Fans of the Mass Effect franchise certainly don't need to be convinced that picking up a copy of Mass Effect 3 is an absolute must for March. With as much buzz and momentum as a franchise could possibly have, Mass Effect 3 is easily the most anticipated game of 2012 for more gamers than you can shake an Omniblade at, including our own writing staff.
Now that the playable demo has been released for download, players can finally see for themselves how the multitude of combat and movement options change the flow of combat. Whether it's for the better or worse is something that can be debated by fans of differing genres, but the exact goal that BioWare has for this climactic third entry is clear at nearly every turn.
The Mass Effect 3 demo encompasses two missions - have a look if you have yet to play it - taken from the very opening of the game, and an undisclosed point further along the plot. While the first mission welcomes players into the fiction once more, it won't be uncommon for some gamers to feel as if the world they came to know and love has significantly changed. We don't just mean the new setting of Earth, but the pace, atmosphere, cinematography and the overall visual style chosen for this third installment.
Change is certainly not something to be feared, since the brand new game engine does deliver significantly improved character models and animations. But what is undeniable is that the bright, clean science fiction aesthetic that the first game created and the sequel somewhat retained seems to be long gone. The higher contrast and abundance of lens flares is obviously a design choice to reflect the slick new approach to traversal and combat, but televisions everywhere should be prepared to have their brightness adjusted nonetheless.
Anyone who has seen even a slight look at Mass Effect 3 gameplay knows that graphical prowess isn't a concern at all, and we'll reserve judgement on the shift in aesthetic choice until the game is released. What quickly becomes the focus of the demo in its entirety is the new and improved combat. For the past year BioWare has been claiming that Shepard will be more mobile and reactive than ever before, and the demo certainly proves that to be true. With guns that seem more satisfyingly powerful than in the past (thanks again to the new engine's audio) and melee combat that finally allows one-hit kills, third-person combat connoisseurs will feel right at home.
The demo also provides a look at the new weapon upgrade/skill trees that have been created to encourage player engagement by customizing their own unique soldier. Our first impression is that the upgrades are a fantastic shift from simple point-allocation, even if the choices for Shepard and his squad seem somewhat slimmer than in the past. This weapon upgrade system has been pointed to by the developers as one of the ways they'll be returning to their RPG roots, and while it's still too early to tell, the potential for rich customization is certainly there.
With so many changes to an already embraced formula there are sure to be fans of past games worried that Mass Effect 3 won't feel like a Mass Effect game at all, but a hybrid of several action and adventure games currently on the market. Fortunately, that is not the case.
The pace and chaos of combat has certainly been increased from the predictable AI opponents of ME2, and utilizing cover and flanking seem to be absolutely paramount to survival. Similarly, Shepard has the ability to bind specific attacks and squad abilities to the shoulder buttons, vastly reducing the need to pause the game and access the radial menus. All significant changes, but the game still feels like Mass Effect.
There are sure to be some who don't care for the move towards more cinematically-delivered narratives like that of Uncharted, who long for the slower, more cerebral conversations of older RPGs. While we hope that the overall game offers more chances to navigate environments (without Shepard's gun constantly trained in front of him) and conduct lengthy conversations, the film aspirations of the series do shine at certain moments. Not necessarily the constant appearance of semi-cut-scenes spliced into traversal, even if they do succeed in meeting BioWare's goal of making the game more 'unpredictable.' The cinematic cut-scenes between well-known squadmates are what impressed the most, managing to advance the story while doing the individual characters justice.
Since the demo covers the opening tutorial and a fairly linear combat scenario taken from the main campaign without context, the result possesses absolutely none of the open-world aspects or conversation trees that made the series so successful. We're willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the developers that those elements of the game are at least as well-executed as they were in the previous installment.
Even if the missions now available have been shown and demonstrated several times over the past year, it's hard not to be optimistic upon playing them ourselves. The improvements work for the most part, the new female Shepard is just as well-realized as her male counterpart, and the latest 'Take Earth Back' trailer promises drama that the demo does partly deliver on. We still have concerns, but if this is the foundation on which Mass Effect 3 is built, the odds are in BioWare's favor.
Have you had a chance to play through the demo, and if so, what did you think of the changes made? Are you more or less excited for the game after playing a small piece of it yourself? Leave us your thoughts in the comments.
The Mass Effect 3 demo is available now for the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. The game itself releases on March 6, 2012.
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