Maintaining Mass Effect: 90 minutes with ME3 single-play
Buckle-up soldier; the Reapers are at the door and Shepard’s got a universe to save. Stace Harman goes hands-on with the first 90 minutes of Mass Effect 3 and chats to Bioware’s Mike Gamble about the evolution of a franchise.
That’s the feeling that washes over me after playing through the first 90 minutes of Mass Effect 3. Relief that Bioware hasn’t screwed it up, that EA’s Galaxy at War gubbins hasn’t diluted the core, that Mass Effect is still very much Mass Effect.
It feels like we’ve all been talking so much about the provocative inclusion of multiplayer that the single-player narrative-driven crux of the game - the entire point of the game, no less - has gotten lost in the hubbub. Thankfully, upon sitting down with Shepard, Mass Effect 3 very quickly reminds me that there’s a fight to be finished and a tale to be told, but only to those that want to hear it.
One of the very first choices to be made is the kind of Mass Effect experience that you want to have. It’s an explicit choice made from three menu options: Action, RPG or Story. Those that bring with them a battle-worn Shepard from previous instalments will likely plump for RPG, in which you’re responsible for all customisation and dialogue choices – for many, this is what Mass Effect has always been about.
New players, lured by adrenaline-fuelled gameplay videos, or those that have always found Shepard to use too much lip and not enough gun, can opt for Action, in which conversations play as cut scenes; the choices made for you in advance and with an eye to getting you back to the fight as soon as possible. Finally, Story makes combat that much easier to ensure that narrative flow takes precedence.
Regardless of your play style, it appears that all areas of Mass Effect 3 have been buffed to a fine sheen as Bioware and EA look to satisfy itchy trigger fingers and galactic lore-hunters alike.
“Moving into Mass Effect 3 the increased RPG mechanics were really important to us, we didn’t want to alienate any sort of audience,” explains associate producer Mike Gamble. “Some people want to really dive deep into the customisation and we wanted to support that. We’ve brought back a lot of the weapon and armour customisation; RPG elements that may have gotten lost over time.
“But we also wanted to support any new players and not assume you have knowledge of the previous games. It’s designed so that you can jump into and understand what’s happening in the first hour of the game and know what you need to do. We wanted to be able to encourage both sets of players.”
Sometimes, it pays to pursue a narrow slice of the gaming community and craft a game that doesn’t try to be all things to all people, but if you are going to try to please everyone it pays to have the resources to back your ambition.
Evolution of the species
It’s been a little over four years since the original Mass Effect launched and so Bioware must be commended for the progress it has made with the Unreal Engine, the scale and beauty of some of Mass Effect 3’s opening scenes is genuinely impressive. Behind the scenes, less obvious but more important changes have been made both to the overall game mechanics and environment design, as Gamble explains.
“There was a big leap from the first game to the second in terms of the combat and gameplay systems,” he says.
"Going from Mass 2 to 3, we wanted to refine those changes but also make some new additions. Even small things like cover movement and the ability to climb ladders and jump down drops – it changes the way we design our levels and makes the gameplay experience a lot more visceral.”
These changes are barely noticeable when you’re absorbed in Mass Effect's universe, which is exactly as it should be – instead, they simply serve to make the experience slicker and ensure it’s less likely that you’ll spend time wondering why a galactic hero can’t traverse a one metre gap in the floor.
Mass Effect’s evolution isn’t confined only to game play mechanics and visual fidelity, of course. The characters have come a long way too and depending on the choices you made in previous games, or via the interactive primer at the start of this one, some familiar faces from Shepard’s past make a reappearance.
All have been changed by their experiences – Liara, in particular, has come a long way since Shepard rescued her from the ruins on Therum – and some will offer you a warmer welcome than others, but each of their stories will be resolved by the time the Reaper invasion has played out.
“It’s been emotional for us to develop these characters over the last decade or so,” says Gamble. “A lot of us are very close to them and so we’ve been intent on wrapping up these plot lines and characters in a way that will be satisfying for everyone. “It’s been a ride for us and we’re looking forward to finding out what everyone thinks.”
As I alluded to at the start, I’ve been sceptical of EA’s strategy with Mass Effect 3. But for all the hoo-ha about what female Shepard will look like and on how many fronts or in how many modes the Galaxy at War will play out, there remains cracking yarn of intergalactic politics and survival to be concluded.
Those that have been apprehensively anticipating the concluding part of Bioware’s trilogy can, like me, breathe a sigh of relief: there’s still choices to be made, customisation to tinker with and a sprawling universe to be explored. Thankfully, Mass Effect is still very much Mass Effect.