Mass Effect 3 is the third game in the series of sci-fi role playing games, and final chapter in the Mass Effect trilogy, which picks up the story where the second game (or more specifically, its downloadable chapter, Arrival) left off, as the Reapers, a group of sentient life forms, which have been designed to eradicate all life throughout the universe, finally find Earth. Playing as Commander Shephard (who can be both male or female) - a man (or woman) who’s already saved the galaxy twice - you're on trial on Earth for your actions in the previous games, when the Reapers arrive. Two million die in the first day. The humans put up a fight, but they won’t survive for long. Not against the reapers. Not on their own. With the fate of an entire world in your hands, it's up to you to escape from the Earth, and set out on a quest across the galaxy, to bring the alien races together, and enlist their help to send the Reapers packing once and for all. And although the story carries on from the previous games, EA have assured us that anyone will be able to pick up and play Mass Effect 3, as the story in this one is mostly self contained.
At the recent Gamescom trade fair in Cologne, we were treated to a presentation of Mass Effect 3, which illustrated practically everything you could hope to know about the game. Leaving the best ‘til last, things started off with a combat section on an alien homeworld - yet even this was strongly story driven. You’re tasked with escorting an alien female across the somewhat hostile planet - but far from being just any female, this woman is in the possession of a cure for a genetic disease, which had bitterly divided two races. As the man (or woman) expected to bring these two races together, keeping this woman alive is essential - although seemingly, everyone else had other ideas. Coming under attack almost, we dived into cover, popping up only to shoot, and were shown a range of powers Shepard has at his disposal - kind of like spells on other games - which can be used to throw enemies around, or damage them. Each of the skills can be upgraded as you gain experience, either upgrading your powers, or increasing your proficiency with certain weapons, letting your powers grow stronger as you do.
Somewhat worryingly, around half way into our demo, our demonstrator let slip that Mass Effect 3 is being designed to be the toughest game in the series so far - which isn't something that people new to the franchise are going to likely want to hear. That being said, our spiel-sense is tingling somewhat, and we remain hopeful that this was simply marketing spiel aimed at the hardcore, rather than a mission to put off the more casual fans of Mass Effect. With any luck, much like the games that came before it, hopefully on "Easy", Mass Effect will remain just that, with enemies that only take a few hits, and auto-aim that helps you hit the sweet spot.
If the combat is as tricky as the developers are making it out to be, however, you’ll be pleased to know you’ve got a few extra tools at your disposal – the biggest of which is the Omni-blade. Perfect for those of us who keep letting enemies get that little bit too close without realising, the Omni-blade is an up-close and personal, glowing orange melee weapon, which fires out of Shepard's arm like a lightsaber, and appears to down enemies in one hit. Along with the refined squad controls, which let you send your teammates in to do the dirty work, while you sit at the back, safe as houses, you'll have plenty of tools at your disposal when the worst comes to worst – no matter what the difficulty level.
But this being Mass Effect, it's not the combat that we were really interested
in. The combat has, and likely always will be a second fiddle to the storyline -
the reason you keep playing – in games like this, and in the second part of our
demo, we were reminded exactly why.
The game cut to a scene on Earth, but obviously, Earth from the future. Once glistening metal skyscrapers line the horizon, now sending plumes of smoke into the air, as the giant, mite shaped craft of the Reapers stomp a path between them, stopping only to fire at an office block, punching a hole straight through to the other side. This scene was taken from near the start of the game, as the military struggle to respond to the Reapers, and protect the public as best they can. There's a war going on around us, and Shepard needs to escape.
Running over the solar-panelled roofs, we drop through a hole in the floor into a building. Triggering a cutscene, and with time of the essence, Shepard moves towards a locked door, and forces it apart to let his team mate through, before pausing, seemingly realising something isn’t right. Turning, we notice a ventilation duct, which has had its cover removed. Getting closer, and slowly crouching, we find a terrified young boy inside, around ten years old, hiding from the destruction going on around him. Scared, and alone, even seeing Shepard approach, the boy backs off, not knowing which side you’re on. Lowering his voice, Shepard reassures the child that it’s OK, to which the kid shakes his head, and replies “Everyone’s dying”. To be honest, he has a point. As the child cowers in the duct, a dialogue box pops up, giving you a choice. The options don’t reflect what you say word for word, but they try to give you an example of tone. The first option says “Let me help you”, the latter “Get out of there!” Depending on your choice, it could mean the difference between saving the boy’s life, or leaving him behind, as another statistic for the Reapers. This is the kind of situation Mass Effect regularly throws you into – forcing you to trust your instincts in the trickiest of situations. Scrolling up, we select the first option, and say, softly, “Come here, I need to get you someplace safe. Take my hand.” As you reach in, the child retreats further inside, and shakes his head, with fear in his eyes. “You can’t help me.” As you go to reach in again, a voice interrupts. “SHEPARD!” You turn round to see your team mate, clearly agitated. You need to go. Shepard takes one last look back inside the vent, only to see that it’s empty. The boy’s gone. Needing to carry on, you have to take your leave.
Heading through the door, you find yourself outside again, heading towards your extraction point, where the fleet will pick you up. No sooner have you taken two steps forward than a giant Reaper ship lands in front of you, shaking the ground. With a piercing shriek, it fires a beam at a nearby ship, presumably full of civilians being evacuated, and slices straight through it, causing an explosion so huge, it rips through the building you’re standing on. Buckling beneath you, the ground gives way, and you find yourself sliding down the side of a building. Landing on your feet, you find yourself surrounded by enemies, with seemingly no way to escape. Frantically, you search for a radio, and call in your ship, which smashes through the debris of a building nearby, just in the nick of time. You’re safe.
The action switches to a cutscene, as Shepard runs over, and
leaps on board, looking back to see military transports landing, ready to
transport civilians out of the building. They’ve got there just in time, too,
as a Reaper walker is gradually approaching in the background. The people load
up, and the soldier signals for the transports to leave, when the boy from the
vent comes running out of the building. The first transport powers up its
engines and takes off, and for a split-second in your mind, you panic, thinking
“they won’t have noticed him, he’s not going to make it!” At the very last
second, just as the second transport goes to leave, the troops spot him, and a
soldier gestures him to hurry up. They don’t have much time. The boy has
trouble even climbing into the ship because he’s so small, but the soldiers
pull him in as the ship leaves the ground. Firing up its engines, the ship takes
flight - just as the Reaper rounds the
building, and fires its laser. It takes out the first transport, as the second
tries frantic evasive manoeuvres, swerving across the sky. It’s not enough. The
laser slices through the ship, and it explodes in a bright light.
The kid didn’t make it. If only he’d have listened.
As solemn piano music played over the end of the demo, and practically the entire room got a lump in their throat, it made you realise that this is exactly what the developers, BioWare, want. They want to move you. They want to put you in a world, with believable people, and make your decisions matter. The kid died because he wouldn’t come with you. But what if you’d have been more forceful with him? What if you’d have grabbed him by the hand? What if you took the second option?
What if? This is Mass Effect 3. March 2012 can’t come soon enough.