Mass Effect 3 Preview

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While you might have beaten them back on several occasions, it's time once again to take the fight to the most dangerous foe your species has ever known; only this time they're standing on your doorstep. The Reapers, an ancient alien race that has been baying for the blood of humanity and every other species in the Milky way across two previous games, has now managed to make their mark on Earth's surface. It's your job to erase that foothold and take the fight back to them. This is war, this is your final stand.

On top of this alien threat, you will also need to combat the Cerberus organization which has turned against their former employee and pet project.

As the player styled protagonist, Commander Shepard, enters the third chapter of his critically acclaimed series, this is the setting gamers find themselves in. Galactic shit is hitting the astronomical fan and you're right at the center of it.

Technology

To fans of the series, the engine used in Mass Effect 3 won't bring any huge surprises, as it's mostly going to be more of the same since it utilizes the Unreal Engine 3.5 as its core; a 0.5 enhanced version of the one used in the last two games. It will however, as with most sequel titles, feature some tweaks and improvements to it. In fact, those playing the PS3 version of Mass Effect 2 will have had a sneak preview of these, as the engine used in the creation of that port is the one that ME3 was developed on; though it seems likely that a few extra additions will have been made in the 15 months separating the two releases.

The main addition talked about so far is an improvement in the cinematic camera work of the game. This was introduced in Mass Effect 2 to further dramatize dialogue and cut scenes, making the game feel more filmic. It achieved this very well, with some of the best moments in the game being simple discussions between Shepard and his crew mates. However, some gamers did complain that there was a distinct difference between action scenes and these conversational pieces. Developers themselves have said that they wanted to bridge this gap and make the jump between the two game play modes far smoother, making for more of an overall experience than two elements fused together.

Beyond developer interviews, so far there has only been a little bit of in-game footage shown. The trailer featured mostly cut-scene style video, with a little more live play being shown as part of the in-game demo debuted at E3 2011. From what we have seen however, lighting looks to have been improved somewhat, along with facial mapping and animations. Bioware has also promised more customization for players in the form of added options when creating the look of your version of Commander Shepard at the start of the game.

There are no system requirements for ME3 as of yet and discussion is rife across the intertubes about where Bioware will take them. It is likely that they'll continue the trend set with previous games and have them quite low compared to other contemporary titles. This is considered to be due to the somewhat console focus of the developers. Decisions like this are welcomed by those with lower end PCs - and console owners themselves - but dedicated PC gamers are hoping for improved cut scene quality and something that will allow their systems to stretch their legs a bit. DirectX11 has been added to Unreal Engine 3 this year, so it seems possible that the developer could have added its support to the new title, but in this regard, everything is up in the air at the moment.

Audio wise, it is confirmed that golden globe nominated composer Clint Mansell will be handling things, side lining the acclaimed men behind the last two games, Jack Wall and Sam Hulick. It's also been stated that Mass Effect 3 will feature nearly twice as many lines of dialogue as the last two games.

Combat

While Mass Effect 3 will feel somewhat familiar to players of the prequels, it has been said by developers that certain aspects of the game will feel renovated; combat specifically. It's been made much more shooter like, with the slide in cover system tweaked to be increasingly malleable than it was before. This is understandable, as the one used in the original and second game was quite a new technology at the time. As it has grown and been used by gamers and game developers, flaws in the system have been ironed out, with new approaches tried. One such issue was that environments could feel somewhat constructed, as level designers attempted to create potential cover for players in many areas. This often leads to slightly repetitive gameplay, even with intelligent design; inexplicable numbers of chest high barriers have become common place in many a game in recent years. This is said to have been rectified somewhat in ME3, with combat engineered to be far more fluid. Players will find they no longer need to slide into cover before vaulting objects, as well as it being more beneficial to shoot at enemies while on the move. Shepard should now be capable of rolling and will not suffer from fatigue while sprinting. These changes to the combat system have led to what the developers describe as an increase in overall combat speed by around 10-15%. Evidently our hero has been spending his down time getting into better shape for his final outing.

Bioware have also discussed the addition of several new attack opportunities, including the use of traditional grenades and melee attacks. This will not only allow Shepard and his team mates to create space when enemies get too close, but to also one-shot-kill; though this is thought to be somewhat class dependent. The soldier for example, will have a tech-blade that can dispatch an opponent that's in range, with one swift attack.

Similar to other games set for release in the next few months, much more emphasis has been put on larger environments in Mass Effect 3. This is due to several things, including trends in the gaming industry, as well as advancements in the game engine's development, but also partly to help incorporate larger enemies. Bioware has been keen to tout that the Reaper troops players will be facing range from their more traditional size, all the way up to 2km long ships. If the mobile base seen in the E3 trailer is anything to go by, gamers are set to face off against some truly gargantuan adversaries. Other enemies will include Cerberus mechs, though how varied they will be remains to be seen. Chances are, with the Reapers being the main enemy in the game, players will see most of the opposing fire power come from their direction.

