Monday, February 20, 2012

Mass Effect 3 (Xbox 360) Demo Impressions

Mass Effect 3 is only a few weeks away, and early last week EA released a fully playable demo on the Xbox 360, PC, and PlayStation 3. The primary difference between the versions is the Xbox 360's demo is fully Kinect enabled, and while that's the version of the demo that I played I don't have Kinect so I won't be able to comment on those extra features.

Thankfully, the demo doesn't need them to be a blast.

Starting right with the retail game's opening and tutorial, players once again assume the role of Commander Shepard, and while they can't import their previous games' Shepards into the demo (though of course this will be supported in the retail release), they can customize gender, appearance, class, etc.

Unlike previous entries in the franchise, players can choose an option that will dictate the style of play right from the start. They can choose "Action," in which the game's conversations play like cinematics and all conversation options are chosen for you leaving the emphasis on combat, they can chose "Role Playing," which is a traditional Mass Effect experience and what I played, or they can choose "Story," where combat is extremely simple allowing players to primarily focus on the narrative.

This is an excellent innovation by BioWare as it allows players of all kinds to enjoy Mass Effect 3 in the way that best suites their style. In terms of actual game difficulty, "Veteran" is now gone however a new kind of very easy has been added. I forget what it's called, exactly, as I didn't use it, but it's meant for players who are uninterested in combat and only want to experience the game's story.

Shepard is back with the Alliance somehow and is in detention on Earth, though he/she is not actually arrested or in any kind of serious trouble. He/she is being held to advise the Alliance Council on what to do regarding the pending Reaper invasion, an invasion that begins right away.

Escorted by new Squad Mate James Vega and meeting up with Admiral Anderson (who's also back with the Alliance it seems) and either Kaidan or Ashley, depending, Shepard is brought before the Alliance Council to advise them on how to proceed. During this quasi-trial, the Reapers quickly penetrate Earth's defences and invade, laying waste to the planet in some very impressive and spectacular visual sequences. Narrowly surviving the initial landing, Anderson and Shepard need to escape to the Normandy so they can head to the Citadel and request aid.

The storytelling, atmosphere, and presentation of the narrative feels significantly more like Mass Effect than its sequel, which I see as a good thing as I feel the first game had the stronger overall story. The combat, however, is almost pure Mass Effect 2, which is also a good thing since the sequel had far more refined combat over the original. I say "almost" because finally, at long last you can dodge as Commander Shepard. I've been screaming for a dodge feature in this franchise for almost five years now, and this wonderful innovation will help you survive many encounters that would have killed Shepard in past games.

A few other combat-related items have also been adjusted, somewhat recalling the original game but with a twist. You once again need to use Medi-Gel to manage your Health, as well as to Revive downed Squad Mates. This is a mix of the first two titles, and you now have several Health bars. If a bar is partially depleted and you take cover, it'll regenerate, if it's fully depleted it won't and Medi-Gel will be required to restore it. I love this as it brings about a little more tactical thinking into play.

Grenades also make a return in a unique fashion. There are now several types of Grenades and they're all Talents to be Unlocked and Upgraded, however even though you still access them via the Power Wheel you carry around a limited quantity like in the original game (Three for the demo). You don't have infinite Grenades and you need to pick them up, just like ammo (the Heat Syncs from the sequel return). Another twist and a first for the franchise, enemies will also throw Grenades to try and flush you out of cover. That nifty new roll feature that should have been there five years ago comes in very, very handy for avoiding those.

Upgrading Talents also sees a little more choice than in Mass Effect 2, where there's about three or four options per Talent that let's you choose between two options, and in addition to a Class-based passive talent, there's also now a Fitness Talent which improves things like Health, Melee Damage, etc.

Speaking of Melee, if you hold "Melee" Shepard will now do a "Heavy Melee" and stab an enemy with the new Omni Blade after a brief charge up; very powerful and it appears that assassinations are possible if hitting an enemy from behind. If you're playing as a Biotic class instead of an Omni Blade you have some kind of Biotic generated blade.

Shepard also has a new mid-range rifle to play with. Better at long range than an SMG and more accurate and slower to fire than an Assault Rifle, this new gun was my go-to firearm of choice in most situations and proved its worth over and over again. Heavy Pistols and Shotguns were also available regardless of the classes I played as, and one of your Squad Mates has a Sniper Rifle but as Shepard I never got to handle one.

Simply but, the demo plays great and when the Tutorial section is done, you jump to a mission later in the game where you're trying to prevent Cerberus from taking a Krogan female, one that's very important to the Krogan and Salarians alike. This section of the demo not only reacquaints you with some old friends (whom I won't ruin for you here), but also puts you into some real combat and a cool boss battle that was loads of fun to play through and presented some interesting tactical challenges amongst some great scripted sequences.

My only gripe with the Single Player portion of the demo was that you could not save at any point (though the option is there but greyed out, so expect it in the retail version) and instead needed to rely on Checkpoints. There was one section towards the end of the demo's second mission where if you died, and on Insanity I died a few times, you were sent back two battles past. This was extremely frustrating as there was no logical purpose for the Checkpoint system to take you this far back as there was a breather between battles.

On Friday, the Multiplayer portion of the demo unlocked for all to enjoy and I've given it a quick sampling. To be perfectly honest, it didn't feel tacked on and I can honestly see myself enjoying it. I say "see myself" because I know I wouldn't enjoy playing it with randoms, but it'd be a blast with a group of friends.

In the Multiplayer portion of the demo, you get to select your class and race (and more can be unlocked) and you team up with other players cooperatively to hold off waves of AI opponents or to complete various objectives. An example would be that in a wave there are a few high value targets and you must neutralize them before time runs out.

You can customize your armour colours, select the weapons you want to use, and as you Level Up you can unlock additional Talents and earn cash to purchase various upgrade packs.

I didn't spend too much time with the Multiplayer portion of the demo and in truth it's the Single Player portion that I'm excited for, but I am happy to report that it didn't feel like a cop-out in the slightest.

For the Single Player experience though, I played through it three times, from Normal to Insanity, and with male and female Shepards of different classes. Each time was an overall great experience and let me tackle the demo's various challenges a bit differently. Note that anything you achieve in the demo will _not_ carry over to the retail title, so play and enjoy without thinking too far ahead.

Mass Effect 3 launches on March 6th, and if this demo is any indication, we're in for one amazing treat.

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