To say that Mass Effect 3 is one of the most hotly-anticipated games at E3 2011 might just be the understatement of the century. BioWare has proven that they are more than capable of crafting an action-packed and emotionally gripping narrative, and hopefully they’ve saved their best for last. Fans and press alike have descended upon Los Angeles this week in the hope that they might be able to squeeze a bit more information out of the developers, and just maybe see the game in action.

We got a chance to do just that, and believe us when we tell you that BioWare knows how to pack plenty of hints and details into a short gameplay demo. In case you were worried that the story for Mass Effect 3 wouldn’t be given the scale it deserved, it seems that the developers have it covered.

BioWare’s Casey Hudson was on hand to show off not one, but two separate gameplay segments from the main campaign as well as some additional gameplay features.

The first scenario was  taken from part way through the game, with Shepard and his crew infiltrating and destroying a Geth installation.

We’ve known for some time that ME3 would be built using Unreal Engine 3, and while there are noticeable changes and improvements, you shouldn’t expect to be blown away by monumental upgrades. Shepard’s facial animations and movements are unquestionably much smoother and less awkward, but not vastly improved. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since ME2 was a beautiful game itself, and a serious shift in appearance isn’t what the game has needed.

The setting for the first mission was the same planet exterior seen in the previously released screenshots, so scenes or sections set at night could act as a more impressive showcase for the new engine. In its current state, the daytime scenes were more than good enough and contained enough flashy lens flares to make J.J. Abrams blush.

The first mission seemed to be built around rescuing a Krogan dignitary from the clutches of the Geth, so those of you who thought that the decisions made in Mass Effect 2 would remove them from the equation are out of luck. While Shepard worked to eliminate the Robotic threat, Cerberus operatives showed up to offer the Commander some more dangerous opposition.

While the enemies were obviously dumbed down for demonstration purposes, Shepard made short work of even the best Cerberus could throw at him, using the environment and a mix of firearms and melee combat to put them down. Gunfire will still be the bread and butter of the third-person shooter, but Shepard’s new Omniblade – a holographic knife extending from his omni tool – gave the best kills with its punishing finishers.

Mass Effect 3 E3 Gameplay

The combat of Mass Effect has always been relatively straightforward, but the developers have promised to provide more complex boss battles with Mass Effect 3. The first section of the demo ended with the arrival of a Cerberus Atlas, a giant mech controlled by a human pilot. Unfortunately the demo then moved on, so how Shepard uses tactics to take down the superior firepower should be interesting to see later.

***Minor First Act Spoilers Ahead***

The next section of gameplay came from the beginning of the game immediately following the arrival of the Reapers to Earth. Captain Anderson leads Shepard through a city in the process of being destroyed by the massive ships, and it’s at this point that the power of the engine can be put to the test.

The draw distance is much larger than any of the previous games, and without the distractions of lens flares or blurring, seeing a city at war is truly jaw-dropping. Our demo seemed to be playing off of the Xbox 360, so fans can expect graphics that are for the most part slightly improved, and occasionally able to flex their muscles.

We won’t go into any more details for the sake of spoilers – seriously, we partly wish we didn’t see some of the early events – but suffice to say that the tone and emotional drama of the third and final chapter of Shepard’s trilogy is already getting the attention it deserves.

Hudson explained that the tale of ME3 is centered specifically on the war between humans and Reapers, and from this early look, it seems that the team is set to deliver what could very well be the best game in the series to date.

There was too much content thrown at us in the demo to sum up in brief, so stay tuned for more details on combat and yes, spoiler-filled story talk.

Mass Effect 3 is set to release for the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on March 6, 2012.