Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Demo review

I just finished playing through the Mass Effect 3 demo that the good folks at Bioware released today and I felt like commenting on it. I am only touching on the single player demo since that was all I focused on.

Firstly, I must say that never before in my life has a video game demo managed to make me want to get the full game this much. I'm literally dying to get my hands on Mass Effect 3 now so much that I've actually begun to lose weight (which is a serious thing for me, just trust me on that). This little slice of what's to come only makes me that much more eager to have the rest.

I figure that I should start at the beginning with the start menu. Immediately upon starting the demo I noticed the new soundtrack that has been composed by Clint Mansell of Moon and Requiem For A Dream fame (to the dullards he's the dude who made that kick ass song you hear on the Lord of The Rings trailers and over a million crappy fan trailers on youtube). Since hearing of Mansell's involvement I have been dying to listen to what he's made for this game and now that I finally have I can't help but be awestruck at just how amazing it is. Anyone who was worried that the classic synth music (the sci-fi sounding music) that the other Mass Effect soundtracks have featured would be nonexistent in Mansell's sountrack can relax, this music has all the sci-fi synth goodness wrapped around an epic coating.

Following the start menu and selecting single player you are shown the option to choose the three new game modes that Bioware has created: Action mode, which is what it sounds like all action and little RPG/story interaction (I like to call it Gears of War mode); RPG mode, the traditional Mass Effect game style; and Story mode, a mode that tones down the action in favor of a more story driven experience. This ability to choose what kind of game you play just shows how attentive Bioware is of their consumers' feedback. It is a trait that makes them stand out among many game developers these days (some of which simply ignore the cries of their fans). After the initial outcry that Mass Effect 2 was "dumbed down" to the point of nearly being an action shooter (which I strongly believe is hyperbole) has obviously made the Mass Effect team take a step back and think about the conundrum they had gotten themselves into and think of a way to get around it successfully. Having attracted a larger audience with streamlined shooter mechanics, some of which might favor a less interactive story for one reason or another, while still maintaining the initial fanbase who were happy with the RPG mechanics probably seemed difficult to accomplish. Every gamer is different, I myself have unique tastes when it comes to games, I tend to favor playing a game for its story and sometimes view gameplay and game mechanics as obstacles to overcome in order to continue with the story (sometimes in rare cases these things will cause me to stop playing the game altogether no matter how good the story. Red Dead Redemption being the obvious reference...). However I also like the same games for said gameplay and game mechanics, it all depends on my mood and what I'm looking for in a particular game. If I'm in the mood to just blow enemies away with an assault rifle I'll pop in Gears of War, if I'm more inclined to replay a game's story I'll play it on the easiest mode there is (which I did a number of times for Resident Evil 2 on "rookie mode"), or if I'm interested in shooting up a space ship and determining the fate of an entire galaxy I'll pop in Mass Effect. The addition of these three new game modes allows almost any player of any kind to enjoy Mass Effect the way they want to enjoy it. It's an ingenious creation that not only solves the Action vs RPG problem but also promises for nearly infinite replays. I have replayed Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 numerous times, however I have found that I do so in order to change up the story, to see how things would've gone if I had played as a Renegade Shepard instead of a Paragon, if I played as Femshep instead of a male Shepard, if I did kill Wrex or if I didn't cheat on Liara in Mass Effect 2, only to be daunted by not only the grand scope of the narrative but the fact that I would have to play through the game basically from scratch with a low level character. I found this particularly frustrating when replaying Mass Effect 1 since I'm meandering about leveling up my character before being able to get to play the actual story. Mass Effect 2 wasn't as frustrating in this area since things were more streamlined and the shooting mechanics were no longer determined by character stats, instead it was basically the planet scanning that daunted me but even then it was merely an annoyance. Regardless, Story mode will no doubt be my choice after doing my first few playthroughs in RPG mode to see how things could've played out.

