Mass Effect 2, which I've been playing through again in large amounts of late, has a bewitching effect on me. I know the story isn't as good as that of the first game. I realise that I don't really care about half of the characters in the second game, that there are no 'Virmire moments' that have me yelling exclamations at the screen. It's plain to see that this game quite literally phones in the plot twist. But, when I play it, I don't care. Genuinely. I've gone through it three times now (just started round four), and for all of the gripes that I have with the game on reflection, for all of the inadequacies that the RPG fan in me cries at, I cannot get away from the intense feeling of excitement that swarms over me every time I play the damn thing.
It's causing major ambivalence as I sit through this Mass Effect 3 presentation. On the one hand, buzzwords like 'accessiblity' and 'self-contained narrative' are freaking me out ever so slightly. On the other hand, Shepard's just jumped into a massive mech, the powers menu has three times the number of options Mass Effect 2 had, and the music is making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Yes, as the demo progresses and Shepard offers to rescue a vent-dwelling young urchin, I begin to realise that BioWare has ransacked every butchers' shop for all of the ham in the entire world, but even so I can feel a little squeak of excitement bubbling up inside me that threatens to override all of my journalistic principles.
Epic is pretty much the word of the moment for BioWare right now. The Reapers have arrived, the time for talking is done, there's no chance for trotting off in the Mako and falling off of unmapped mountains because war is upon the galaxy as we know it, and only one man can really do anything about it. Shepard is tasked with rounding up all of the races we've seen thus far and persuading them to take up arms and fight for their lives and the lives of everyone around them. By the end of the game, I'm told, everyone's loose ends will have been tied up. All of the characters that have been a part of your team will be returning (provided you kept them alive), and they'll all reach the conclusion to their own narratives as well. For Commander Shepard, once this is over, it's over.
But we've still got the best bit - that final, most crucial leg of the journey - to go. As Associate Producer Mike Gamble told me afterwards, this game is all about making you feel that 'you're playing as Shepard, and that Shepard is you'. To that end, BioWare have listened to those detractors who lamented the whittling down of the RPG components so beloved by longtime fans of the studio's output, and have expanded the customisation options to allow gamers to tweak and adapt Shepard to their hearts' content.
At least that's the idea.
What this means in practice is that both weapons and powers have been extensively expanded, at least relative to the customisation options found in Mass Effect 2. Don't go in expecting a deep, complex and compelling RPG engine, because you just won't find it. What you will find, however, is that the evolutionary steps that one can take when you max out a power have been multiplied threefold from two to six...for each power. This allows for far more specialisation, for players to channel their upgrade points into an expanded skill tree that allows them to play the way they want to play.
Weapons can now be customised with different barrels, scopes and triggers, in a similar fashion to the way the workbench worked in Knights of the Old Republic, only the application is far more practical. The numbers are still crunching behind the scenes, but the player can feel and experiene the difference in the way the gun fires and looks. Moreover, melee combat has been upgraded slightly, with the Omni-Blade attachment a very satisfying addition indeed. Deploying one's teammates to offer covering fire while you sneak about using tactical cloaking, shivving people with a bright orange stabbing device is deeply satisfying.
And satisfying is what BioWare are aiming for. The combat engine feels vastly similar to that of Mass Effect 2, but then why would they change what was so highly praised last time.Instead of sweeping everything out, this finale is all about augmenting and enhancing what's already there, tuning up bits and pieces that were perhaps a little disappointing last time and implementing elements that the community has called for. The camo roll is a nice touch, so much so that coming back to Mass Effect 2 you spend a while spamming the face buttons before realising that it doesn't exist yet!
We asked several people about the Mako - the planetary exploration of the first game being an ambitious, if flawed, device that could have used perfecting and expanding upon but was instead jettisoned for Mass Effect 2. 'I don't know about that,' says Gamble, 'even in Mass Effect 2 a lot of the side missions, the N7 missions and the planet scanning were about exploration and discovering new worlds'. Project manager Ryan Warden concurs, 'Exploration is always one of the pillars that we take into consideration whenever we make games, we want to have Story, Combat, Character Progression and Exploration. So exploration is something that we always want to have, and will have in our games. So there are elements of vehicular exploration, but I their ties into the story. Plus there's always the Atlas. Who doesn't want drive a giant robot around and blow shit up!'
In terms of presentation, by far one of the most interesting aspects to the demonstrations, both developer-led (mainly just regurgitated forms of the E3 demo) and hands-on, was the music. In terms of looks, Mass Effect 3 looks pretty much the same as the first two. 'We didn't really want to break the aesthetic,' says Warden. 'It's a trilogy after all, to drastically change the way it looks right now just wouldn't sit right.' But the music, at least from what we saw, looks to feature far more heavily. Since we learned that BioWare had drafted in Clint Mansell to work on the score, taking over from the excellent Jack Wall, we'd been excited. But the variety exhibited in instrumentation, arrangement and orchestration in both short half-hour sessions has excited us a lot more.
There's a cheesy moment in the E3 Earth demo where Shepard comes across a boy in a ventilation shaft and tries, through dialogue options, to rescue him, which the boy replies to by flatly suggesting that there's nothing Shepard can really do. An explosion distracts the Commander's attention and, when he turns back, the boy is gone. Later on as Shepard departs on a shuttle we see an evac team picking up survivors, the boy clambers aboard and Shepard allows himself a slight smile of relief. Sadly, however, no sooner has the evac shuttle taken off when it obliterated by a Reaper's laser, killing everyone aboard. BioWare used this to demonstrate the fact that even minute choices in the game have consequences, but the Giggleloop was all kind of ready, I found it rather cloying...or at least would have done had it not been for the score behind the action.
There's a balance to be had to make sure that this consciously emotional tale - and BioWare have promised us such - doesn't go over the top and become an absurd soap. They cannot simply jump into the war with the Reapers and hope that new players will form emotional attachments. Narrative strands through the last two games were carefully constructed and expertly woven and, although it would be brave and churlish man to predict BioWare could suddenly jettison their talents for weaving such stories, words like accessibility worry a fan such as myself . Just as when mobile phone companies seemingly offer the world to new customers as their existing ones suffer, it is my fervent hope that accessibility is simply a freebie rather than a costly addition.
But for the most part it looks as if Bioware are making fine tracks, as far as preview builds and shot demonstrations will allow us to predict, anyway. We won't know for sure until we can plough three straight days into the game, but from the looks of things, this game, as with the two that came before it, will have no problems in persuading us to give up food and sleep once again.