A BioWare Valentine (Part 2): Mass Effect 3 Demo Review

A column article by: Chris Hicks

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the upcoming Mass Effect 3 demo and the release of multiplayer for the game. After playing it, I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed.

TL;DR Version:

This is a game to look forward to, both in the singleplayer and multiplayer aspects. The same solid mechanics present in ME2 make a reappearance and are enhanced with the ability to run, dive, jump, and climb your way through the environment better than ever before. Characters are more customizable. Multiplayer is tons of fun (with a few minor caveats). The story, unfortunately, is one cliché after another.

Full Version:

Story:  And the clichés begin in the opening scenes of the demo (and, one assumes, the game).  As with all game franchises, the opening sequence of Mass Effect 3 seeks to both introduce those new to Mass Effect to its storyverse, while helping returning players to get their bearings with the ME world as they know it.

Unfortunately, for those of us who are veterans to the series, there is little in the opening sequence to serve as a bridge between the events of ME2 and ME3. There are a lot of unanswered questions, and a quick exchange between Shepard and Anderson simply doesn’t cut it – even as a bit of clumsy exposition. Yes, I understand that this is BioWare’s MO and that it will be explained later, but I just wish there had been a bit more meat to the intro.

However, the biggest problem with all of this is just how cliché the premise of the game, as presented in this conversation, is. Shepard is the misunderstood veteran who feels abandoned by the powers-that-be and who is called back into service at the greatest hour of need. But it’s not just a matter of the basic hook being hackneyed. The conversation itself simply doesn’t make a lot of sense.

We see this in some of Shepard’s responses to the other characters, which are overly hostile to the point of not making sense. For example, when asked by the Defense Council how to stop the Reaper invasion which is unfolding, Shepard angrily responds that it’s not about “strategy or tactics” but about “survival.” I get that Shepard is upset -- and perhaps rightfully so -- at the establishment that has not responded to the Reaper threat properly, but Shepard’s outburst is out-of-joint with what’s going on. The defense council has already implicitly acknowledged that survival is the goal and is now seeking the ways that they can combat the Reapers in order to help humanity to survive. So rather than helping in the few moments they have before the Reapers actually hit Earth, Shepard instead comes off as throwing a nonsensical tantrum. This is not the hero returning players know.

Another pain point was the focus on a young child that Shepard meets during the invasion. The kid is (in proper cliché form) hiding in a vent, and Shepard attempts to coax him out to safety. However, under a time constraint, Shepard is forced to leave the child behind. The hero goes outside, runs around the building, falls down what has to be 4-5 stories, and ends up another hundred yards further down the waterfront. After making it onto the Normandy, and while preparing to make an escape, Shepard sees the child enter a rescue vehicle at the same spot Shepard just left, and the player breathes a sigh of relief, only to watch a Reaper destroy the rescue vehicle shortly after.

Now, my problem with all of this isn't that a child, specifically, died in this conflict. There have been plagues, slavers, pirates, wars, and just all-around bad people in this universe that we can all assume have done some pretty horrible things. My issue, ignoring how exactly that kid got to the rescue location from where he had been previously (somehow pacing Shepard within a burning building), is that the attempt to demonstrate the horrors of war, and the brutality of this invasion specifically, just comes off as an over-the-top attempt to inspire unnecessary pathos.

Manouverability: Leaving behind this and other problems with the story and getting to actual gameplay, I'm loving the enhancements made to character movement and to the interaction with the environment. Shepard can slide around corners, dive into and out of cover, and actually turn while running, at least to an extent. Many of the enhancements are small (for example, the ability to jump gaps only comes into play when they deliberately put a gap for Shepard to jump over), so don't expect highly dynamic environments. It's a nice flavoring though. Ladders provide a bit more of an impact, adding a third dimension to some combat areas, where you can decide to take the enemy head-on or try to work around them while Shepard’s team holds the enemy back. Characters can now jump over cover without having to duck down behind it first. I've even made use of diving off of ledges to escape enemies in multiplayer.

One of my favorite changes was the removal of fatigue when running. No more stopping for breath 3/4 of the way to the target without any cover to dive behind. While there is nothing groundbreaking to see here, it is clear that BioWare took improving the gameplay experience very seriously. These solid improvements -- both incremental changes to existing mechanics and the introduction of entirely new ones -- to an already pretty good system just makes the experience far more enjoyable.

