E3 2011 Preview: Mass Effect 3
For the last few years, the gaming world has been enamored with BioWare's epic space RPG series, Mass Effect. Its depiction of a strong protagonist championing human leadership in a galaxy full of aliens has been strangely addictive, and the RPG elements and hard-hitting action - along with many story-oriented choices and consequences - have really helped solidify BioWare's fanbase. While the studio made a couple of missteps in the latest Mass Effect 2 DLC and in the mild disappointment at the un-epic-ness of Dragon Age II, BioWare is soldiering on, and from what I've seen of Mass Effect 3, fans that are a little skeptical about those recent releases have nothing to worry about when it comes to this best-selling franchise and the final game in the trilogy.
We've all seen the trailer to set things up: Commander Shepard has not been able to get the galaxy's civilized races to band together and find a solution for the Reaper menace. The Human Alliance (or the Council, if they're still alive in your game) doesn't believe the Reapers even exist anymore, and they don't have the political capital to spend on devoting resources to the threat - not with all of their day-to-day squabbles. Other races are too busy in fighting their own wars, in holding back the Krogans, in being the Krogans, or in trying to gain the favor of the high-ups at the Citadel. It seems like the Reapers defeated the Protheans this way: by preying on sentient life's need to bicker and quibble over the little things. Or at least, that's the impression many players got from the Prothean encounter on the planet Ilos in the first game.
Warning: early game spoilers follow. If you want to go into the game blind, then stop reading this article (as well as other previews from E3, as they spoil things, too), and just wait for next March. And remember, what might be a tiny, allowable spoiler to one player could be a total game-ruiner for another. I can't guarantee I won't spoil something that you'll really hate me for later.
In Mass Effect 3, the Reapers arrive, and it happens right at the beginning of the game; the trailer told us this was going to happen, but we didn't realize it would be right at the start. Shepard is back on Earth, standing trial for the events in the Arrival DLC for the second game, and that's right when they invade Earth. Shepard scrambles to retrieve the Normandy and get off-planet in an attempt to rally together support - from all races that are capable of mounting it - for a unified defense. The player's choices in the first game, both big and small, all play a part in how the third game goes. If you lost (or killed) some of your companions in the first two games, they'll be gone here. If you wiped out the Rachni on Noveria, they're not an option. If you pushed the Quarians towards war with the Geth (and/or if you chose not to try and unify the Geth in Legion's loyalty mission), then that choice will affect these two races' reactions to your request to drop everything and come fight some bigger, badder enemies. You're not just going to need the teams of warriors you assembled in the first two games. You're going to need whole planets' armies at your back, and Mass Effect 3 is about making the final push to get as much of the galaxy behind your goal - end the Reapers forever - and then executing that goal at the end.
BioWare probably gave away a bit too much about Mass Effect 2 at E3 2009; myself along with a ton of other journalists wrote a lot of spoilers that wound up ruining at least one of the second game's big surprises. (We were just reporting on what BioWare showed us!) This time, BioWare has been a little more careful, and instead picked out parts of gameplay that don't spoil some of the big surprises they have in store for us. Mordin's on the Salarian home planet, feeling sorry for having engineered the Krogan genophage and is now trying to ensure the future reproductive viability of the Krogan race. And before Shepard escapes Earth and while whole buildings are collapsing, there's the matter of a little boy, one who is resistant to taking a helping hand. You might find this little scene touching.
The action this time is a little less wooden and more fluid, with scripted setpieces raging around you often. Shepard is more limber and moves around in cover easily, while fights are structured to give you more opportunities for flanking - we saw a preview of this in the way fights were structured in the later ME2 DLC packs, which are very challenging on Insanity difficulty. Additionally, Shepard can now turn the Omni-tool into a rather sharp blade for up-close impalements - Arbiter/Prophet of Truth-style. Nice! And hey, they even brought back frag grenades, which are thrown and bounce like they do in most military games.
Beyond that, we've got an indoctrinated Cerberus out for Shepard's blood, Reapers in huge rail shooter-type gun battles, and Wrex yelling at Shepard from a nearby ship about a fertile Krogan female (which we did see!). Ashley's back (and looking hotter than ever), along with Garrus, Wrex, Mordin, Legion, Liara, and good ol' Captain/Ambassador Anderson. Certainly we'll see more of the cast, too, but that's just a quick list of who we definitely we saw or heard at E3.
All of this content is from the very beginning of the game, as we understand it, so we know little of how Shepard will rally support from each important race in the series, or how things go down in the final battle. One nice part is that while BioWare felt the need to explain a lot of things about ME2's ending before the game was actually released (after all, people wanted to know specifics about taking their Shepard on into the third game), they won't have to do the same thing here since it's the end of the trilogy. It'll be nicer if we just find out on our own!
It seems like BioWare is cranking up not only the level of chaos and scale of each combat scene by introducing huge enemies and big surprises during battle, but they're also making everything much more personal in the conversations, too. With a promised improvement in the dialogue system to underline the importance of every decision made, we don't expect BioWare to change everything, but this is the final game in a trilogy of game-changing design. This most certainly won't be just a continuation of Mass Effect 2. I do hope that they get a better performance out of Mark Meer for the male Shepard role, but I'm still betting on Jennifer Hale's female Shepard to deliver a superior performance.
The few disconnected scenes we saw during BioWare's closed-doors E3 preview show us that Mass Effect 3 is, as you probably expect, right on track to deliver an explosive - but also emotionally charged - end to a truly epic space opera. Without having gotten my hands on the game personally, I'll fall a bit short of calling this as much of a beloved trilogy as another legendary science fiction series I can think of, but the important part is that it could get there, at least for me. And getting that far, even if just in a few minds, is a lot better than many people expected out of Mass Effect when it was first revealed.
The trilogy comes to a close (on PC, PS3, and 360) on March 6, 2012.