Previews

Mass Effect 3: The first 2 hours

Spoilers from the start as we catch up with Commander Shepard...

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The Martian Archives are minutes away from a major dust storm when you touch down, and even worse, they appear to be in the process of being raided by Cerberus assault troopers who are executing scientists out in the back yard. It's time to take them down and make your way indoors, where you'll discover that Ashley still doesn't entirely trust you, because of your past history with the pro-human terrorists. Maybe you should have let Kaidan live, eh? Less attitude.

What follows from here is classic Mass Effect level design: staggered enemy encounters in a mixture of tight industrial spaces and slightly roomier chambers, and a surprise reuniting with Liara. She's as blue as ever, and she's also certain that the Prothean plans discovered in the archives will be just the trick for taking on those Reapers. The only problem now is that the Cerberus Network knows about them too, and they're moving in on their location fast, with a sexy female spy leading the way. Typical.

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It's a race against time, then, and this is where Mass Effect 3's rebalanced combat really starts to shine. Aiming feels a little more precise, entering and leaving cover is less fiddly, and the AI, crucially, is a lot more engaged in shooting at you in entertaining ways.

Mixing up standard weapons with biotic attacks like the Singularity, which creates a localised black hole, and the Biotic Charge, which remains the best teleporting head-butt any game has ever delivered, is still a brisk and exciting business, and there's always that improved melee to get you out of trouble when you really mess things up.

The staging has become a little more inventive, too, allowing you to experiment more with squad orders. Fighting through the archives drops you into rooms that are pitch black and warehouses filled with auto turrets where you must pick your way from one vantage point to the next, taking as little damage as possible as you move.

Best of all, there's a fight on a tramway car, where you find yourself a sitting duck for Cerberus. Exposed and in a real tight spot, it's the kind of combat a developer can only pull off when it's given you some exciting options to use in battle.

Shepard reaches the Prothean blueprint just in time to see The Illusive Man deleting all the local data. What's he up to? What are Cerberus' plans? Will Martin Sheen ever star in anything quite as good as the West Wing again? How does he keep his cigarettes alight in space? All of these questions hang in the air as our demo ends.

What's certain is that Mass Effect's back, and this is looking like the sharpest instalment yet. The RPG elements might feel increasingly side-lined as the shooting continues to hog the limelight, but when it comes to galactic heroics with a human interest twist, this is still the biggest show in town.

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