I didn’t actually expect to get a chance to play the demo for Mass Effect 3 this week, owing to the fact that I’m currently traveling and don’t usually expect to find a decent internet connection at any hotel I might be staying at. Especially not one decent enough to enable me to download a 2.7 GB demo install.
The Mass Effect 3 title card.
But it turns out that in addition to having an amazing sushi restaurant, Terre Haute, Indiana offers some pretty decent internet speeds…at least at the Hampton Inn. And so the ME3 demo — which I left downloading in the background while I played a bit more Reckoning — finished installing within an hour, giving me the opportunity to play it…and to screenshot the living heck out of it.
The main menu.
And…well…how can I put this? I’m still very interested in playing Mass Effect 3, and I’m still convinced (for other reasons) that it will be an epic game that I will want to replay several times. I’m still confident that it will bring the story of both Shepard and the Reapers to a satisfying — if occasionally grim — conclusion.
But equally…I was not impressed by the demo. Or, rather, I was not impressed by the demo overall. Let me explain.
The first part of the demo takes place near to where I am assuming the release version of the game will begin. I say “near” because the demo definitely starts you in an “in media res” scenario, in which Commander Shepard has already met the fairly generic-soldier-type-looking James Vega and seems to know him reasonably well. Maybe that’s explained in a book somewhere, and maybe the writers are just assuming I’ve read every Mass Effect novel and comic (I haven’t). But seriously…who is this guy, and why does my Shepard know him?
Who are you, again?
The short narrative that prefaces the actual gameplay also seems to move very quickly, given what we’ve been led to believe would be the opening of Mass Effect 3; Shepard is summoned to what I initially believed was to be her trial (for her actions at the end of Mass Effect 2′s Arrival DLC), and quickly bumps into one old friend…
…after another. But there’s something about the sequence of events that doesn’t seem right. I almost wonder if BioWare cut out a bit of content from the demo at this point, because all indications and hints that we’ve seen to this point have suggested that Shepard was actually supposed to stand trial for the events of Arrival. And indeed, the dialogue from Ashley Williams during the brief meeting with her seems to suggest that she had been giving testimony. And yet, when Shepard walked into the room with the other Terran admirals, what ensued was less a trial and more of a quick affirmation that yes, the Reapers are in fact coming.
In fact, they rather conveniently arrived at about that exact point:
To this point, the game didn’t offer much in the way of actual gameplay, apart from a few dialogue choices which seemed to be exclusively split along the classic Paragon/Renegade lines. In fact, most of the dialogue in the demo was an exclusive choice between a Paragon answer and a Renegade answer, and I’m hoping that this was just a contrivance BioWare put in place for the demo, to limit possible outcomes to a manageable number for the limited array of presented content.
Be that as it may…the Reapers show up and blow things all to hell, pretty much as Shepard has been warning that they would.
Admiral Anderson shows up and extricates Shepard from the wreckage of the room, and the two beat a hasty retreat across what I believe is supposed to be a megacity comprised of Vancouver and Seattle, while the Reapers make a mess of the surroundings.
Thepal, in a comment, commended BioWare for how this part of the demo played out, and I want to voice my quite explicit agreement with what he found praiseworthy. The demo does a very good job of letting you play the game, keeping the action that concerns you in the foreground, but does so while still allowing you to see what’s going on in the background and the surrounding scenery.
One moment, you have a good view of the wider picture...
...and the next, you are up close and in the action!
And once the game turns over full control, the demo is actually a lot of fun. The “escape from Earth” sequence is fast-paced, often heart-poundingly so. It’s got plenty of action and explosions, and even makes you feel desperate a couple of times as it flings more enemies at you than you have the ability to deal with given your limited supply of ammunition.
The enemies have also gotten a fair bit smarter, and a lot bit uglier as well. The Cannibals, in particular (which, I gather, are half-batarian, half-human mutants created by the Reapers), are really quite savage opponents, and make good use of available cover.
Die, you beasts! Stop...eating each other and healing!
Enemies in cover are also a lot harder to wound than in previous Mass Effect games, and you very quickly come to the realization that making every shot count is going to be the rule by which you live and die for much of the game.
There are not enough bullets in that gun...
Using Shepard’s powers (and squad powers) is also way less optional in Mass Effect 3 than in previous installments in the series.
Eventually, though, the Normandy shows up and extracts Shepard. Anderson heroically (of course!) elects to stay behind and organize resistance to the Reapers on Earth, while tasking Shepard to go and round up as many allies as she can to save Earth and, ultimately, the galaxy from this existential menace. The heart-pounding pace of the escape is replaced, briefly, with a somewhat more emotionally wrenching scene involving a young boy, although in truth I found it a bit contrived. (Kids getting killed is usually one of my emotional triggers, one of the ones I can’t just be a Stoic about…but this particular example was a bit too ham-fisted to evoke strong feelings.)
Also, you get reinstated. But that was probably obvious.
To this point, I really enjoyed the demo quite a lot. And to be fair, I enjoyed most of the elements in the next part of the demo as well (though not as much). What I didn’t enjoy, and what subsequently reduced my enjoyment of the latter half of the demo, was BioWare’s annoying tendency to jump the action forward by some amount of hours.
Though it does involve Wrex. Which, really, is good.
I really liked the Reckoning demo for many reasons, but one such reason is that it just let me keep playing the stories it started me out with. There was no jump ahead, no disjunct, no time discontinuity. You played an opening chunk of the game’s story, and then got a bit of time to just wander around and explore. Great! More like that please.
