Friday, 3 February 2012

The First 90 Minutes of Mass Effect 3

The First 90 Minutes of Mass Effect 3

The beginning of the end of the world.

UK, February 2, 2012

 When I first started playing Mass Effect, I set out to behave like a stony-hearted space-bitch. I was going to take the universe for everything it had: credits, loot, fame, blue ladies, the lot. It didn't last long. By the beginning of Mass Effect 2, my red-headed Shepard – whom I'd designed to look especially stern in the character creator – was just as soft as I am in real life, all helping people out with their personal disputes and taking on pro bono missions for the greater good and patiently listening to her squad-mates' problems. I couldn't even bring myself to make her cheat on Kaidan with Thane.

Why did this happen? Well, in short, Mass Effect was too good at telling a story (highly unusual for a videogame, I know). I couldn't maintain the sense of disconnect from the characters that was necessary to make Shepard behave like a jerk. I cared, you see. I cared about my teammates, about the fate of the world, about the different races and peoples that I encountered on the Normandy's voyages. Hell, I even cared about Kaidan. It all started to feel like it really mattered – enough so that the opening of
Mass Effect 3, where the Reapers start to descend on Earth's strongholds, genuinely affected me. I felt like I'd let it happen.

Mass Effect 3's first hour and a half does a lot to encourage this sense of personal responsibility. In a scene familiar from earlier demos, you see a kid blown to pieces along with a whole escape ship full of people as Reaper ships attach themselves to Earth like giant, poisonous, mechanical tics. The preceding scene, where you find the child hiding in an air duct and try unsuccessfully to persuade him to join you on the Normandy, involves you momentarily in his life for just long enough that seeing him die provokes more than the usual instantly-fleeting twinge of conscience. You know that his death is just one of thousands that day, and that knowledge steels you for the near-unwinnable battle ahead. 

For anyone invested in the Mass Effect fiction, the concept of the Reapers actually getting to earth is enough to make you feel a little queasy all by itself. Seeing it is much worse. The most galling thing, of course, is that you warned them this would happen. In a way, it's perversely satisfying to see Shepard proven right in front of a bewildered and terrified Earth defence council as a beam from one of the Reaper ships slices clean through the building. After Shepard's daring escape to the Normandy, which gives you a handy refresher on the basics of cover, combat and ledge-vaulting, the first stop is the Prothean archives on Mars, and the game's first proper mission. It's only here that you really begin to feel how subtle changes to gameplay affect the flow and rhythm of the action.

On Mars, something is definitely amiss – your team finds that the entire garrison and research team stationed at the Archives has been more or less wiped out, and you soon find out who's responsible. From there, it feels familiar – a voyage into the centre of a large complex, punctuated by frequent encounters with entrenched enemies and angry red blinking doors that need to be circumvented with unlikely detours. It's a gentle re-introduction to Mass Effect's unique strategic gunplay, reminding you how ammo properties, biotics and marksmanship can be combined for maximum effect.

The combat is certainly a lot slicker than it's ever been before. BioWare is clearly getting better and better at building a third-person shooter, to the point where the combat mechanics now actually complement the deeper RPG experience rather than getting in the way of it. A new Gears-of-War-style dash means that you can vault cover and leap over gaps much more smoothly, without finding yourself in a constant battle with the A button. It also feels much faster, not because enemies die more easily, but because of the team's increased athleticism. They don't slowly strafe between cover anymore, and neither do enemies.

It's difficult to verify the developer's claims that Mass Effect 3 is harder than its predecessors from its introductory mission, but it certainly hasn't been dumbed down. I raised an eyebrow at the character creation screen when I was given the choice between Action, Roleplaying and Story play styles (Action, as you might have read already, delivers a shooting-heavy experience by playing all the conversations as cutscenes instead of letting you choose your responses, and Story claims to greatly reduce the difficulty of the combat), but it doesn't seem like BioWare has compromised the Mass Effect series' distinctive genre-synthesis by trying to please everyone.

The weapon flexibility is also a refreshing change. Being able to pick up dropped grenades and weapons and actually use them on the spot is a revelation for Mass Effect, and switching between a greater range of weapon types immediately injects variety into otherwise repetitive combat scenarios. The Mars complex is littered with weapon modifications that let you subtly tweak the attributes and appearance of favourite pieces, showing off the added depth that weapon customisation offers. Given that Mass Effect 2 streamlined the inventory system so aggressively, it's nice to have a weapon-bench menu screen to tinker with.

Of course, 90 minutes really isn't a long time to spend with a game like Mass Effect. As soon as I was getting comfortable with things again and re-investing myself in Shepard, it was time to stop. So far, it's exquisitely paced; some great set-pieces and the well-timed return of a few familiar faces keep those crucial first few hours compelling for those of us who are already at home in this universe. Despite BioWare's efforts to the contrary, though, I'm still not sure how welcoming it would be to new players, especially as so much of the main plot already has already been set in motion by the time you even start playing. If you hadn't spent a hundred hours getting to know and fear the Reapers already, would the sight of those menacing, insectile ships attaching themselves to Earth be such a shock?

I didn't really need convincing that Mass Effect 3 would be a highlight of my year. But it's heartening to see BioWare's eternal determinedness to improve actually manifest itself in a game that's slicker and more inviting than its predecessors without changing much about them. In building the series up to such a dramatic conclusion, BioWare has given itself an awful lot to live up to, but I have confidence now that it is equal to the task.


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