Mass Effect 3 Hands-On

In a first for the series Mass Effect 3 has a playable demo that's going to appear at almost all the major trade shows over the coming months - it was at GamesCom, PAX, and a handful of EA UK events and will appear at Eurogamer Expo in the coming weeks. We went hands-on with the demo at GamesCom to see what the fuss was all about.

Bioware's aggressive social media marketing strategy for Mass Effect 3 is interesting. It's partially so because they're involving fans more heavily than ever before in votes on Female Shepard's default appearance and so on, but it's even more so because they're managing to make a lot of noise without showing very much at all.

Since the game's Game Informer exclusive blow-out they've focused on very specific things - Garrus and Liara as squad mates, The Normandy's new paint job, escaping Earth at the game's onset, battling a gigantic Reaper with a Gatling gun and a mission which brings together ex-squad mates Wrex and Modrin - if they're alive - to protect a female Krogan on the Salarian home world.

The latter is the demo we played, also the demo used to show off the Kinect functionality at Microsoft's E3 2011 Press Conference. There was no Kinect as we went hands-on, though - just Xbox 360 controllers or Keyboards and Mice. We checked out both versions even though it showed off the same area. The PS3 version was sadly completely absent.

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At its most base level, Mass Effect 3 looks and plays a ton like Mass Effect 2. The camera angle behind Shepard's shoulder is the same, the controls are largely the same and graphically it looks very similar - but past the surface there's a bunch of interesting changes to the game that will have a large effect on the way it plays.

Chief amongst those is the new focus on more 'traversal' combat which sees Shepard granted the ability to roll and dynamically shift between cover. It'll be similar for those who have played third person shooters like Gears of War or even RPG fans who have more recently got their teeth into Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Taking cover functions identically to Mass Effect 2, but once you're in cover the options available to you are greater. Whereas in Mass Effect 2 tapping the A button again would boot you out of the cover, Mass Effect 3 provides you with semi-transparent light blue arrows to show you what Shepard can do from here.

From the average piece of cover he can usually roll seamlessly to the next nearest piece of cover without exposing himself much, combat roll out into the open ready to shoot, or simply stand out of the cover. While the enemies we faced where fairly simple Cerberus Commandos, the new additions made cover a ton more useful in combat and made travelling between cover easier still.

For those wondering why we're fighting Cerberus Commandos, Shepard says it fairly point-blank during the demo. Who knows what Cerberus is capable of? They're indoctrinated! The Reapers got to them - or at least the Illusive Man - it seems.

Combat rolls and the like can also be performed outside of cover to get away from enemy fire. Alongside the new addition of ladders into combat zones, Shepard can now get to more places more quickly during a fight to gain a better vantage point or simply to get away from danger.

Our squad consisted of Liara and Garrus, who seemed unusually chatty compared to Mass Effect 2, reacting with voice to specific situations in combat. As enemies closed in on natural sniper Garrus he commented that he needed help - "If they get any closer I'll be fighting hand-to-hand!" - calling me into action to shift forward and push the enemy back.

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The weapons and powers with which you can do that have been changed significantly from Mass Effect 2, with the notable decision being made to unlock all weapons for all classes. Previously only the soldier could wield all of the weapons on offer, but now every class can carry and use every type of weapon in the game.

Powers will still differentiate classes, but what will also show the differences in them is their melee attack. By holding B you can perform a cinematic takedown which is different for each class and has different effects on enemies depending on what you're playing as.

We spoke a little about the upgraded powers in our E3 2011 preview, and nothing seems to have changed since that build. Rather than evolving once at the very end of the tree powers now evolve six times throughout that tree as you level up and pump your experience into them. A rep also told us that experience will be gained in a way more similar to the original Mass Effect rather than the mission-based experience of the second game, though we saw nothing to directly support that in the demo.

The deeper customization options in the powers come in the form of editing exactly how they do their job. Take the Soldier class-exclusive Adrenaline Rush power, which slows down time so you can pump shots into enemies. One branch in that tree sees the player having to choose between Dilation & Damage - how much extra damage you do while in the Rush and how much it slows time - and Hardening, which makes Shepard more immune to enemy damage while in Rush state.

Sentinel Players will face a choice between upgrading the Shield Boost and Increasing the Blast Radius of their Tech Armor power. Non-class powers and squad powers will have the same choices - Overload for example offers players the choice between a "Heavy Overload" and a "Chain Overload" variant at power level 3.

With choices like this now coming multiple times throughout the development of a power, it gives players an opportunity for differences between their own personal Shepard's load-out that wouldn't have been possible in Mass Effect 2. There's less areas to pour points into than Mass Effect 1 but more than Mass Effect 2, and it seems that Bioware hope that this, alongside the increased choice, will appease RPG players disappointed by the simplistic development in Mass Effect 2.

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Also new to the customization front is the Weapon Bench. We covered that pretty extensively in our E3 preview and there's little new to say here. It allows you to equip add-ons and modifiers to guns that affect them in five key statistical areas - Stability, Magazine Size, Fire Rate, Damage and Accuracy.

Music in the demo was a mixture of recycled tracks from Mass Effect 2 and DLC episode Lair of the Shadow Broker, so there's no sign yet of what Clint Mansell's score will sound like.

The rest is so-far so Mass Effect. Voice work will be familiar - friends of the site Mark Meer and Ali Hillis return as Male Shepard and Liara, though there is a bit of online debate on just who is voicing Mordin - his voice actor has confirmed online that he didn't provide Mordin's voice work in this demo.

The controls are just as tight as they were in Mass Effect 2, and the animation still looks like an RPG - we don't think putting out weird Machinma trailers that expose how the game sometimes places more of a premium on gameplay over animation like GamesCom's "Squad Leader" trailer is the best demonstration of what makes the series awesome, so be honest.

Our brief hands-on session left us intrigued and more interested still - despite an advertising and marketing campaign that seems to be firmly targeting shooter fans, under the hood this is most certainly still Mass Effect, and actually seems to be edging closer to the first game more than the second. Hopefully Bioware are willing to show more different story beats soon.

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