By Tony Palumbi
On Valentine’s Day, in a bid to complicate human relationships everywhere, the eminent video game developer Bioware released the demo for Mass Effect 3. The game doesn’t drop until the first week of March, but the Texas-based company has gone against convention and released an all-out demo a full week in advance. It’s much appreciated—the developer-side and PR concerns with a demo are so huge that hardly anyone bothers—and entirely appropriate, given Bioware’s status as a throwback company. In an age when gaming seems to be roaring towards Angry Birds and other casual fare, they’ve kept their commitment to thoughtful, plot-intensive products.
Through all their success, the Mass Effect series has carried the banner. Released as an Xbox 360 exclusive with little fanfare, the original Mass Effect sold over two million copies on that console (http://www.examiner.com/video-game-in-national/mass-effect-series-sales-total-over-7-million) and benefitted from a great port to the PC. Fantasy settings are everywhere in gaming, but Mass Effect offered something rare: a serious sci-fi setting with the Hollywood-caliber visuals and voice acting to back it up. Commander Shepard, the brave hero, traveled around the galaxy setting wrongs right and learning about the coming existential threat: The Reapers, an unstoppable armada of life-hating robots.
So what about the demo? It’s evolution; the exact kind of evolution you want to see in a sequel. In the modern gaming industry, sequels are everything. A game like Mass Effect costs as much as a low-end Hollywood feature film—tens of millions. If you’re going to be hiring Seth Green and Martin Sheen for voice acting, you need to make it economically feasible. Why not hire Seth Green for three games, keep much of the same development team for three games, and plow your dollars into refining a single product your audience already believes in? Gamers lament the sequel-ization of the industry, but they buy sequels in far greater numbers than original products. To that end, the third Mass Effect game does what the second did: retain the amazing universe, expand upon it, develop characters, and make the action one HELL of a lot better.
In Mass Effect 3, combat is far less wooden and more kinetic than in the second—which improved on the now-tragic mechanics of the first game. The original Mass Effect planted an amazing seed, but it’s almost unplayable now. In the new game, Shepard’s movement is much faster and more fluid. He (or she!) can easily glide from cover to cover, sprinting and vaulting and rolling as needed to evade enemy fire. Melee attacks at close range are more important, and Shepard even has the amazing Omni-Blade for toe-curling close-range brutality. Weapons are more diverse and distinct; powers are more fun and more effective. You’ll get a chance to play through a section at the game’s start and another in its heart—in both cases, the skill trees for Shepard and his allies should get RPGers excited.
Mass Effect 2 allowed players to import their characters from the first title, which was an amazing feature that opened up a whole new level of immersion for series fans. Decisions you make in one game persist into the next; characters remember everything you’ve done. It continues into ME3, meaning that true fanatics will have to go back to the very first game for a truly “fresh” playthrough. Well played, Bioware—though it remains to be seen just how much these things affect the actual game. If there’s an entire Rachni angle for the main story, I’ll raise my glass to the folks in Austin.
I don’t want to say a lot about the first demo section. It’s the Reaper invasion of Earth, and it’s very Hollywood. The great Keith David even features prominently, reprising his role as Admiral Anderson. It’s not until the second part of the demo that you get into the meat of the game, trying to spring a Krogan female from a Salarian prison. Lest you thought this was a Halo 2-style “defense of Earth” game, be relieved: Shepard hooks up with the Normandy and gets back up to his galactic travels. Also, fans of the series will have noted something a couple sentences back: a Krogan female! I doubt she’ll be a party member, but this is the first time a Krogan female has ever enjoyed a speaking role. Krogan women are kept as chattel by the males of their species—a condition deeply rooted in their cultural history, which is described here (http://masseffect.wikia.com/wiki/Krogan) and is fascinating. Suffice it to say, they are the ultimate victims of the law of unintended consequences. To have a Krogan female speaking and acting for herself is unthinkable, and I’m excited for what lies in store.
One last feature of the demo: it debuts the new “game types” on offering from Bioware. Specifically, the user can pick between three playstyles: Action, Classic, and Story. Classic speaks for itself—it’s the way Mass Effect, Dragon Age, KOTOR, TOR, and every other Bioware game functions. Combat is adjustable, and you handle all the story and customization yourself. But not everyone’s into that—some folks just want to plow through a great action blockbuster after work. In Action mode, they can blast bad guys at any difficulty setting and view the dialogue as passive cinematics. Other folks (Alyssa?) get anxious or wound-up by intense combat. For them, Story mode allows the full breadth of character development with relatively trivial combat. It’s a great attempt to pull in new fans to the series, though I wonder how many people like my sister (solidly in the Story Mode camp) will dive into the third-and-final incarnation of an alien series.
Mass Effect is the most serious science fiction series in recent gaming history. It takes seriously the limitations of technology and interstellar travel. It builds a sense of scale and age in its own fantastic universe that few series would even attempt. Most of all, it takes alien races seriously. They have their own histories, often intertwined with one other, and the universe is so big that Shepard can credibly learn about these things along with the audience. The Mass Effect universe is filled with amazing and diverse races, who speak and think and act according to their own rules. This ain’t Star Trek, where every alien is a person in makeup. As someone pithily said in the great Gregory Benford novel, Great Sky River, “The thing about aliens is, they’re alien.” Mass Effect gives the universe space (HAH! Space.) to be weird and cool and diverse and unique: everything we love about the best science fiction. Bioware, as an industry leader in sexual progressivity, gives Shepard license to romance and bang just about any character of any gender or species. You’re also given an amazing opportunity to shoot an awful lot of things in the face with some really sweet guns. Maybe you’re not into sci-fi, or into games. They aren’t for everyone. But Mass Effect 3 will be a phenomenon. Beneath all the familiar video game and Hollywood trappings is the most honest big-media successor Asimov, Niven, Benford and Bear you’re going to see in a long time. With the series ending, it might be even longer.
Tony Palumbi is an author based in San Mateo, California. He’s the author of the marine science book Shark and Awe to be released 2013 by Princeton University Press. His is also the person who introduced me to Starship Troopers.