Mass Effect 3: Time to reap what you've sown
9th Sep 2011 | 18:30
Scale. It's the thing that sets Mass Effect 3 apart from its predecessors. Although the series already spans an entire galaxy, it's always felt like a series of linked skirmishes; tiny dents in massive, apocalyptic story. With Mass Effect 3, that changes.
Shepard and his crew have reached the tipping point: no more skirmishes - the Reapers are here, and nothing less than a universe-wide scrap is going to resolve this fantastic series. "Mass Effect 3 really is the pinnacle of the series - we've been working on it for eight years now," says series director Casey Hudson.
"This really is the main event..." To illustrate his point, Hudson directs us to the latest demo mission - Shepard and his crew attacking a Reaper base. In Mass Effect 3 the Reapers are tangible creatures, things that can finally be killed. Sure, Shep brought down a few during the attack on the Citadel during the original game, but that was within a cut-scene. Now you're fighting them on the ground via regular gunplay and more scripted boss-style battles.
The demo starts with Shepard killing off a couple of Cerberus troops (more on that later) before looking down into the Reaper base over a metal precipice. He paints the target with a laserdesignator and calls the Normandy in to drop some heavy ordinance inside.
Then it goes a bit wrong. Shepard is shaken off his perch and tumbles to the storey below - and it's here that he discovers that the airstrike wasn't nearly enough to wipe out the base. A giant Reaper ship seems to crawl out of the crater, and Cerberus troops leap up from the sides of the walkway. Uh-oh.
MIX AND MATCH
The regular Reaper troops will come in the form of abominations - creatures created by the Collectors in Mass Effect 2. We've seen artwork displaying mashups of almost every race in the universe, all with recognisable bits - Batarian, Asari, Krogan, more. They form ramshackle units, combining powers and behaviours to try and outsmart Shepard and his team. But we haven't seen them in the flesh yet - that's to come in our second demo.
For now we're here to pop Cerberus grunts, a much more recognisable enemy. You're fighting the might of the Illusive Man and the Reapers in ME3, and Cerberus have new weapons, more troop types, and a variety of heavy mechs... it hardly seems fair, but - as we see in the opening exchange - Shepard is looking lethal himself.
Forget the clunky cover-to-cover gameplay that Mass Effect has previously borrowed from Gears Of War - combat in number three is fast, varied and frequently spectacular. Shepard vaults over and around cover, flanks his enemies, suppresses them using a combination of weapons and grenades (no longer the sad discs of the original), and - when anyone strays too close - uses his new Omni-blade to stab a hole through their armour.
Despite the series' RPG roots, Mass Effect 3 is bearing all the hallmarks of an action/adventure game - an educated surmising which is cemented by the next slice of the demo.
Hurrying along the rim of the Reaper base, Shepard receives a message from Legion. He's found a way out - a massive hovering tank with a mounted cannon - so Shepard makes a dash for it, accompanied by Liara and Garrus.
They arrive as the Reaper emerges fully from its pit, and while his underlings make themselves comfortable inside the tank, Shepard climbs to the cannon to tickle the Reaper with its shells. It seems pretty ineffectual. Remember we were talking about scale at the start - this is it, and you're on the wrong side of the massive adversary.
Predictably, for an on-rails section, the Reaper gets close before a huge blast burns up its squid-like body and it collapses. Presumably having never seen any action movie ever, Shepard instructs Legion to stop so they can check the Reaper is dead. It isn't. Moments later it hauls its body up and the chase resumes. It gets closer, closer, closer... and this demo ends.
Thrilling, but derivative, it's the now mandatory 'big action set-piece' that every game seems to need in order to make the chubby Internet bloggers 'woot'. It shows off Mass Effect 3's scale, but not its heart. Fast forward to the next slice of gameplay, which takes place on Earth. Or rather, an Earth under siege by the Reapers.
Here we see the emotional side of Mass Effect 3. Shepard is on Earth, near the start of the game, to answer for his actions during the (lame) 'Arrival' DLC, which bridges the gap between the end of Mass Effect 2 and the start of ME3. That's right, the galaxy is on the brink of war and Shepard is being court marshalled. Bloody bureaucracy.
On the way Shepard finds a youngster hiding inside an air-vent, refusing to evacuate the planet with everyone else. Here you have the option to tease the child out of hiding, or leave well alone. We do the right thing and encourage him to make a run for the escape shuttles. That was the best thing for him, right?
Later, after some shooting where we finally get eyes on with the Reaper abominations (Cannibals - part Krogan, part Batarian, and... oh, is that a human body part in there too?) assail Shepard and his squad, but they're quickly dispatched.
Earth is a mess, and when Shepard finally cuts through the Reaper creatures he's ordered off the planet by Admiral Anderson with orders to regroup, gather allies, and return to take the planet back. It's a rabblerousing moment, a scene that pumps you up and makes you feel ready to take on the whole galaxy.
And then comes the pin-prick that bursts your bubble. As you're taking off in the Normandy, Shepard looks out of the window at the humans evacuating Earth. Hey, isn't that the little mite we saved making his way to that escape shuttle? Good job he isn't still hiding out in that vent, huh? Wouldn't survive long in there. Hey, we're a bloody hero...
BOOM. The Reapers obliterate his escape craft, disintegrating every human soul inside. Yeah, maybe he was better off hiding. At least he died quickly, right? Right?
It's an emotional moment; a small pocket of humanity tucked away inside an epic set-piece. So, yes, Mass Effect 3 takes place on a bigger scale than previous games: the bangs are louder, the explosions bigger, the enemies uglier.
However, contrasted against the massive galactic battles are warm, raw personal moments, which see Shepard resolving his relationships and living with the consequences of his actions - the decisions you've made over the last 80 or so hours. And it's these small personal moments that will, undoubtedly, leave the biggest impression on you while you're saving the galaxy next March...