Inclining the difficulty curve further, it has also been noted that the AI has received several improvements over its predecessors. Enemy troops are now said to move and attack as a unit, combining their efforts and attempting to use the more open and larger scale environments to outflank and outmaneuver Shepard and his team.

However the forces of good haven't been left out of the loop when it comes to battlefield upgrades. Our protagonist and allies will be able to customize weapons, improving and changing their effectiveness in certain situations. There is said to be a total of 25 levels of improvement for each weapon, split into five distinct upgrade paths. Abilities and their RPG advancements will make a return, but they will often be split into certain routes that will require more focusing that in the previous games; meaning players will often have to make a choice between abilities, instead of being more multi-faceted.

Interactions

One of the most fleshed out and critically lauded aspects of the original two Mass Effect games were the interactions. These included the conversational system, the impressive amount of dialogue and the potential for love interests between Shepard and his crew mates; thank god there's no HR in the future. These are set to continue and be expanded upon in the third title, with those importing their characters having to deal with any love trysts they set up previously. In-fact, if players happened to have invested their interests in two different characters, they'll have to handle a love triangle as well as the Reapers. All apparently is settled by the end of the game, with a traditional pair of individuals left standing; though the potential for same sex partners has been expanded upon as well, increasing possibilities.

Of course part of the fun of the Mass Effect games wasn't just getting into the pants of every character aboard the Normandy, it was also enjoyable dealing with the different personalities that each of the varied characters had; including those from different planets and species. Returning faces are said to include Liara T'Soni, Kaidan Alenko or Ashley Williams, Miranda Lawson, Illusive Man, Garrus Vakarian, Legion, Tali'Zorah, Urdnot Wrex, Jack, Mordin Solus, David Anderson, Zaeed Massani, Kelly Chambers, Thane Krios, Jacob Taylor and Ambassador Donnell Udina. However, if you imported your character from the last game(s), some of these characters may or may not be present depending on your decisions. A new character, James Vega, has also been introduced in recent months.

Due to the inclusion of Kinect functionality, players will also be able to trigger conversational branches by speaking aloud the paraphrases. Bioware has said there will be some Kinect uses in combat as well, including giving orders to squad members to move position and to use certain abilities. Hopefully this aspect will be carried over for PC headset users.

Travel

Project Director Casey Hudson has said that the plan with the third title was to continue the Mass Effect series with a strong sense of exploration. It has been revealed further along the line that thanks to the nature of the setting in ME3, while there will be space travel, a large portion of gameplay will be focused on Earth and Mars, with potential for further travel within our own solar system. Other known locations are: the Salarian homeworld Sur'Kesh, the Asari homeworld Thessia, the Turian home world Palaven and the Quarian home world Rannoch. Presumably as the Reapers attack the home bases of each civilization, Shepard will be charged with protecting them. It is thought that players will also visit the Krogan home world Tuchanka, Illium and the Citadel in their travels.

Minigames are planned once again, with something similar to the mining portion of Mass Effect 2 expected to be implemented. While this wasn't a popular portion of the game, it did serve as a good tool to force exploration on the less adventurous. This is something the developers are keen to continue; though the exact method they plan to use is still unknown.

One of the most criticized parts of the original Mass Effect was the vehicular sequences. Controls and terrain weren't as polished as other aspects, leading to some slating in the critical and public eye. This led to it being largely removed from the sequel, though there were some sequences reintroduced in the Overlord DLC. ME3 is expected to bring something like this back, but due to Bioware's diligence in listening to their fan base, hopefully the worst issues will be addressed.

Final Thoughts

Despite the plethora of information already known about the closing chapter in Commander Shepard's saga, there is still plenty left to be discovered. Both Mass Effect and its sequel were expansive games with impressive amounts of content. At the very least, if fans are given something similar, Bioware will do well for themselves.

That said, by creating a series that has surpassed its predecessor in the past, they have set a precedent that this third title will be better than Mass Effect 2. Only time will tell if they succeed, but as it stands, with the tweaks to the combat system, the huge library of voice recordings and the diligence Bioware have put into listening to the fans of the series, it seems unlikely that they'll fail.

Whether Shepard does, is up to us.

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Are you kidding? Tapping Miranda was like 1/3 of my enjoyment of that game. Kelly was fun too. I spent more effort repairing my F&F romance with Leliana in Dragon Age than I did on the final battle.

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