Mass Effect 3: The first 2 hours
2nd Feb 2012 | 17:00
Some people, eh? What reward do you get for gathering a crew, heading off on a suicide mission, and returning triumphant, having struck a major blow against the villainous pro-human Cerberus Network while you were at it? Prison. That's your reward.
That's certainly where we catch up with Commander Shepard, anyway, at the start of Mass Effect 3, after he sacrificed millions of Batarian lives at the end of the last game's DLC episode.
Want to know the very latest on Mass Effect 3? Be sure to check out our full spoiler-free Mass Effect 3 review, and if you're playing already you'll also want to see our Mass Effect 3 Guide: 10 essential tips to save the galaxy, the best way to get the most our of your Mass Effect 3 experience. Not enough? Well our
Let's wind it back a little first, as how to get out of chokey isn't the first thing you'll be tasked with thinking about when you sit down with the new single-player campaign.
Before all that, unless you're importing an existing Shepard, you'll have to make a brand new one, fiddling around with your eyes and nose until they look really strange, picking your class and backstory, and telling the game a little bit about some of your actions in the previous adventures - who lived, and who died, for example. Then you have to decide which of three different versions of ME3 you'd actually like to play.
Your choices are pretty simple, thankfully. Story mode dials down the combat but allows you to make all the big decisions throughout the game, choosing what happens at crucial - and not so crucial - moments, and who you end up making sweet, slightly creepy, dead-eyed zero-gravity love to.
Action mode offers you exactly the opposite experience, turning conversations into standard non-interactive cut-scenes, while providing you with a straight-up cover-based shooter, with no morality nonsense to get in the way of the headshots.
Role-playing mode, finally, is the traditional Mass Effect mode. If you're reading this, it's the mode you'll almost certainly end up playing. (If you're not reading this, what's on telly at the moment? Is it time for Diagnosis Murder yet?)
Where were we? Oh yes, Prison. Military detention, which is probably much the same thing, but with tidier bed linen and more people doing one-armed push-ups in the yard. Shepard's in the slammer due to her - or his - crazy, law-breaking, risk-taking, genocide-committing actions in the last game's DLC, stripped of his - or her - command, and ordered to report to a futuristic tribunal to explain what she - or he - has been doing recently.
Mass Effect 3 throws you right into things, then, marching you straight to the courtroom where you'll have one last chance to convince the stupid counsellors that the Reaper threat is real, and planet Earth is about to get a royal shoeing from ageless and uncaring space robots who take the form of vast, city-sized hermit crabs.
The courtroom sequence isn't particularly long, but playing through it at a recent EA showcase did give us a chance to catch up with Ashley - or presumably Kaidan, if you decided that he should live instead.
It's also an opportunity to enjoy what feels like a series of gentle improvements to the character models. Ashley's probably still a big alien-hating racist, of course, but she's bagged herself some much nicer make-up this time around, and the rest of the game's cast have come on a long way, too.
Eyes are a little more sparkly, gestures are a touch less robotic - except on the robots, obviously - and at least one of your inquisitors offers cast-iron proof that the 'severe bun' schoolmistress hairstyle has survived, against all odds, well into an era of flying cars, laser guns, and chatty food-vending machines. If it works for you, why change it? (Because it's horrible.)
Court is quickly dismissed, however, and not because you make a very convincing case. Instead, it's the darn Reapers calling a recess, by arriving on Earth just as you're getting to the good bit of your speech, and proceeding to blow the entire building to pieces. Flame and rubble follow, as does the obligatory movement tutorial, as you and Anderson make your way through the disaster zone towards an evac ship.
Mass Effect 3 is a far more gymnastic game than its predecessors, by the looks of things. Previous instalments certainly took you to exciting alien lands, but you tended to then wobble around them as if you'd had all your joints fused together, or had thrown a disc out while having vigorously unpredictable intercourse with an alien crewmember.
This time, if the opening level is any indicator, you can expect to spend a lot of the adventure climbing up gantries, leaping across death-defying drops, and generally sprinting around like the galaxy depends upon it.
And it probably does. Earth certainly isn't doing so well, with the Reapers descending silently from the clouds and setting the surrounding skyscrapers on fire with apparent ease. It's clear that this is more mass-murder than two-sided battle, and BioWare isn't afraid to crank up the pathos, sliding in a tiny cut-scene in which Shepard spots a golden-haired scamp, separated from his family, hiding in a ventilation shaft. (Not saying what happens, but you probably shouldn't get too attached to him.)
Luckily, you've got other things to take your mind off the human misery and genocide, as your route across the shattered skyline takes you through a series of quick battles against husks and cannibals.
Husks can now clamber up walls, swarming over the edges of parapets in a distinctly creepy manner. Cannibals just pootle about like boil-infested walruses, but take a lot more damage before going down. Enemies are now quick to flank - and the environments are a little larger too, giving them room to do that - so you've been given a new charge-up melee attack that provides you with much meatier options when fighting toe-to-toe. Thwack.
This is just a quick introduction to the fighting, mind, and pretty soon you're getting ready to head off-world so you can find some way of sticking it to the Reapers permanently. Anderson decides to stay behind and protect what's left of the planet - within a few hours, he'll probably be able to fit most of it in a Pop-Tarts box - and you're back on the Normandy - yay! And there's Joker, too! -reinstated as Commander, and looking for some kind of battle plan that will allow you to rally a fleet and save humanity.
The solution, as I believe Arnie once said, is to get your ass to Mars. Down on the Martian Archives, it looks like somebody may have unearthed an old Prothean device that could do the Reapers in for good. The ancient civilisation designed a weapon, anyway - they just never had the time to build it. Maybe they got side-tracked by unblocking the Hoover or something.
There's just time for a little light levelling - each power you select now has an upgrade tree attached to it, meaning you have to be a bit more tactical when assigning points - and then you're landing on the Red Planet with Ashley and some hulking muscular guy called James, who I don't know very much about at this point. He looks like a tank character, anyway, and he says things like, "This is loco!" so he's alright with me. After all, this is loco.
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.
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.