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.