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Mass Effect 3 preview: Bringing us back down to earth

After leaving the Mass Effect 3 demo booth at Gamescom feeling slightly underwhelmed, we were pretty certain that the end of the trilogy will offer pretty much the same type of experience as Mass Effect 2. The stop-start method of combat, as you move Commander Shepard from cover to cover pummelling a variety of freaks and over-powered goons, is still a core part of the game – as is using the radial dial to choose your team-mates weapon of choice and send them running to strategic cover spots. It’s all quite predictable.

Nonetheless, the revised combat system in Mass Effect 2 was one of the highlights of the sci-fi RPG and, despite a few tweaks in Mass Effect 3, you still gain exactly the same feeling of satisfaction from working out strategies to move up the battlefield, while flicking between your great arsenal of intergalactic weapons and causing all manner of visually impressive offensive moves. After further thought, we don’t really know what we were expecting, because Mass Effect 3 was really just how we imagined it — certainly not a disappointment, but maybe an indication that its appeal in this particular form may be diminishing somewhat.

The addition of weapon customisation, jet-packs and combat rolls, as well as a satisfyingly meaty melee system, opens up the Mass Effect universe to those who don’t want to be so regimental in combat. However, visually and mechanically it still feels very much like Mass Effect 2, with an empowering combat scheme that makes you feel totally in control of your destiny. The major change in Mass Effect 3 is the fact that the battle heads down to Earth for the first time, which is sure to throw up some great-looking environments. Furthermore, BioWare has signalled its intentions to make the storyline an emotional one, where consequences really do have a bearing.

The developer plans to literally bring us right back down to Earth by creating a storyline that has a number of layers to it and will engage us more emotionally than previous games. The E3 demo was disappointingly shown again at Gamescom, but this was the first time we’d seen it in the flesh and it does demonstrate BioWare’s desire to get players emotionally evolved. In this section of gameplay, Shepard discovers a young boy trapped in an air vent begging for his help. It’s a real dilemma because bringing this boy back to your ship could impede your fight against the reapers and possibly get you killed. We saw here the consequences of leaving the boy behind as Shepard makes the decision to get himself back to the Normandy without hindrance.

As you leave the boy on Earth and escape onto the Normandy, you witness him jump safely onto another evacuation craft. Just as you breathe a huge sigh of relief, the reapers blow the craft to pieces. It’s a clever piece of drama which tugs at your heart strings, and that feeling of elevation you gain as he gets on the ship turns into devastation as he’s blown to pieces. “In every decision you make, there’s a consequence,” explains BioWare’s community manager, Mike Gamble. And this is just one of the many morale-based choices that we’ll have to make in Mass Effect 3.

BioWare’s desire to play more forcefully with our emotions could also take a dramatic twist. What if the reapers were to win the battle at the end? As BioWare’s design team shrugged that was really what journalists were talking about as the session ended. Indeed, Mass Effect 3 could well signal the end of Earth and Commander Shepard. Interestingly, though BioWare certainly hasn’t confirmed this will happen, it has said it’s a possibility.

Bungie ended the Halo trilogy in much the same way, and created one hell of an impact in doing so, so what better way could there be to end the Mass Effect trilogy with us losing the battle? If that does happen then we don’t have to worry about it being the end of the Mass Effect franchise though. In a recent interview with Inside Xbox video, BioWare CEO Dr. Ray Muzyka commented, "It’s the end to an Epic Trilogy, the beginning of a new galactic adventure." Ahead of the launch of Mass Effect 3 in March 2012, there’s bound to be plenty of speculation, but all we know for sure is one thing: it’s going to be an emotional ride.