Yesterday, Xbox 360 users who signed up for early access to Mass Effect 3 got a special treat. A Beta Demo of the highly anticipated threequel was leaked over Xbox Live and fully downloadable. The version was rough around the edges (very rough) but fans were still delighted to get early-early access to the final act in the prolific trilogy. I myself was unable to play the demo, but I have seen footage of it in its entirety. Since I have been incredibly vocal about my negative opinions of Mass Effect 2 and the way the series has been marketed since joining with EA, I thought it may be a good idea to offer some first impressions.
All of the videos start off on the menu screen. One of the most memorable moments of ME1 was its unique menu. I remember listening to a haunting atmospheric melody as I stared at the horizon of a distant planet. Upon hitting the start button, I was transported to a screen that slowly cycled through the story’s cast of characters. ME2’s menu wasn’t so memorable. We stared at space debris and were then shifted to screen inside a Cerberus ship. It was boring and really didn’t set a space-opera vibe like the original did, but the computer screen menu worked well for what Bioware wanted to accomplish. ME3 combines the two, showcasing the horizon of a distant planet Earth as hundreds of Reapers descend on the world playing music similar to ME1. Pressing start transported the player to a computer screen nearly identical to the one of ME2, this time with an Alliance décor. It’s the best of both worlds that sets a grim tone for Shepard’s final adventure. I liked that Bioware opted to showcase their commitment to bringing the trilogy full circle just in their menu screen, but ME3 won’t win fans over by what happens outside the game.
Upon starting the single player campaign (God I hate that I have to specify that!) players will be taken to the usual character creator where they can customize their Shepard to their personal specifications. After that, you choose the in-game settings. It’s here where much controversy has been founded. ME3 features 3 play styles, Action Mode, Story Mode and RPG Mode. Action Mode is a setting that emphasizes the action TPS gameplay and auto-selects all dialog options and decisions as well as auto level-ups your Shepard. This mode is likely geared towards new players who have not touched a Mass Effect yet, so it’s no big deal that the ability to make tough choices has been removed as these players have already demonstrated a considerable lack of good decision making skills. Next is the story which handicaps the combat difficulty so that you can enjoy the tale that unfolds in ME3. This mode also allows you to make all conversation and decision choices you wish. Finally, there is RPG mode, which may as well be called Mass Effect Mode, as it is the optimal way to play Mass Effect 3 as it has been designed. Choices and dialog are up to the players, you manually level Shepard up and the combat is not scaled back in any way.
Obviously these new modes are not being well received by fans. Many see this “Action Mode” as dumbing down the game, even after repeated promises from Bioware that the RPG elements, depth, and complexity of gameplay will make a triumphant return. The truth is this: Yup! Action Mode is a dumbed down version of Mass Effect 3, but let’s look at the big picture here. Would you rather have a dumbed down option for the TPS crowd, or would you rather Bioware pander to the TPS crowd on a universal level and dumb down the gameplay for everyone? My vote goes for the former.
After that is out of the way, the game begins. I won’t go into too much detail in order to preserve the sanctity of the single player experience, but I will say that this leak was potentially the best thing to happen to Bioware in their marketing campaign, which is the number 1 reason I believe this leak was not intentional. The graphics look astounding, even in this rough state. The cinematic presentation is better than ever and the sound (when it worked) was amazing. The dialog and voice acting was occasionally off, but the exchanges between Shepard and his mentor David Anderson are excellent. The dreaded, “We fight or we die, that’s the plan,” line is shockingly not just stock trailer dialog. It’s actually spoken in the game, and even more shocking, the line doesn’t come off as hokey or cheesy.
The gameplay looked about the same as Mass Effect 2, however, the combat animations such as running, rolling, and taking cover looks stiff and often times, quite ridiculous. The diving and rolling are unnaturally over the top, which is especially bad for a game that has had a strong commitment to presenting the game realistically. I also think the gameplay is moving too fast. What I mean by that is that the game speed moves at a very jarringly unnatural speed. That word again. Unnatural. I don’t like that ME3’s gameplay makes me say unnatural when talking about two different things. I also don’t like the “You’re too retarded to play this game” helper icons. A little icon pops up telling you to Follow Anderson until you leave Earth. Follow Anderson? Thank God you told me that one because I never would have guessed I should follow the guy who is constantly saying, “This way!” and “Come on!” By the way, there is only one path to walk here. I couldn’t avoid following Anderson even if I wanted to. Fortunately, these helper icons can be disabled, and it is possible that they are only present because it’s the tutorial.
