons, the mechanics themselves are still pretty similar. Holding the melee button will apply a handy omni-blade attack, while tapping the melee button now unleashes a three-strike combo, instead of the traditional, clumsy rifle-butt attack.

We were treated to an early demo version of the game that had been stripped back to its linear roots, including the frustrating removal of all dialogue options. Obviously, that’s not something that’ll carry through to the full game, but it really didn’t help the impression that Mass Effect 3 is stepping further away from its RPG history and moving more into the third-person-shooter territory it’s always nestled up against.

BioWare is apparently embracing this change, with Casey Hudson actually promising Mass Effect 3 will feature everything you might expect from a modern third-person-shooter. Obviously, there’s been a bunch of tweaks and improvements to various elements of battle: The omni-blade melee weapon adds on to what we’ve seen previously, and I’m happy to report that grenades and weapon upgrade stations are making their glorious return (two upgrade slots per weapon!).

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The skill tree has been revised, appearing to truly understand the branching concept which now applies earlier in the game. When a skill has been levelled up to a point (no longer the last item), you’ll have to choose which path you’d like to take – do you want that biotic to cause more pain, or more humiliation? This marks a promising return to the strategy we loved in the original game, something criminally ignored in ME2.

(Can’t decide? It’s now an option to switch to a different line of attack mid-game – starting out as a biotic doesn’t mean you can’t use Sentinel abilities, these days. Pick out your favourite bits and use those to your advantage.)

It’s not all about you though – the AI has seen some remarkable improvements which means (finally!) your squad members are no longer dead-weight in combat, and are capable of making somewhat logical decisions for themselves.

On the flipside, the enemies have been given a few extra brain cells too, presumably to counter Shepard’s new cover system and the improvements granted to teammates. Gone are the days when the bad guys would hang around and wait to be dispatched. Expect to be rushed, and expect them to notice (and capitalise on) your faults.

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Obviously, the characters who appear in Mass Effect 3 depends on the way you played the earlier games, but we were treated to a mission featuring Garrus and Liara, plus mad scientist Mordin as a guide.

Overall, we’re still not quite sure what to make of Mass Effect 3. It looks shiny, plays well and sounds great, but strikes us as just being more of the same at this stage (even if the same sets a pretty high standard!). We’d anticipated EA and BioWare going all-out on the conclusion of this trilogy, and with nearly six months to go before the game hits shelves, they’ve made a great start. Still, we’re hoping there’s an ace up Shepard’s sleeve.

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