Although we wish we could have spent all day with Mass Effect 3 at EA's E3 booth, it's amazing how much was revealed during our all-too-brief 30 minute look. This is the first time the game has been demoed live, and we saw three remarkably diverse missions that shed light not only on the gameplay changes in ME3, but also the story of Shepard's final battle against the reapers.
The demo began with a mission that showed that Shepard will deal with situations that occur on a much bigger scale than anything he's faced before. After securing a geth base, Shepard commands Legion, who's piloting a shuttle above the site, to deploy an orbital strike as a giant reaper ship materializes to attack Shepard. In what looked like an on-rails shooter segment, Shepard mans a giant turret and pelts the reaper ship while it pursues him mercilessly. Think back to when Sovereign attacked the Citadel at the end of the first Mass Effect and you'll have a feel for how it dwarfs everything else. As you can imagine, Shepard is quickly forced to retreat (although never stops firing!) as the reaper gains ground on him and the mission suddenly fades to black. While not very interesting combat-wise, the area definitely showed off the massiveness of some of the set pieces this time around.
The next mission we saw had a much more familiar feel, and gave us the biggest insights into how the combat has been changed compared to ME2. Shepard and two squadmates, Liara and Garrus (!!), must protect a fertile female krogan encased in some kind of chamber/elevator thing while Cerberus troops attack the facility. As Shepard and friends do what they do best, it's clear that the cover system has been revamped. Shepard can now easily move from cover to cover when directional arrow prompts appear on screen, which allows him to navigate battles more stealthily than before and use the environment more strategically.
Above: If you shoot out the Cerberus agent, Shepard can climb into the Atlas walker and pilot it himself
Stealth plays a much bigger role even in the soldier class now too - one enemy holds a riot shield that completely covers him from the front, making him impervious to frontal attacks (we're not just talking about shields/barriers like in previous MEs, but rather a completely impenetrable physical, hand-held shield). Darting from cover to cover, Shepard flanks him until he's in sight of the enemy's exposed side and opens fire to take him down. Stealth also makes it much easier to successfully pull off melee attacks, and so it makes sense that Shep is now equipped with an omniblade that he can use for brutal up-close kills.
RPG elements make a comeback in ME3 too, with a totally reworked weapon customization system, and even more options for leveling up Shepard and squadmates. Upgrading and customizing weapons is absolutely nothing like the tedious inventory system of the first Mass Effect, and the weapons menu looks absolutely clear and intuitive. To upgrade a weapon, you can bring up a menu that displays the weapon clearly on the left, and you can select which parts you want to customize and upgrade and see the changes on the gun itself. Character growth looks much more malleable too, and instead of just maxing everything out as your crew levels up, you'll have to make some tough decisions about how you want each person to develop.
The dialogue in this mission also reveals some juicy story tidbits – first, Wrex is back! Shepard checks in with him briefly via radio and it sounds like he has rejoined the team. We've heard in previous coverage that Shepard will be tasked with visiting each alien species' homeworld to recruit each race in the fight against the reapers, so it makes sense that Wrex, as a leader among krogans on Tuchanka, would have answered his call heartily.
Whilst chatting with the veiled female krogan we also picked up a detail that explains why Cerberus has become the enemy – they've been indoctrinated by the reapers. It seems like a simple explanation on the surface, but it's likely that the situation is more complicated than it appears and we're eager to find out more about how it came to pass that Cerberus succumbed to the old machines.