BioWare, on the other hand, opted to do with the Mass Effect 3 demo what they did with the Dragon Age 2 demo: let you play out an opening sequence, and then jump you to some point in the game where you were ten experience levels ahead of where you were previously.
In the latter half of the demo, you play through another sequence — the rescue of a fertile female krogan from the salarian homeworld. This is all well and good, but it’s kind of thrust upon you without any explanation as to context or motivation: why is the female krogan on the salarian homeworld? Why do we care about her? Why are we going in to get her? Has Liara even bothered to change clothes since Lair of the Shadow Broker? None of these questions gets answered. And yes, I realize it’s just a demo…they have to be choosy with what content makes it in and what content doesn’t. Be that as it may, it’s still jarring.
It’s worth noting here that in the character creation sequence, you are asked a handful of questions about the previous games and certain outcomes associated therewith. Specifically, during the sequence, you’re asked whether just one squad member of yours has died since the first game — Ashley or Kaidan — or whether “several” have died. I’m thinking that if you take the last option, Urdnot Wrex might not appear during this part of the demo…but since I just picked Kaidan, I can’t be sure.
Regardless…Wrex was along for the ride, and nearly gets everyone into trouble with the salarians.
The game then skips what I’m assuming is a decent chunk of content, because all of a sudden I’m running around with Garrus and Liara, and Mordin is accompanying the female krogan as she is being transported in a shielded pod to a shuttle dock.
This being Mass Effect, of course, it isn’t that simple, and Cerberus shock troops show up and attempt to apprehend the lady krogan for their own purposes. Which, naturally, kicks off a running firefight through various levels of the salarian complex.
The end point of this quest is a boss battle against an Atlas mech, which…wasn’t as hard to take down as I had expected it to be, actually, although you do have to pour a fair bit of ammo into it. The cockpit is on the vulnerable side, however, and apparently in the full game you can kill the pilot without killing the mech as a whole…which will then allow Shepard to commandeer the damn thing.
I…didn’t attempt this, however.
Bring em on...I prefer a straight fight!
Of course, for most of the battle, the Cerberus troops aren’t just shooting at Shepard; they’re shooting at the female krogan’s protected pod as well, and a little progress bar in the corner of the screen helpfully reminds you just how close you are to failing the mission. (Seriously, it ticked down pretty fast.) Once the smoke clears on the wreckage of the Atlas, though, the demo ends with one last cinematic sequence, before punting you back to the menu.
Also, she shotguns a guy.
What I Liked
Well, it’s definitely a Mass Effect game. The cast of characters is obviously back in action and ready to kick some ass, and it’s always a treat to see notables like Wrex and Garrus on screen. Much — though not all — of the gameplay is unchanged from previous entries in the series, and for the most part the controls have been streamlined and simplified (the SPACE bar does everything, basically, though exactly what it does at any point in time is context-dependent). Managing your squad in combat is essentially unchanged since Mass Effect 2, and little additional things — the ability to jump small gaps in terrain, the ability to climb ladders, etc. — add both to Shepard’s versatility on the battlefield and give BioWare an excuse to create more interesting environments to traverse.
Combat was generally satisfying, of course. Powers still work much the same as in Mass Effect 2, and the sound and general feedback from weapons has indeed been improved somewhat.
And the demo was short. This seems an odd thing to list under the “like” category, but it was nice that I could fit playing the demo into my evening. The Reckoning demo, though I enjoyed it more overall, was on the longish side, and I struggled to finish it in a single evening.
What I Didn’t Like
Let’s take it as read that I didn’t like the jarring time and space disjunct that happened in the middle of the demo. Outside of that criticism, there were a couple things I noticed that didn’t sit well with me, and which I hope can just be chalked up to a lack of polish in a demo that was forked from the main project at too early a point.
I wanted — really wanted — to like the new cover system, especially since it added the ability to jump and roll between pieces of cover. And when I first saw it, I will admit to thinking that it was a damn sweet thing for BioWare to have included. A little arrow appears to show you the direction Shepard can roll, and when you tap the SPACE bar, she rolled from behind one piece of cover and got behind another piece of cover in the indicated direction.
It was only when I wanted to leave cover entirely that I encountered the issue that made me dislike the cover system, which seems to mostly be a sensitivity issue. The little arrow pops up on screen to show you how Shepard will exit cover, either by running around the side of it or hopping over the top. That’s all well and good, but it seemed to take no small amount of mouse-twitching to turn the “roll sideways to new cover” arrow into the “roll out of cover” arrow. (I nearly got dusted by the Atlas mech because of this!)
And maybe it was just me, or maybe it was just the demo, but I noticed that my usual tactic for Husk-killing (shoot out the legs) didn’t work. Not cool. Although in the ensuing need to melee with a pair of husks, Shepard did omni-blade one of them, which was cool to see. I didn’t manage to grab a screenshot, though.
Well, I’ve mostly said it all already. I’m still very stoked for the game, and I’m willing to chalk up the issues I had with control and combat in the demo to it being based off an earlier build of the game. That said, while I didn’t hate the demo, I didn’t hugely enjoy it either. But then, I’ve never hugely enjoyed a BioWare demo that I can think of, unless you could the beta for The Old Republic. (And I don’t think it does count.)
Again, that isn’t to say I hated it, and it isn’t to say I didn’t like it. I did like it, for the most part…but that’s about it.