Either way, nobody plays Mass Effect for the gameplay (right Action Mode?) which brings me to the story. Man oh man, the story is looking good. We open with Shepard stuck on Earth awaiting his hearing with the Alliance Military Defense Committee. The hearing is tossed out the window upon the discovery of a large invasion force of unknown origin heading towards Earth. The committee wants Shepard to answer one question, “Is it the Reapers?” That question answers itself in a matter of moments. From then on, it’s a quest to escape Earth on the Normandy before the Reapers eradicate Shepard and his friends.
After the Earth portion is finished, the game leaps to the inside of the Normandy’s Kodiak shuttle where Shep and co. are prepping for a new mission. They are on their way to Sur’Kesh to have a sit down with the Salarians. Shepard and his crew are joined by Urdnot Wrex to save a host of Krogan females. The return of Wrex is every bit as awesome as it should be and what’s even better is when we run into more than a few familiar Salarians along the way. This is the same demo showcased over and over again ever since E3, so everybody knows Cerberus shows up to be massive pains in the booty.
Even in this short view of the story, it’s obvious that there is a much darker tone. Not manufactured dark like Mass Effect 2 was, but legitimately dark and dangerous. There is a strong sense of desperation in the air. I think the moment that really hits the dark and desperate vibe is when Shepard and Anderson turn around to watch the surveillance video of the Reapers invading Earth, a clever nod to the earliest moments of ME1. One thing that I was thoroughly impressed with was the way the missions were paced. They weren’t overlong with exposition like ME1 nor did they just throw Shepard in the middle of a battlefield upon touching down like in ME2. They carefully built up the necessary tension and story beats while not boring the player to death. It was just right.
Another topic worth noting is the impact of your choices and how they may affect ME3. I can tell you right now that this brief demo showcased more potential variation in ME3 than all of ME2. Within the first few minutes we will be introduced to the Virmire Survivor and Sur’Kesh is all over the park. Wrex, Mordin, Garrus and someone else all show up to assist Shepard in retrieving the female Krogan. I feel as if I can let out a sigh of relief after seeing the amount of people showcased that may not actually be alive come ME3. That being said, it’s also nice seeing squad members acknowledging one another in the way they did in this demo. I won’t go into details.
Among some of the other highlights was our first look at James Vega. We don’t see much of him, but it’s clear that he has a certain amount of reverence for Shepard. Vega is big and tattooed, which has been a source of mockery from the fans, and he sounds like Freddie Prinze Jr. is his voice actor. At least to me. We also get to see the first meeting between Shepard and Ashley (no Kaidan in this demo) which had an awkward vibe to it, proving that the events on Horizon won’t be brushed aside and that the e-mail was likely outside of cannon for those of us who romanced the snarky warrior woman. There was also a demo on the multiplayer, which I watched and was astonished with how slow, empty, sleep inducing and dull it was. I had a feeling it was going to be a Horde rip-off, but this was just lazy and uninspired in my humblest of opinions. Maybe it will be a bit more exciting at launch.
Even though the gameplay segments had me a bit nervous, I was very impressed with the story, presentation, and character interactions. It’s rough around the edges, very brief, and the Earth segment had very little dialog options, but you can still get a pretty good impression of what is in store for fans of the franchise. I have to admit, many of my fears have been alleviated, but I’m still concerned about the finished product. After viewing this demo, I feel very comfortable preordering the collector’s edition again, but I am remaining wary of the possibility of a huge embarrassing failure. Good or bad, Mass Effect 3 will likely own my soul for the entire month of March in 2012. If it’s good, probably even longer.
Update 11-7: Bioware's leak turned out even worse then initially expected. It looks like some dude in Russia was actually able to hack the beta demo somehow and managed to pull specific story details, including a full and complete synopsis of the game's entire story line. Also included were details on characters, death scenes, weapons, powers, customization upgrades and the origins of the Reapers. Practically the whole game has leaked onto the net months before the release date. Bioware made an official statement saying that although much of the information revealed is not fully accurate and has changed in some form, it's close enough to ruin the story experience for fans. Bioware is strongly encouraging fans to avoid reading the information if they are deeply invested in the story experience. Yikes. Sounds pretty bad to me. I didn't read any of the info myself, but one minor spoiler did slip out on the forums that I am a little concerned about. Hopefully that is one of the changes that Bioware made to the final product. Personally, I just hope that there is no mention of the Beings of Light anywhere in that synopsis. Because that idea was stupid.