Mass Effect 3 Hands-On Preview – The First 90 Minutes [Spoiler Free!]
Written Thursday, February 02, 2012 By Dan WebbView author's profile
I’ve always found that previewing RPGs – especially the first 90 minutes – isn’t the greatest advert for games of that particular genre. You and me both know that they’re invariably slow starters; you’ve only got to look at Final Fantasy XIII, Mass Effect 2 and Skyrim to know that. The first couple of hours are usually about setting the scene, introducing players to the game’s characters and running them through the basic mechanics, but alas, that’s what BioWare and EA had prepared for us in our latest hands-on in the conclusion of the Mass Effect trilogy. As always, you’ll find no major spoilers here and everything we do talk about in terms of plots, locations and characters is in no way going to spoil your enjoyment of the title this coming March. We’re nice like that, ya’ know?
Seeing as we had no save game with us to continue our experience, Mass Effect 3 – as it will be for new players – offered us the usual choices in creating our custom experience. That means new players will be selecting a reputation, an origin – like spacer – their look, their class and also, their combat loss – referring to who you want to save from Mass Effect 1: Kaidan or Ashley. Of course, there’s then the option of choosing to play it as Mass Effect games have been played in the past, or choosing to focus on the action or on the story.
Relieved of duty after the events of Mass Effect 2 and its subsequent DLC, Shepard is under house arrest as the universe is on the brink of Reaper attack. Still unconvinced of the impending attack, Shepard is called before the Alliance Council to be told what they already know: the universe is screwed and the Reapers are fast approaching like a runaway freight train. Players, both new and old to the franchise, actually get a Star Wars-esque intro preceding these events too, so if this is your first Mass Effect game, fear not, you should be brought up to speed before the action kicks off.
It’s at this point where we actually pick-up and go hands-on with the E3 demo from last year – snore. In case you missed that, the short and narrow of it is: the Reapers invade Earth, Shepard learns how to jump gaps and climb ladders, how to shoot the new mutated husks known as Cannibals, he also gets re-enlisted by David Anderson and then Shepard and co. are sent to the galactic council to get the help of the rest of the Mass Effect universe's various races. If you remember the whole emotional ending scene from E3 too, that’s all present and correct here, but you’ll be dismayed to know that even if you choose the “evil” response to the boy in the vents, absolutely nothing changes – yawn.
Out with the old and in with the new then… First stop: the galactic council. Well, no, not yet. The next sequence of events sets up the majority of our hands-on, as fan-favourite, Admiral Hackett, briefs Shepard, the new guy James Vega and surgically-enhanced and Mass Effect 1-ite, Ashley Williams. And before we move swiftly on to our task at hands… Vega, the steroid-ridden, macho, tattoo-ridden, meathead… yeah, we don’t like him. He rubbed us up the wrong way from the off, so being able to paragon interrupt him mid-sentence early on was a particular high point for us. The return of EDI and Joker aboard the Normandy also distracted us long enough to forget about Vega. Anyway, back to the mission at hand: head to the surface of Mars and investigating the Prothean research that Liara T’soni was exploring in the Archives that could play a key part in stopping the Reaper invasion.
The Mars human excavation post then is the game’s first key and “exotic” environment. And by “exotic” we mean, it’s Mars, so expect red dusty plains and red rocky surroundings. Oh, and a monstrous sandstorm on the horizon heading our way. It’s a fairly lengthy sequence of events from start to finish, as Shepard, who meets up and replaces Vega with Liara in his squad – huzzah! – must travel down to the depths of the Archives to grab the blueprints for a Prothean device that can be used to stop the Reapers. This is Mass Effect though and things are never that easy. Thanks to a Cerberus sleeper agent – those who have read Mass Effect: Evolution will be more than familiar with this character – the pro-human terrorist group has managed to grab a foothold in the region, killing everyone in their path and are trying to grab the device before Shepard.
It’s an incredibly combat-heavy sequence of events, but I guess this is the section of the game where you’re introduced to the squad mechanics and Shepard’s new array of moves – quick takedown from behind cover, melee with the Omni-Blade, and so on. There’s also a glimpse of a scene where Shepard is shrouded in darkness with nothing but a torch to see what’s in front of him, which we’re hoping will tie into some neat survival-horror-esque missions later on. It’s very run and gun though for the most part, which thanks to some improvements in shooter mechanics, is perfectly fine, but there’s a distinct lack of choice and consequence here, even early on, which we’re hoping isn’t a sign of things to come. We didn’t even get to sample the new weapon customisation fully – although we did pick up various weapon attachments – or the new armour customisation – again, we picked up a piece along the way. Yes, we got to fiddle with the multi-branching character growth elements, which are a marked improvement over Mass Effect 2, but nothing terribly new to report here.
From a cinematic perspective though, and from a story front, Mass Effect 3 is delivering as the rest of the franchise has done. The neat interchange between the Illusive Man and Shepard on Mars opened up many plot threads on its own and sets the story up quite nicely. I apologise if I’m being a little cagey here, but we’re venturing close to the proximity of spoiler territory and we don’t want to do that. Suffice it to say, the first 90 minutes peaks and troughs in all the right places and the cliffhanger at the end… wow! It might follow an awkward-to-control chase scene, but story and tension-wise, it’s certainly one hell of a gripping moment. We’re eager to see how this sequence continues, that’s for sure. If they can litter the storyline with more of these kinds of gems and with this level of intensity from start to finish, we’re onto a winner. We would like more tough choices in Mass Effect 3 though, as few games have matched that gut-wrenching impossible decision that we had to make in Mass Effect 1 with Kaidan and Ashley.
If I’m being perfectly honest though, trying to judge Mass Effect 3 on the basis of this hands-on is incredibly unfair. For one, we never got to see any of the exploration elements; and secondly, we never got to see the game’s structure beyond the linear opening narrative, although we get the feeling BioWare’s structure from 1 and 2 won’t be far off; and three, we didn’t truly get chance to check out some of the customisation elements of the title – a la the armour customisation, the weapon customisation and whatever other customisation choices BioWare has chosen to give the player this time around. There are literally no choices to be made this early on – well, none that lead to big consequences – and only one paragon interrupt. We’re hoping for a hell of a lot more when the game opens up, that’s for sure. That said, in terms of building up the story and introducing the characters, the opening 90 minutes of Mass Effect 3 is in fitting with the rest of the franchise; epic, enchanting and edge of the seat stuff. If BioWare can throw similar cliffhanger moments and drama like that at the end of the first act throughout the whole story arc, ramping it up to the finale, then we’re in for one hell of a treat.
James Vega is still a bit of a prick though. We hope we get the chance to kill him off… and early. That’d be worth paying the price of admission on its own!
Mass Effect 3 is scheduled for a March 6th and March 9th release in North America and Europe respectively.