First impressions of the Mass Effect 3 demo

In which I have to decide between not being lazy or surrendering the secrets of my computer to a multi-million dollar corporation, to hear one man's voice.

Until now I’ve been pretty good at avoiding anything and everything to do with Mass Effect 3 that wasn’t an official trailer or screenshot. When the beta leaked out towards the end of last year I went into full lock-down mode, shunning anything bearing the words “Mass,” “Effect” or the number 3 to stay blissfully spoiler-free. It also meant being woefully ignorant of important world news and the latest developments in physics, although at least I wouldn’t miss any important Valve announcements. Alas my willpower isn’t as strong as I’d like, for the demo tempted me with a promise I simply couldn’t resist. An answer to the most burning, pressing question I have about Mass Effect 3.

How soon after starting the game would I hear the gravelly voice of Lance Henriksen?

Before I could even download the demo however I had an important Shepard-esque decision to make. Could I be arsed to fetch my 360 in from the living room where it sat beneath ye olde SD-TV, hook it up to my monitor and play it on that? Or would I do something I’d vowed never to debase myself with and download EA’s Origin client to play the PC version? After 30 minutes boning up on European Data Protection Law and quarantining my PC I clenched my teeth, clicked a button and called down the ill-whispered abomination that is Origin from its squamous realm on the internet. To be fair it’s not a complete atrocity, just shoddy and half-arsed, but now I know what Battlefield 3 fans have to put up with.

The decision making process went something like this.

Multiplayer wasn’t available so I went straight for single player, and after umming and ahhing over the appearance of my female Shepard I was asked to choose one of three ways to play the game: Action, Roleplaying or Story. Action, the default option for some inexplicable reason, takes the choice out of cut-scenes with a pre-selected mix of Paragon and Renegade options so you can concentrate solely on killing things. Perfect for the sort of people paralysed with fear by any social interaction not ending in murder. Story on the other hand dials back the combat as much as possible, so you can get to the next conversation quicker and still feel like a badass. Slap bang between the two sits Roleplaying, the complete Mass Effect experience cake of shooty-shooty and chatty-chatty we’ve all come to love. Freedom to choose how you play is a good thing and I applaud BioWare for including these options.

I chose the complete cake of course. With that done I only had to answer a couple of questions about my Shepard’s overall personality (earthborn scum, borderline psychotic, “death is a fact of war”) and decide who lived and died at a certain point in ME1. After that the game delivered on its sweetest promise with a near-immediate answer to my most burning question. The STLH (Start To Lance Henriksen) time is approximately 11 seconds, when his commanding-yet-gentle voice intones the second line of the entire game during a conversation with Admiral David “Keith David” Anderson. From there the scene shifts to Earth where Shepard is about meet a committee of top Alliance personnel about the imminent Reaper threat. So imminent in fact they gatecrash the meeting within minutes and start laying waste to Earth with glowing red beams of death.

When this man politely asks me to do something in Mass Effect, I bloody well do it.

You gain control as Anderson and Shepard start fighting their way through a warzone towards the Normandy for evacuation, and it was here my biggest grievance with the PC version came into play. Mass Effect 3 for the PC has absolutely zero support for controllers, not even Xbox ones. I guess it was to be expected since neither ME1 or 2 for the PC had controller support either, and I’ll pointlessly argue the superiority of mouse and keyboard until the cows come home, but I played through ME1 & 2 on the 360. An Xbox controller is what I’m used to experiencing the Mass Effect universe with. Why let players choose how they play the game yet not let them choose the control method they’re most comfortable with? There’s a borderless windowed mode option though if you like that sort of thing. I can’t stand it myself, since I’m one of those weird people who likes clearly defined boundaries around their games if they’re not full-screen. Anything else is unfathomable chaos to me.

