A BioWare Valentine: Mass Effect 3 Demo Begins 2/14

A column article by: Chris Hicks

 

I'm excited about the 14th. Not only do I have a dinner date with my lovely wife, but BioWare will be sending us a valentine in the form of the release of a demo for Mass Effect 3. I've already gotten my hands on the game via a demo at Comic-Con 2011, but that was a short, one-level demo. Nowhere near as awesome as what we will hopefully see Tuesday.

Not only did I get play the game at Comic-Con, I had the pleasure of talking about the upcoming game with ME3 Producer Jesse Houston. Based on what I saw in the demo and what I heard in the interview, not to mention all of the additional teasers that have been released in the meantime, I think that we are in for a treat with this demo and, of course, the game, when it comes out March 6th. And while I certainly don't need an excuse to play the demo, this two-part article gives me an excuse to really spend some time digging into this virtual valentine.  

Based on my discussion with Jesse, there are a few things I’m really looking forward to.

Maneuverability: Maneuverability has been a big issue for Mass Effect. I don't just mean in terms of how the character reacts in response to a controller command -- though that is always important -- but how easy is it for the character to be moved around the environment. ME1 let us use obstacles for cover;  however, awkward placement, the inability to jump over said obstacles, and generally cluttered environments often led to frustrating moments of trying to rush an enemy only to find Shepard ducking behind a wall or some crates at the wrong moment. ME2, on the other hand, made significant improvements in many of its environments. Cover, perhaps the most used mechanic in the game, was integrated with the rest of the environment in a much more natural and, more importantly, easier-to-navigate way. Despite this improvement, there were still times I was left wondering why anyone would leave a stack of crates there, or why that passage made that odd turn. The environment and the mechanics seem at odds.

According to Jesse, this is kind of conflict is one that BioWare takes seriously. "Finding a balance between what is required for a mechanic and the story to work and what is believable and aesthetically pleasing is always tough." It's this struggle for balance that sometimes results in those puzzling moments mentioned above. To present a proper challenge, the enemy must be tough and the player should have to play smart, which, in a game like Mass Effect, means (among other things) using cover effectively. Providing adequate cover and absolute realism don't always go hand in hand, and at those times, realism gives way to practicality. The trick is making that sacrifice believable to the player. They were more successful in ME2. In playing the demo at Comic-Con, I bought into the building that was the setting—the oddly placed pile of crates were gone, and the space flowed better in terms of play and just environmental logic. I can't wait to see if the tomorrow’s sneak peek has more of the same.

Story: This demo is BioWare's best chance to get a major surge of press and interest shortly before the game’s launch. Even with the Mass Effect series' strong showing, the slow January for the game industry is probably foremost in their minds. They, of course, couldn't known the industry would drop 34% in sales in January when they announced the demo, but now they have to be hoping that the demo will be great enough to inspire players to spend their money in a time of austerity.

Thus, solid mechanics likely won’t be enough. The players have to feel motivated. For veterans of the series, there has been a long buildup. For someone new to the series, there has been a lot of hype. This demo has to deliver to both audiences and make them want to come back for the full game. Jesse, and BioWare as a whole, has made the claim that the game will cater to both crowds. Just as in ME2, if you start a new game in ME3 without any previous saves, certain choices will be automatically filled in. The history of everything Shepard has gone through will be revealed throughout the game, based on player or automatic choices,  and so the same mechanic can provide unique experiences, to some extent. I'm not sure how much of that sort of thing we can expect in the demo, but the compelling story underlying all that has to be there. A player’s first introduction to playing the game being experiencing the Reaper attack on Earth might just do the trick.

Multiplayer: Unfortunately, Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer functionality wasn't announced until recently, so I wasn’t able to question Jesse about it at Comic-Con. However, it is definitely one of the features I am most looking forward to exploring. Sure, you can play through the game and get a perfect ending completely solo, but you can also do it by fighting together with other players. I will probably play through the game on the hardest difficulty sans co-op just once, but the addition of cooperative multiplayer to an already fantastic series has the potential to impact the direction of the entire franchise. They don't plan on stopping with co-op just over consoles, but hinted at other avenues of participating as well. If it's a success, they have a lot more avenues to pursue when it comes to expanding the Mass Effect universe past the Shepard/Reaper saga, and that's something I (and other longtime fans) would love to see. When asked about expanding the universe beyond the trilogy, Jesse simply stated that they "felt that there are a lot of stories still to tell" in the Mass Effect universe, after being sure to point out that they still had, at that point, a long way to go for ME3 still.

We will only get to sample a small part of what they have in store for multiplayer, but I'm fine with that. In fact, having done game testing for a while, I'm glad they are doing this. This is an entirely new component, and they have to make sure it works. You can test all you want in a controlled setting, but nothing can completely prepare your code for the wild. No doubt they will be watching this closely and will be quick to prepare any optimizations that need to be released for the full game. In the end, it should be a win for everyone. Players get a taste of what is to come, and the developers get valuable information used to make the game better for the players when it releases. Ah, synergy.

Visuals: Let's face it. The Mass Effect games have always been gorgeous: not just in the raw power of the 3d engine driving the game, but in the visual styles of the characters, weapons, ships, and armor. Based on the demo back in July, ME3 is unlikely to disappoint. The details on the weapons and armor were fantastic, the environments were crisp, the effects were subtle where they needed to be, and best of all, gameplay was very smooth. It will be interesting to see how this holds up for multiplayer. It's not that I think it beyond the skills of the developers over at Bioware, but they have taken a franchise that was built on single player and added multiplayer and the internet into the equation at the same time. If there is too much of a performance hit to playing co-op, it won't matter how awesome of a concept it was. I look forward to finding out how it performs.

Skills: Before I weigh in on the skills, I will give full disclosure: I love RPGs. So when I got my hands on the new skill system for ME3 at Comic-Con, I was honestly ecstatic. ME1's skill system had far more choices than ME2, but was more tedious to deal with when trying to plan out a character. By simplifying the choices the player had to make, the process was streamlined and was a lot more of a pleasure to work with in ME2. What BioWare did is just move the bar back a little. Instead of just four levels to a skill and the player making a choice between two upgrade options at the fourth level, they added in a couple more levels and let the player make one of two choices for the last several. This should provide a lot more customization for characters and, combined with a more customizable arsenal, should facilitate a more diverse set of playstyles. I'm all for that.

These aren't the only things I'm excited to learn about, of course. I loved the weapons in ME2 and can't wait to see what is in store. I'll probably play every class in the demo, despite my heavy preference for the Infiltrator/Soldier classes, just to find out how many ways I can gleefully destroy the enemy. I'm looking forward to fighting a wider variety of troops than I've gotten to so far. Most of all, though, I'm eager to be swept away for a few hours at a time into a universe where the fate of galactic civilization rests in my hands. What more could a gamer (and a Leo) want?

But like many of us, I’ll have to wait til Wednesday to see, of course. After all, while BioWare might have graciously offered us this valentine in game form, I doubt the wife will let me duck out of dinner early to go play Mass Effect 3. On the other hand, she might be down for some multiplayer. Hmmm…

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