With the last entry in the Mass Effect trilogy Bioware has a hell of a lot to live up to. Like the finale to any trilogy they want to hit fans hard; they want to deliver top-notch action while also tugging at heart strings - and their E3 demo shows they're a fair way along in their attempts to grab everyone hard from the word go - old fans and potential new fans alike.
"We feel this is the best game we've made," David Silverman, Marketing Director for Bioware tells us at E3. Old characters will return, he confirms in his interview, even if only for cameo roles, and long-planned story arcs will come to a climax, but it's still going to be just as exciting for newcomers. "For people who've never played Mass Effect before, we honestly believe that Mass Effect 3 is the best game to jump in on" he adds, and the current marketing campaign for the game bears that out, a shouty, loud campaign showing off lots of shooting and action.
That same advertising campaign has some of the readers of our site - hardcore RPG fans - worried. They see Kinect controls, on-rails shooting from a gun turret and Shepard pulling off slick-looking stealth kills and they, understandably, panic. Where’s the RPG gone?
So, let us say out loud and clear - you can calm down now. I'm happy to confirm based on what was shown at E3 that all the RPG elements that were present in Mass Effect 2 appear to still be intact here - and, better, there's even more deeper options here than ever before.
Mass Effect 3 seems to have taken the tack of trying to position itself between the first game and the second game. Bioware seem to still believe that the RPG back-end of the first Mass Effect was still too complex and impenetrable for some users, but they're also throwing their hands up and admitting that Mass Effect 2 was a little lacking.
Thanks to that we've got new features like the ability to evolve powers more than once. Shield-frying power Overload could evolve once fully levelled to Heavy Overload, which hit one enemy harder or Area Overload which hit an entire area with a weaker version of the skill. Now, in Mass Effect 3, every power will evolve several times.
The difference between different evolutionary paths seemed small from what I could tell in the small glimpse - differences in cooldown times, damage dealt, area of effect and so on - but the idea is that this is a full evolutionary tree. Choosing some paths will lock others off, and the branches in the tree will instead offer players a number of ways to spec their Commander Shepard for combat.
We only got the briefest of glimpses at the menu system behind the combat gameplay but what I saw was promising - the menu with Shepard's powers on seemed to have significantly more options and details on it compared to the stripped-down powers list available in Mass Effect 2. In general, the menus resembled those of the first game more - gone is the orange glow of Cerberus in the menus, replaced once more with the blue hue of the Alliance, a familiar friend from the first game.
Shepard's squad was filled out with Liara and Garrus in all the demo missions - though they were suspiciously silent in one segment, so who knows if they were merely placeholder for these moments in the story - and they too seemed to have a great deal of detail in their level-up pages when we caught a glimpse of them. That aspect of the RPG side of the game seems to have been improved massively, though the option is still there to play as a Soldier, shoot everything and auto level-up should you wish.
That's not what readers of this site will want, though, and we know - so you'll be even more pleased to hear about the new weapon system. On the Normandy and at points in missions you'll find Weapon Benches. I can only assume these will be placed similarly to Weapons Lockers in Mass Effect 2 - strategically before big firefights and at major checkpoints in missions.
Hitting the Weapon Bench allows Shepard to slap down any of his weapons and modify it. It's similar to how you could use different items to augment weapons in the first game in the series but with a few key differences. If you're the type of person who wants a faster rate of fire, a weapon mod might help you out there - likewise for more accuracy, magazine size, or damage output.
At the E3 demo, the work bench game us 5 different statistics on the Mattock Rifle Shepard was packing - Stability, Magazine Size, Fire Rate, Damage and Accuracy. Mods appear to be able to affect these positively and negatively, so it'll be up to the player to kit Shepard out with kit that they think will cover all the bases. In a move that'll make the anal amongst you very happy, these changes also cosmetically affect your gun.
Bioware seems to hope that the addition of proper weapon customization and the beefed-up levelling mechanics will go a long way to make RPG nuts happy. While we're eager to dive a little deeper into the game to see exactly what the score is here in detail, what Bioware showed off left us excited with Bioware's vision for the RPG side of the game.
Some might argue that weapon customization is not an RPG feature, though, and it's something we've thought about. At E3 we saw a super-deep weapon customization feature in Ghost Recon, for example, and that is most certainly not an RPG. The manner in which you build and spec your own personal Shepard in every way, though, certainly is.
There's still some glaring missing areas from Mass Effect that people had wanted back, such as the ability to customize and change armour on squad members, too. That said, Bioware did confirm to us that we can expect more in-depth armour options for Shepard rather than the meagre few pieces available throughout Mass Effect 2, so that's something.