Perhaps I’m just a bit rusty, but I had some noticeable hassle getting my Shepard to do what I told her to with regards to cover. Most of the time she’d dash towards cover and crouch down ready to pop up and blow an enemy’s head off with incendiary rounds, as you’d expect. Sometimes however she’d have a bit of a funny turn and spontaneously roll mid-run for no reason, which would have been fine if she actually ended up in some cover afterwards. Instead she’d often roll away from the cover I was aiming for straight into the sights of the nearest firing squad. Leaving cover also felt somewhat hit-and-miss at times, which literally describes my experiences with the new Omni-blade weapon. I’d knife a bloke right in the face only to discover I’d somehow missed, then fatally graze another enemy’s elbow. Not a lot has changed in the combat overall but what has will take a bit of getting used to.

After the opening invasion the demo jumps forward to a point later in the game, at a facility on the Salarian homeworld where Shepard has to protect a Krogan female from Cerberus agents. It’s the same one from all that E3 footage last year showing off the Omni-blade and new combat manoeuvres, and it introduces you to the new skill system. Whereas ME1’s skill system was bloated and overwrought and ME2’s was streamlined down to almost nothing, ME3 seems to have finally got it right. You have about eight skills made up of six levels and each skill expands into a mini talent tree that branches off into two paths, some earlier than others. I suppose they’re more like talent forks really. Forks with varying handle lengths. Whatever you call them, the skill system looks to have enough depth for RPG fans to comfortably sink their teeth into without being impenetrable to ordinary people.

Besides boosting your combat abilities some skills also give you bonuses to social interaction, making your more persuasive or intimidating. Utterly useless in the Salarian demo mission but a fair indicator we’ll have more power over our decision making abilities in ME3. One thing I didn’t like about ME2’s system was how some charm and intimidate options required you to have accrued a certain amount of Paragon or Renegade points, often to the point of pedantry. If you strayed even an inch from the one-dimensional paths of aw-shucks boy scout or bad-ass rebel with a cause you could find yourself locked out of an important dialogue option later. While we’re on the subject, dialogue choices are so thin on the ground in the demo you need a microscope to see them clearly. BioWare say they stripped a lot of them out of the demo to avoid spoilers however, which for a spoiler-phobe like me is a reasonable enough explanation.

I had more luck doing this than using the Omni-blade. Bah to your new-fangled technology!

Visually the demo looks bloody gorgeous. Alliance vessels and Reaper attack drones buzz overhead as you flee across rooftops and through ravaged buildings in the game’s opening segments, all overshadowed by the titanic Reapers themselves. The sheer sense of epic scale combined with fantastic music brilliantly convey the sense of being caught up in a massive apocalyptic shitstorm, where you could be blasted to atoms or blown off a ledge to your death at any moment. Husks scrabble up the sides of buildings like dessicated spiders, ancient robotic monstrosities tear up the landscape like vengeful gods and people die tragically. As openings go it’s as explosive as Michael Bay’s wet dreams, as indifferent as the cold uncaring universe, and oh so beautifully epic I could just cry. The Salarian homeworld mission isn’t quite as whoosh-bang-yay mind-blowing but still fun to romp through blowing stuff up.

Overall the demo does its job of making me want Mass Effect 3 and does it exceptionally well. If I could change one thing besides lack of controller support then I’d like to see the Roleplaying option highlighted as the default play style instead of the Action one. I’m not suggesting it out of some snobbery towards people “playing the game wrong” or anything. Giving players some freedom to tweak gameplay to their preferences, in more ways than just the number of bullets it takes to kill something, is great. Emphasising the Action option however smacks a bit of BioWare trying to appeal to the strict-shooter crowd to the point of desperate kow-towing. As if they’re somehow ashamed to say ME3 offers more than just shooty-shooty-bang-bang. Don’t be like that BioWare. Offer people the massive cake first, and if they feel that’s too much they can choose something smaller and more manageable. Put your best foot forward and all that jazz!

So far, so excited. Whether or not the final game turns out to be any good is something we won’t know until March.

Matt

About Matt

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com and the sarcastic writer, editor, director, presenter and tea boy of Pixel Burn.