Visuals: The graphics are, of course, beautiful. I did expect a bit more polishing and a bit higher quality than what was in the demo, but since BioWare had to limit the size of the download to under 2GB, they had to make some sacrifices somewhere. I know I'm not the only one anticipating higher quality textures when the full game comes out. As far as multiplayer goes, I didn't notice any degradation of quality.

Skills: Getting a chance to play with the skill system in more depth was as exciting as I anticipated it would be. As I mentioned in the previous article, the number of tiers to any skill has been expanded to six. The last three tiers have two options to choose from. No choice made at any tier affects the possible choices in later tiers. Counting only skills, this means that there are 8 different combination sper skill to choose from. Extrapolate that to count the multiple skills per class, then add the fact that all characters have access to all weapons but will be limited (except for the soldier) in how many weapons they can carry, and the number of choices available to the player should satisfy just about any play style.

Multiplayer: This was one of the most fun parts of the demo for me, to be honest. The fact that we didn't get access to all of the features is, really, the source of most of the issues I had with the feature.

First, the technical issues: I have to preface this with the fact that, for most of the time I was playing the demo, my not-so-awesome DSL connection was freaking out. Most of the multiplayer was played over a wi-fi hotspot via my 4G phone, and I have no idea how much that would have affected my connection to the game servers. Given that, I don't feel confident enough to comment on the stability or quality of the servers or the connections.

As far as the experience itself though, there are several different aspects which I felt BioWare did well with. First of all, you aren't playing Shepard. You instead play what are, basically, troops being trained for the war. All classes are available, though with more limited training than Shepard. There are four different characters in each class, with most of them having different abilities from the others. The differences in powers between the characters, faster overall combat pace due to reduced cooldown, and weapon weight affecting power cooldown leads to a multiplayer experience that can vary a huge amount. For example, I've had a huge amount of fun using a Vanguard with only a pistol. The 200% bonus to power cooldown time means I end up charging across the battlefield every couple of seconds, recharging my barrier to full every time, and using the pistol to fire one or two shots into the now helpless enemy to finish them off. Nothing quite like charging into a huge mass of enemies and coming out completely unscathed while enemy bodies are littered all about.

Upgrades for weapons, consumable items, and character unlocks, are purchased with credits earned in multiplayer matches (to be fair, I have no idea if single player credits can carry over), with two different packs offering differing quality and quantity of random upgrades and items received. Now this is where one of the problems in the demo surfaces, and I do hope it exists only in the demo. When starting up multiplayer for the first time, only one of the four characters for each class is available for use. Additional characters are unlocked, randomly, by buying the packs.

The problem is that I've bought more than fifteen of the higher-end packs, and five of the lower-end packs, and not gotten a single new character unlocked. To understand just how much of an issue this is, you first have to understand that a veteran pack costs 20K credits (with the basic costing 5K). Successfully finishing a mission takes about twenty minutes and net about 15k credits. Of course if you don't finish the entire mission, the take is significantly less. Based these numbers, players could conceivably play seven hours or so of flawless missions without receiving a character unlock. Very frustrating, especially when considering that there are 18 unlockable characters. Oh, and did I mention, it was completely random? If you really want that Krogan, you might have to wait till the 8th character you manage to unlock.

There are a couple of ways they can mitigate this, and if you check in on the forums and see how frustrated a lot of people are, BioWare would be complete idiots to ignore this problem. They can put in extra packs which cost more but ensure that a character will be unlocked. They can allow for buying of specific characters, or -- and this is my favorite choice -- allow multiplayer characters to be unlocked through single player gameplay. If someone wants a Krogan, for example, they might choose to go to help the Krogans first, and so on. The producers could also scatter packs throughout the single-player game too, though I don't think that would be enough to solve the problem. I'll wait and see what the full game has in store before I get bent out of shape about it though, but they had damn well better fix it somehow.

Mass Effect 2

Conclusion: Despite my misgivings about the storyline and the character unlocks, I still have faith in BioWare. There are a lot of possible and unresolved stories in the ME universe that they can tap into with this installation, and historically BioWare has been pretty good at utilizing that. Hopefully, the rest of the storyline we haven't gotten a chance to see will reflect BioWare's usually strong storytelling. Assuming that is the case, and if they are't completely daft, and have made it easier to unlock multiplayer characters in the full version of the game then, I haven't seen much that would prevent this from being a very solid game and an amazing finale to the trilogy.

The game goes on sale on March 6.

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