The Mass Effect series has been one of the defining franchises of the current console generation. Strong narration, a beautifully envisioned sci-fi universe and a daring concept that allows player choice to not only affect the progress through the game, but also carry over to the next game in the series. It's a sure fire recipe to keep fans around for the next chapter, but Bioware are changing things up with Mass Effect 3 in more than one way.
Commander Shepard has been on a crusade against the Reapers, relentless artificial lifeforms bent on harvesting all biological life in the galaxy at regular intervals and targeting humanity as their next race of slaves (presumably).
The first Mass Effect saw Commander Shepard and his band of space age heroes battle Sovereign and his puppet Saren. The game had a very direct a simple narrative, and followed the basic outline of most Bioware RPG's. There were of course minor and major decisions to make, and thus you shaped your very own narrative within the framework of the story. The second title switched things up a bit, while remaining within the typical framework of a Bioware RPG.
This time Shepard had been lost in action and was brought back to life by the human centric terrorist group Cerberus - as the alliance and council neglected attacks on human colonies - Cerberus had to step into action, and naturally Shepard unveiled a Reaper plot against humanity. Most of the game was made out of missions to assemble and ensure loyalty from a group of skilled individuals as you prepared for a "suicide mission" to where "The Collectors" - pawns of the Reapers - resided. Over the course of the two games you will have made several hundred minor or major decisions that will affect your experience in the third game - making it well and truly your experience. Naturally, if you haven't played the game you will still be able to do so, either with a preset game or perhaps with a solution such as the one found in the PS3 version of Mass Effect 2 where you got to make some of the major decisions in the first game with your character.
Now if you haven't played any of the Mass Effect games you may think that I've just spoiled two games in a couple of paragraphs, but that's really not the case as the beauty of shaping your own adventure is just that - you cannot really have it spoiled. And if you've played the games you will know just how vague I've kept it. But I had to introduce you to the story, as it is in my opinion, the main feature of any Mass Effect title.
Well, having spent hundreds of hours trying to prevent a Reaper attack the first trailer for Mass Effect 3 came as a bit of a shock. Reapers had not only attacked the Galaxy, but they had focused their attack on Earth, crushing all opposition swiftly and taking the planet. Having spent all of the first game trying to take down one Reaper it came as bit of a punch to the gut seeing all those Reapers tearing Earth apart. How could we possibly stop that? Well, it seems Shepard has a plan and it involves some of our favourite characters from previous chapters.
The gameplay has evolved with each chapter of the series, moving from what was always a hybrid of classic "pause-and-play" roleplaying action and a real-time third person cover based shooter, to more of a streamlined action experience, where the role playing elements are played out in the background. From what we've seen and experienced so far this is taken even further in the third game, where "instant kills" using melee weapons are introduced. However, apart from this it seems as if the combat system remains fairly intact from Mass Effect 2.
We played a brief encounter with Cerberus where you faced off with a large mech (Atlas Mech) as you were trying to fend them off while Mordin Solus was working to free a fertile Krogan female on the Salarian homeworld. The inplications of this brief mission are many. First of all it seems as though Cerberus are not just your enemy, they have been indoctrinated and "galvanised" by the Reapers in Mass Effect 3. Second of all, it seems as though curing the Genophage may play an important role in cleansing the universe of the Reapers.
At any rate, reading the third novel, Mass Effect: Retribution, written by Drew Karpyshyn, lead writer of the series, it does seem as though Cerberus and the Illusive Man, may have gotten a bit close to the Reapers as they were trying to learn more by experimenting with their technology. Exactly how they switched sides is bound to be an important part of the story in Mass Effect 3.
There has been rumours of a multiplayer mode in Mass Effect 3 since even before the game was officially announced. In fact, when it was announced at the Spike TV Video Game Awards last year, it was rumoured that the game would in fact be a multiplayer focused game set in the Mass Effect universe and developed at Bioware Montreal. Oh well, instead we're getting a Horde/Firefight inspired co-operative mode with Mass Effect 3 called Galaxy at War. Apparently the mode will have ties to the story, and will effect your campaign. You play as a rather anonymous soldier with biotic powers and a class, teaming up with three others to take out troops that come pouring down on you in waves.
We've all played it before, it's an entertaining concept, but ultimately Mass Effect goes up against some of the best games in the action genre here, such as Halo and Gears of War, and that's when the weaknesses of the combat system (in real time) become apparent. Galaxy at War felt really disconnected from what I've come to expect from the Mass Effect series, the map that I played felt small and claustrophobic, and I really don't see why people would choose to play this over Firefight or Horde.
The only reason to me, is the fact that what you do in Galaxy at War will carry over to the campaign - do well in Galaxy at War and you will add to the "War Effort" in the campaign and perhaps unlock special abilities or weapons. Therefore, you will need to play Galaxy at War, while you play the campaign, if you want to maximise your potential in the war against the Reapers. I'm going to throw in a caveat here, as I was not able to make any choices with regards to class, race or weaponry due to the primitive state of the demo, and it may very well be that these tactical choices will allow for an experience that is sufficiently different from Halo and Gears of War to make it worth my while.
An interesting side note is the approach Bioware are taking to different categories of players and the campaign. In fact you will be able to play three different styles of campaign - action, story or RPG - with action providing you with challenging combat, but automatic dialgoue - story giving you easy combat and manual dialogue - while RPG gives you more of a challenge in combat while maintaining manual dialogue choices. Most returning players are likely best served by the RPG choice, but it is an interesting approach.
Seeing all the story threads come together in Mass Effect 3 is going to have a massive impact, regardless of whether Bioware manages to pull it off or not. The shear ambition of having a storyline run through three games is reason enough to get excited, and seeing as this is the conclusion of Shepard's story it also gives Bioware a bit added freedom of letting the player take their decisions to the extreme. That's what I'm hoping for at least, as some of the decisions we made in the first game didn't really seem to matter all that much in the second game. Ultimately, we couldn't be more excited about the prospects of Mass Effect 3.