Mass Effect 3 first hands-on preview

We get a deeper sense of the new cover system, skill trees and the return of weapon customization

As wowed as we were by theMass Effect 3 demoat E3 last month, no hands-off demonstration can substitute for actual hands-on time with the game. That's why we were excited to hear that BioWare and EA decided to give Comic-Con attendees the very first hands-on time with Mass Effect 3. The demo was brief, but gave us a good feel for some of the major changes to the final installment in the series.

Our play session began with choosing Shepard's class (soldier, adept and sentinel were the three options available) and distributing skill points to our squad. At first glance the level-up system looks the same as Mass Effect 2's system, but we soon saw that it's much deeper than before, with branching skill trees within each stat.

When you add a point to a particular stat, a sub-menu pops up where you can further choose what direction you want that stat to take, starting at the fourth level of each stat. For example, adding a point to combat mastery might let you choose between an offensive or defensive boost on one level, and on the next level you might choose between a boost to special ammo damage or weapon power damage. And for biotic powers, would you rather have increased damage or quicker recharge times? Because each new level is an either/or choice, you can't just max everything out %26ndash; you must decide how each character will take shape and what his or her specialties will be.

With class and stats out of the way, we began the mission in earnest, which was the same mission we saw in the E3 demo where Shepard must protect a female krogan that Mordin is escorting in some kind of medical pod. Liara and Garrus joined Shepard as squadmates, but disappointingly, Liara only had a little flavor dialogue during the mission, and Garrus had none at all. I asked about Garrus after the demo and I was assured that he would have plenty to say later, so not to worry %26ndash; but it was still a letdown not to hear him say anything.

As waves of Cerberus agents attacked, the most obvious difference in the combat is the new cover system, which was difficult to get used to because we're so familiar with the old controls. In short, it feels very Gears of War. Hitting the A button near cover makes you take cover as usual, but when you're away from cover pressing A makes Shepard do a dodge roll in the direction you point the analog stick. The rolling animation looks bizarre at first, because we've never seen Shepard move like that before, and it looks especially weird when you roll him toward the camera to dodge backwards. It doesn't look bad, just really different compared to how Shepard moves in the previous two games.

Also like Gears, when you're behind cover, you can use the analog stick to bring up arrows on screen that allow you to jump from cover to cover by hitting A. This proved particularly useful when we had to quickly flank a couple of Cerberus agents with riot shields so we could attack them from their vulnerable sides. By the end of the demo we were still adapting to the differences in the cover system, so it's still hard to say whether the Gears-style will be an upgrade or a downgrade overall, but so far it seems to work well for navigating combat zones quickly and stealthily.

Speaking of gunplay, we also got a good look at the improved return of weapons customization. Instead of accessing weapon upgrades through Shepard's inventory, you can select up to two add-ons to any weapon at the weapons load-out locker, which was located within the level during the demo, but we assume there will also be a weapons locker on the Normandy too. Upgrades seem to work like they did in the first Mass Effect, but the interface for choosing upgrades is much easier to use. The menu here gives you a remarkably physical sense of the gun itself, as if you were really looking at a gun on a table with the upgrades laid out before you. You can see what each upgrade actually looks like on the gun and see how it affects the stats of the gun all on the same screen.

Other than the changes to the cover system and the addition of the omniblade melee weapon (which honestly, we didn't get a chance to use much here), the rest of the mission played out like a typical mission from Mass Effect 1 or 2, where we progressed through the base to find Mordin. It almost felt a little like the Archangel mission from ME2, because the hull integrity of the krogan's medical pod decreased over time, shown by a health bar at the bottom of the screen, so we had to move quickly to reach it in time.

Right as we reached Mordin and the krogan, a giant Atlas walker mech appeared out of nowhere and the demo suddenly ended, much to our dismay. We can only assume that a boss battle with said humongous mech followed, but we'll have to wait until another time to find out. Like the E3 demo, our hands-on time at Comic-Con just left us wanting to see and play more, so we hope to have more opportunities to play Mass Effect 3 before it releases in March of next year. Expect more details as soon as we see more.

Jul 23, 2011


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