We’re just weeks away from the finale of Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy, and if the demo is a sign of things to come, Bioware has saved the best for last.
Mass Effect 3’s demo is surprisingly meaty: in addition to a lengthy segment of the game’s single player campaign, the demo also features a good deal of the game’s all new multiplayer mode. Since I assume most Mass Effect fans are going to start off with the single player side of the demo, I’ll discuss that first.
Single Player Demo
The demo begins by letting you customize your version of Shepard. It’s a process that anyone who has played previous Mass Effect games will be familiar with: you get to pick Shep’s gender, customize his/her facial appearance, as well as lay out some details regarding his background and personal history. From there you can pick from the usual set of classes, like the gun-focused soldier or the support based Sentinel class. I assume that the full game will let ME veterans simply import their save files over from ME2, and Bioware has already stated that all of your gear and stats will carry over to the third game.
The only real change to the set-up process is the new gameplay style choices: If you’re just playing Mass Effect for the action, you can chose an option that minimizes the role-playing and dialogue-tree options. If you’re the opposite and simply want to enjoy the story, there’s an option that minimizes both the difficulty and frequency of combat. Finally, if you like both and simply want the traditional Mass Effect shooter/RPG hybrid experience, there’s an option for that too. The ability to choose different play styles has strangely been a point of contention among hardcore gamers, but honestly, if this kind of choice makes you angry, take your hardcore elitism and misplaced machismo elsewhere: Bioware is simply offering players the ability to customize their experience, and I honestly don’t understand why people are throwing such a hissy-fit over additional options.
Once you get done customizing Shepard, the game drops you into ME3’s introductory area. As we’ve seen in previously released trailers, the game begins with the Reaper’s (a race of giant, sentient machines who cleanse all life from the galaxy every fifty thousand years,) blitzkreig invasion of Earth. Anyone who has played ME2 will immediately feel at home here; the controls feel mostly the same, though Shepard has learned a new evasive roll and charged up melee attack that should help him survive the game’s seemingly desperate odds. The opening tutorial level featured at the beginning of the demo is easily the most epic tutorial ever: since it’s the first level, it’s obviously pretty hard to die during the introductory level as the game teaches you the controls and eases you into its various combat mechanics and gameplay systems, but despite that, it really feels like you’re caught up in the middle of a desperate, losing battle. Bioware has obviously learned a lot over the last few years about cinematic presentation and pacing, as ME3’s bombastic, lightning paced intro is pretty much the exact opposite of the original Mass Effect’s infamously slow paced first few hours.
The demo then skips ahead to a later section of the game, where Shep and returning fan favorites Liara (the telepathic alien love interest from the first Mass Effect,) trigger happy brute Wrex (also returning from the original game,) and Mordin Solus (the slightly insane but lovable scientist from ME2) are tasked with protecting one of the last females of the endangered Krogan race. It’s in this section that the improvements to the combat system really become apparent: enemies in ME3 are much more tenacious and intelligent than they were in previous entries, and they’re smart enough to know when to take cover and when to try and flank your squad. Equipment modifications make a welcome return from Mass Effect 1 as well, though I didn’t find too many interesting mods to apply to my guns during the demo. Hopefully the full game will have as many interesting mods to mix-and-match in ME3 as the original game had.
The single player portion of the ME3 demo took me about a half-an-hour to play through, and it succeeded in leaving me wanting more. The changes over Mass Effect 2 are subtle, but the reintroduction of customizable equipment mods should appease fans who thought ME2 sacrificed too many of the original game’s RPG elements. The writing is as sharp as ever, and with ME3 being touted as the end of Shepard’s adventure, Bioware is promising that all of the choices you made in ME1 and 2 will carry over and have permanent, meaningful consequences in ME3. I loved the first two entries in the series, and if Bioware can maintain the pacing and polish shown in the demo throughout the entirety of the full game, it seems like Mass Effect 3’s single player campaign might just be the best game they’ve ever crafted.
I know a lot of fans were skeptical when Bioware announced that Mass Effect 3 would have a dedicated multiplayer mode (as was I,) but now that I’ve actually played ME3’s multiplayer, I can safely say that those fears were unfounded: ME3’s multiplayer is simply a lot of fun, and most surprisingly at all, it doesn’t feel all that different from playing single-player: the controls remain the same, skills and weapons work the same way they do in the campaign, and the way you level up and customize your character is also nearly identical to how you’d build-up Shepard in the story mode as well. The whole package feels amazingly cohesive.
Anyone who’s played Gears of War’s Horde mode or Halo Reach’s Firefight will know what to expect from Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer. Up to 4 players need to defend a position from several waves of increasingly tough enemies, and trust me when I tell you that the enemies in this mode are indeed tough: like the single player mode, the enemies behave strategically and they do a pretty good job of flanking you and finding the best spots to take cover. Unlike some other games which feature similar “Horde” like modes, you and your team really need to work together to survive each round, so much so that it kind of works to the games detriment if you don’t have a good team: I really recommend you play with a full party of friends, cause playing with random match-ups on Xbox Live almost always resulted in my team of inept, lone wolf strangers and stereotypical XBL dudebro’s getting wiped out. Mass Effect 3 multiplayer demands genuine teamwork, especially at lower levels when you’re limited in your choice of equipment and skills, so you’ll definitely want to partner up with people you know and trust rather than being paired up with the infamously uncooperative (and probably racist and/or terrible at games) people you usually meet via random match-ups online.
All in all, Mass Effect 3 is looking like it’s going to be the best game in the series, and a fitting finale for Shepard’s long fight against the Reapers. The single player looks like it’s going to more than clear the high bar set by Mass Effect 2, and the multiplayer seems like it’ll be great enough keep me playing long after I complete the story mode. We’re barely a quarter of the way through 2012, but if the demo is an indication of how the finally product will turn out, it seems like this year’s Game of the Year may just be around the corner.