For the demo, I played traditional RPG mode. Which brought us to the character creation menu which has seen some redecoration. There are some new hair styles and colors to choose from, which is a relief because the choices in the previous games were almost laughable. Though I've been spoiled by Saint's Row's character editor, the editor in Mass Effect 3 has visibly improved since the last game. For the demo I decided to make a hastily constructed Femshep with blonde hair and silver eyes since my buddy had already played through it as a Male Shepard (Maleshep? Manshep? Dudeshep? Which one is it?). It was then that we started the demo.

The beginning starts off with a classic Mass Effect intro where some people, in this case Admirals Anderson and Hackett, are talking about Shepard which is then followed by some text briefly explaining the back story. Then we cut to Shepard at a hearing being questioned by the Alliance brass about the imminent Reaper invasion which starts right in the middle of the hearing. This is pretty much a tutorial level showing off the new level of mobility that Shepard now has. Shepard can sprint indefinitely, jump over obstacles, roll around (which does help), slide over cover, and maneuver through cover with much more ease (more of which I'll cover later in the review).

The best aspect of this portion of the demo is how cinematic it feels. This isn't simply because a majority is actually nothing by cinematics, instead, as you skirt the side of the building that used to be Alliance HQ you can see the cityscape become overwhelmed with Reapers as they drop from the sky and begin tearing up the city. More than once a few of these Reapers land unnervingly close to you and you barely survive getting hit by their death rays. There is even a subplot that has been mentioned in previous reviews of the demo back when Mass Effect 3 was first revealed. This subplot centers around a young boy Shepard sees playing outside at the beginning of the demo. You find this boy crawling in a duct later after the Reapers invade where you try to coax him out of only to have him run away when you're not looking. Needless to say the boy's fate at the end of the game not only managed to shake me to my core but also showed me what's at stake and conveyed the sheer gravity of the task at hand. It is by far the best and probably most memorable scene in the game so far and it's made ever more poignant thanks to Mansell's beautiful soundtrack (which I can't help but point out does use the almost meme-like Inception "BWRAAAAMMMM!" when the Reapers show up). This scene alone makes this section of the demo the most memorable however the second portion of it has it's share of great moments.

The second portion of the demo takes place later in the story on the Salarian homeworld. This level starts out with some great character moments as you talk to Wrex who has come here to retrieve a fertile Krogan female. Along with Wrex are Garrus and Liara who all banter amongst one another before Wrex does a "Krogan air-drop" onto the roof of the Salarian base. From then on out you help Mordin, who is helping you free the trapped Krogan female (Kroganess?), by killing dozens of Cerberus troops (which makes me glad I didn't hand over the collector base to them at the end of the last game). This shows us how the new leveling system is like as well as how combat has been tweaked. Leveling up now has the option of branching out into two different types after you reach the fourth level of a certain ability, from there you can choose two different types of the same attack and advance it as you prefer. It's a lot like when you reached the fourth level of any power in Mass Effect 2 where you could then choose to upgrade it to either be stronger or last longer except now you can do more to them afterward. Combat has been streamlined even more with the addition powerful melee attacks which differ from class to class as well as a of a new range of movement that Shepard never had before (the aforementioned rolling and jumping) that makes moving into and out of cover easier.

However the new cover system isn't without it's flaws. Moving from cover to cover or out of cover can be a hassle when you're in the middle of a pitched battle with Cerberus agents during the second half of the demo. Too often I was rolling out of cover instead of to an adjacent wall simply because I didn't have the analog stick pointed in the right position which was because I was tense and pressed for time. The game helps you know which direction you can go with blue arrows that pop up when you lean to the edge of your cover, however this too is flawed because some movements that you'd think you'd be able to do you find you can't for some unknown reason. You definitely have to take the time to be certain that you're going in the direction you intended, which is time you might need to react to the bad guy who has managed to flank you. Hopefully this won't be as big a problem in the full game.

This brings us to the enemy AI which I found to be frustratingly smart, which is a good thing, for too long games have boasted about smart enemy AI only for me to find out they simply take cover and shoot at you. I almost felt outsmarted, that's how good the enemy AI is. (That or I'm just very stupid.) It managed to make every combat segment unique and interesting.

Overall, Mass Effect 3 is turning out nicely. With only a few minor issues that will no doubt be buffed out by the time of the game's release. March 6 can't get here soon enough!

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