As much as Mass Effect 3 is clearly trying to beef up its RPG elements, the influence of games outside of the RPG genre is clear. Elements of Uncharted can be seen - the intensity as Shepard mounts a rail gun on the back of a vehicle as it speeds away from a gigantic Reaper feels right out of that game, but more so does the way Shepard falls and slides through a crumbling environment while on Earth.
At points the game wrests control from you to bash Shepard about - floors collapse, crumble and leave Shepard in a completely different place from before. This is all in the pursuit of adding a sense of scale to combat - they don't want everything to take place on a flat plain with the occasional ramp. Ladders, too, make their first appearance in the series in pursuit of giving combat areas a sense of verticality.
The influence of Gears of War is clear, too. Ripped straight from that game is the ability to press the Y button when things of interest happen to change the camera angle to get a better look. At one point in the demo, hitting Y gives you a better look of the Reapers ruining the city off in the distance.
Also feeling ripped right from that game are the new traversal options in combat - Shepard can now much more easily get about, flipping from cover to cover and around corners. Cool, blue arrows appear in a context-sensitive manner to reveal where you can quickly travel without exposing yourself from the cover you're in.
All these options do feel cribbed from other action games, but that's a good thing. Those games are best in class, and if Mass Effect 3 wants to mash that combat gameplay together with RPG-based levelling and abilities, it needs to try to pull as much of the action gameplay from the best places possible. The cover mechanics are a huge improvement on what was on offer in Mass Effect 2, and the other elements all help the game to maintain its cinematic sheen even in gameplay.
The core shooting is still governed by the same principles as Mass Effect 2. Firing your gun is ruled by the laws of shooters, but powers, abilities and health are all dictated by RPG statistics. It's as potent a mix as it was in the previous game, but here the increased focus on variety of powers and skills will hopefully only serve to make things even more interesting. While plenty will, I think you'd be crazy to pick Solider and play this game like a third person shooter.
Bioware were also showcasing two new major powers for Shepard at the show. The first is a returning friend from the original Mass Effect - grenades. Now thrown at an arc like traditional grenades rather than the sticky circular things from the first game, it's a safe bet to assume that these can likely be modified for different effects via the weapon bench also.
There are also new, special melee attacks. Holding down the melee button will unleash an extended take-down that seems to kill most enemies in one hit. Each class gets a unique melee that performs in different ways, though Bioware has mostly been showing off an awesome-but-brutal looking melee which sees the Omni-tool turned into a holographic switchblade which can be used to stab enemies.
This melee can also be used in conjunction with the improvements to enemy AI which means they can now be snuck up on and stealthily killed. Enemies in both previous Mass Effect games all became aware of your presence as soon as you engaged one in combat, but enemies can now be taken down quietly if you wish.
So, more customization on every level than the second game is the order of business here - as is tighter action that's clearly inspired by some of the biggest action games around. That doesn't sound too bad - more of the same from Mass Effect 2 but tweaked, refined and inspired in places by top action games.
Visually, this early demo overall looked great but also looked pretty damn rough in places. It's an early build of the game and graphics are always improved a ton closer to release - so don't panic. At the very least I can say that this'll end up looking like Mass Effect 2 with wider open areas, bigger set-pieces and more impressive looking action - though the hope is that Bioware can tighten up the engine even more and make it look better than ME2 even in the smaller areas.
But what about the story? That's where the core of the role playing comes into Mass Effect - guiding your Commander Shepard to his or her own unique conclusion to the trilogy. While they didn't show tons in the fast and furious E3 demo, you'll still be choosing branches in conversations to choose your response to the situation at hand.
At points in the demo Shepard was responding to familiar faces in Captain Anderson and Mordin and also spent some time chatting to a female Krogan Princess. Most profound of all was a conversation with a little boy on a Reaper-ruined Earth - Shepard can try to encourage the boy to follow him to safety or yell for him to run for his life - each choice, of course, will still net paragon or renegade points. Bioware also confirmed that interrupts will return.
We don't want to go into too much detail on what was shown of the story - while details they're available online we want to keep this preview as spoiler free as possible - the story elements on show were bloody exciting for a fan of the brilliant Mass Effect universe.
It seems silly to be excited by things like the sight of Anderson temporarily in your party or a female Krogan at long last, or to see Mordin fighting alongside you (albeit not in your party) but these things all scratch an itch that leaves me and will leave other long-time ME players incredibly excited for your game.
Kitted out in Alliance blue once again, the Normandy makes a typically triumphant return in the opening of the game, too - with your Alliance Squad-mate from Mass Effect 1 aboard to help once again.
The demo I saw ended with Shepard fleeing Earth aboard the Normandy to try to build an army to give it back to the Reapers some. Bioware has a lot of loose ends to tie off with Mass Effect 3 aside from the end of the war against the Reapers - here's hoping the RPG elements of the game wind up being as juicy as they're promising in the final release. Whatever the case, the promise of a conclusion to this story has us super excited.