While there’s no denying the fact that Mass Effect’s shooting combat has seen some serious sophistication from the first game’s attempts at tactical gunplay, it’s the saga’s story and emphasis on player choice that has been applauded the most. At this year’s E3 show, BioWare gave an extended look at a few combat sequences taken from actual gameplay of Mass Effect 3. We knew that the developers were getting better and better at delivering a strong shooter mechanic, but from mobility to weapon customization, the changes the team has made could get Mass Effect 3 recognized as much for its combat as its narrative.
We’ve already given a broad look at Mass Effect 3’s E3 gameplay demo, but the tweaks made to several elements of combat, not to mention the extensive upgrade system that’s been applied to the game’s weapons demands closer inspection.
The first section of gameplay took place in the structures featured in the previously released screenshots, taking on Cerberus operatives exclusively.
The opponents certainly didn’t put up much of a fight for all the rogue terrorist group’s talk, but with so many changes being made to the combat of ME3, the difficulty was no doubt dialled down to show them all off.
If any of you were hoping that the near-infinite ammunition system of the first game would be returning to replace the heat-cartridge mechanic implemented with Mass Effect 2, we’ve got some bad news. BioWare seems committed to the system going forward, although the newly-redesigned sounds of the guns themselves may help to soften the blow.
Assault rifles and handguns have been staples of most player classes since the beginning of time, but Shepard is now also able to wield his Omniblade, a holographic knife extending from his omni tool that gives a whole new level of intensity to melee attacks. Mass Effect’s Director Casey Hudson was on hand to explain that Shepard’s new weapon wasn’t just designed to replace a rather mundane melee attack, but that the level of action it brings fits perfectly with Mass Effect 3’s faster-paced combat.
By closing in on an enemy, Shepard was able to launch into a finishing attack that downed his Cerberus opponent in one strike. While the over-the-shoulder camera view seems to have been pulled even tighter in to Shepard giving a serious Gears of War feel, triggering the Omniblade attack caused the camera to zoom in even tighter and pull around the player’s shoulder to give the best possible view of the strike blow. All in all, it’s an added artistic flourish that definitely pays off.
The attack seemed to be a stock animation, and not context sensitive, aside from one attack performed by grabbing an enemy from cover and finishing them on the ground, so clearly Shepard has only received training with the weapon in one very specified field. Still, the attack is pretty satisfying to watch, so it doesn’t necessarily pose a risk of getting stale.
Realistic frag grenades – explosives that are tossed, not sent hovering toward an enemy – have also been added to the player’s arsenal for the first time in the series, and are capable of being thrown to re-direct off of hard surfaces. Aside from those two changes, the actual gunplay in the demo was still the same as Mass Effect 2, so don’t worry about having new fundamentals to master.
What will need to be mastered is the new cover system, and while these systems may have become somewhat of a minefield in modern video game design, the new mechanics will grant players far more options in the midst of combat. The standard slam-to-cover system of the first two Mass Effect titles was largely used for stacking on doors and gaining a break from an enemy push, not to navigate, flank, or advance against enemies in the manner that BioWare may have intended. Some of you may have used the system as an integral part of your arsenal, but Shepard has never been a Marcus Fenix.
Until now. Mass Effect 3 won’t have players merely diving behind objects to avoid enemy fire, but using structures within a level to gain them a distinct advantage against opponents. Hudson explained that the brand new cover mechanic will not only grant players more freedom to jump to and from cover, but to sneak up and ambush enemies as well.
With the Unreal Engine 3 giving Shepard’s armor and animations a better polish than we’ve seen so far, it’s a treat in itself to see him creeping along a low wall towards an unaware enemy. What wasn’t expected was the speed and agility with which he dove to and from structures, and from behind cover to an open doorway. Shepard was also seen dive-rolling out of the way of an attack, so players will be able to manipulate a much nimbler character both in and out of cover.
BioWare is clearly aware that many of their fans won’t take to the new cover mechanic that easily, so Shepard’s available movements in cover are delivered through on-screen symbols. Creeping to the edge of cover will pull up an arrow pointing either sideways to the next low wall or around and through an open doorway, and pointing over a barricade will send Shepard vaulting it in one motion. The system is clearly not a new invention after games like Gears of War made it nearly a must-have feature, but the important thing here is that it was smoothly worked into Mass Effect 3, and didn’t stick out despite its novelty.
The squad mechanics are still largely the same, as are the skills and movement commands. But companions are only as effective as the weapons they wield, and BioWare also allowed us a look at the new weapon customization system we’ve heard so much about. again, being able to swap out particular elements of a firearm isn’t new to military shooters, but it is to the world of Mass Effect.
After approaching a weapons locker mid-mission, a menu was brought up of Shepard’s firearm – a Mattock assault rifle in this case – laying atop a work station, ready to be customized. Hudson explained that the new system allows players to tailor certain weapons to their particular style of play, trading power for accuracy in case your own Shepard does most of his killing up close. The one example seen was a barrel upgrade that improved aiming, and what looked to be an inventory of accessories.
It wasn’t clear whether all weapon components will be purchased, unlocked, or looted from in-game areas, but if that is the case then it would seem that Mass Effect’s completely eradicated weapon variety and loot system will be making a return to some extent.
So with more realistic and customizable weaponry, and better skills to navigate the battlefield, we can see just what BioWare meant when they said the combat was being heightened and accelerated for the third instalment. Hudson also explained that players would be given more control over their party’s progression and upgrades, but while we know that stats will play a larger role in combat, exactly how important they’ll be remains to be seen.
While a majority of the demo’s opponents may have been less-than-threatening to the player, Mass Effect 3’s Shepard is unquestionably a much faster and more agile fighter than in the past, at least the class that was being shown. With the new improvements, and specifically in a second stage of combat against both Husks and a new enemy type called ‘Cannibals’ the combat was heavily reminiscent of Gears gameplay, from enemy movement to firing from cover. It was still uniquely Mass Effect, but with those similarities and a new enemy resembling one of Halo’s Flood creatures, it’s safe to say that Xbox 360 fans will be right at home.
The combat of the demo ended with the arrival of a Cerberus Atlas, the heavy mech that was previously discussed in respect to tactical targeting and weak points. We didn’t get to see Shepard choose different approaches to taking on the boss, but it was a welcome change after taking out wave after wave of Cerberus commandos.
From our first look at E3 2011, we have to say that the cover, weaponry, and mobility of this game’s Commander Shepard all look promising. Whether you agree will have to wait until Mass Effect 3 is released for the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC on March 6, 2012.
Until then, feel free to leave us your thoughts on the new changes to ME3; were they needed, or are they unnecessary? If you have any questions about the combat in particular, we’ll do our best to answer them.