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Saturday, 25 February 2012 14:09

Mass Effect 3 hands on: Get the flock out of here Shepard

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Electronic Arts has let a few nervous hands play through a portion of Mass Effect 3, the culmination of Bioware's unique sci-fi action RPG.  A pair of those sweaty thumbs belonged to this correspondent.   Also on show was Mass Effect 3 Infiltrator, the impressive iPad edition of the parallel storyline developed locally by Iron Monkey.

Still somewhat shaky from the previous night's Sony Vita launch, it was a welcome relief to walk from the muggy heat of a Sydney day into the night club location for Electronic Art's sneak preview of Mass Effect 3.

BioWare's original IP space opera has been a favourite of fans since its beginnings as a Microsoft (Xbox 360 and Windows) exclusive in 2007, and exploded in popularity with the release of the follow up cross platform game in 2010 (2011 on PS3).  

The idea of taking your version of Commander Shepard between games was a heavy focus of the BioWare planning, and it was a particularly bold move in the video-game industry to announce the project as a trilogy from inception.

It certainly paid off, there has been an increasing pool of saliva accumulating at the feet of many a rabid fan (and gaming journalist for that matter) as the March 8th release date loomed for ME3.  In fact, some pre-event coffee talk indicated that there was an amount of trepidation heading into the sneak peak, and a feeling of unease at being able to play through the first hour of a game not in its complete form.

Still, that didn't stop us.

ME3's opening interface screen is similar to the previous game, looking as it does as a futuristic IT workstation.  The main difference is of course, the option to import a ME2 character (either Male or Fem-Shep from a previous game save file).

me3mars

Once a new game is underway, there is one other important decision to be made.  What mode to play in.  By all accounts Action Mode ups the enemy AI and provides auto answers to conversations during NPC interaction, whilst Story Mode provides more player interaction and decision making, whilst toning down the action side of the game.

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I wasn't certain of the value in these modes, instead choosing the good-ole Normal RPG mode,  chose a look for my Male-Shep (BioWare has increased the options here, allowing for a traditional handsome action hero type, right through to more uglier and less-leading-man options) and it was off to the Earth level to begin the game.

The story apparently picks up from the end of the ME2 DLC pack Arrival, and from the Take Earth Back trailer recently released, and extensive first hour of game-play's cut scenes it is evident BioWare is attempting a heat-string tug, not unlike the famous Dead Island trailer.

The Collectors are laying waste to the Earth and all defences are inadequate to stop the invasion, Shepard is sent to get help from the Citadel.  Earth provides the story set up and tutorial basis for the game.

Long-time ME fans will have little issues with changes wrought upon the core game-play, but I do have to say, I found the opening hour a little uninspiring from a game-play perspective.  The story is great, but you need more that this opening sixty minutes, most of which are spent on Mars to get a complete handle on ME3 expectations.

 me3liarashep

Combat is supposedly ramped up in difficulty, and scratching for ammo during the battles meant a reliance on the revamped melee approach.  The cover system is refined, and Gears Of Wars fans will be familiar with what amounts to an excellent system, although it was evident some pieces of landscape are not meant to be 'cover' locations, as such, the snap to cover system will require some practice.

Whilst enemy AI has reportedly been tweaked, resulting in a more cohesive squad based approach to fighting; this wasn't overly evident when playing in RPG mode.  Enemies are easily confused by out-flanking where the level design permits.

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Biotics are as useful as ever, and team mate direction is still handled well by the radial interface.  Levelling up has become somewhat more complicated with more detail and thought required when choosing a path of specialisation to plonk earned level-up points into.  That is good for those who feared a dumbing down of the RPG elements of this game.

It is clear there is still a binary choice to be made when going either Paragon (the nice Commander Shep) or Renegade (not-so-nice Commander Shep), that is fine with me, this is not, after all, a pen and paper RPG, this is an action RPG.

Visually, we played through on the Xbox 360 version, and BioWare has again improved the player models in-game, there were a number of minor distracting graphical artefacts that loomed during our time with the game, but this was code still being refined back in the BioWare labs, and even then not soul destroying in their nature.

Sound design was also a highlight, there is plenty going on, particularly when Shep and crew come across Cerberus troopers on the Martian facility.   

me3liarashep2

We also got some time with ME3 Infiltrator, the Iron Monkey developed iPad app, with a release date that EA hopes to coincide with March 8th ME3 release, such is the whims of the Applie App Store however, this may not happen.

Iron Monkey has done a fantastic job on Infiltrator, providing a parallel story unlike the normal for accompany projects such as this.  Often the player is tasked with taking the role of an alternative 'good-side' campaign, but here iPad owners will be playing the part of a heavily augmented Cerberus trooper.

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Graphically the game is amazing, and it is pretty evident that the team at Iron Monkey has invested much of its experience from games such as Mirror's Edge and Dead Space on the iPad and injected here.

Level design is thoughtfully handled, with the swipe commands directing the Infiltrator from cover to cover.  Design Director Jarrod Trudgen took us through the intricacies of the games interface, particularly when targeting enemies.

The game utilises a two-step targeting system, tag an enemy, and then with the virtual joystick (from anywhere on screen) pinpoint your location of choice to maximise weapon effectiveness.  Longer term play may expose weaknesses in the system, but our short showing was impressive.

EA has been criticised by those awaiting the release of Mass Effect 3, feeling that the dilution of the bran and exploitation of the community is going too far for this release.  Perhaps there is some merit in the argument when it comes to the purchasing of real world products (such as certain branded PC Mice, and so forth) unlocking in-game weaponry and other non-cosmetic game-play elements.

Indeed there are many distractions launching alongside ME3, but having seen the polish that has gone into Infiltrator, there are examples of worthy co-branded product being developed complimenting the release.  Intel found whilst playing Infiltrator can be spent in either the parent game or Infiltrator itself for upgrades.

Mass Effect 3 is released on March 8th (in Australia) for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC


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Mike Bantick

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Having failed to grow up Bantick continues to pursue his childish passions for creative writing, interactive entertainment and showing-off through adulthood. In 1994 Bantick began doing radio at Melbourne’s 102.7 3RRRFM, in 1997 transferring to become a core member of the technology show Byte Into It. In 2003 he wrote briefly for the The Age newspaper’s Green Guide, providing video game reviews. In 2004 Bantick wrote the news section of PC GameZone magazine. Since 2006 Bantick has provided gaming and tech lifestyle stories for iTWire.com, including interviews and opinion in the RadioactivIT section.

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