E3 2011: Mass Effect 3 hands-on

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If you listened to yesterday's E3 podcast , you already know what made my day: getting to play through the Mass Effect 3 demo behind closed doors (something I routinely taunted my fellow editors with until they stopped talking with me). The first thing that struck me is that ME3 is gritty. I'm playing on the Salarian homeworld, and it's obvious it's seen better days - everywhere you look there's debris, burning rubble, and scarred buildings, all swarming with Reaper monstrosities and Cerberus soldiers. It reminded me of that first scorched-earth moment when you step onto the ambushed Citadel in the original Mass Effect.

But one of the Salarians' science facility houses a fertile female Krogan who could be key to earning the Krogan's support in the war - so I'm not giving up this planet without a fight. Oh, and how sweet, sweet that fight is. ME3's Shepard is eager to play dirty in this final chapter of his trilogy. I was playing as a straightforward soldier Shepard - no fancy pseduo magic here. As I rounded a corner and encountered my first batch of Cerberus troops, I relied on my go-to strategy (assault rifle shots to the enemy's chest region) to see me through. But it's different than the earlier games: ME3's guns feel more weighty - the kickback's been upped and the audio effects sound less clean-sci-fi, and have a stronger hint of modern military rifles that have mechanical parts. I dispatch the first batch of grunts easily, and move along the bombed out facility, admiring the wrecked cityscapes in the open distance all around me.

I've always been more of a melee man, so I decide to get up close and personal with the next batch of troops. I use the improved cover movement system to dodge between debris and short walls effortlessly, working my way towards my soon-to-be victims without their notice (thanks to the non-obtrusive blue arrows that indicated where Shepard would/should head if he left his current cover position). Whoops. I hit the wrong button and suddenly find myself standing alone just a few feet away from my 3 enemies, with no cover between us.

I attempt to salvage my botched sneak attack by sprinting at the nearest soldier and holding my melee attack button. The camera zooms into the enemy's chest and torso area, and I watch as Shepard pulls him in close and jabs his Omni tool-activated energy blade into his sternum, before tearing it back out and tossing the soldier back. The camera falls back to its regular position - the entire sequence didn't take more than a second, but it's a strong reward for getting within melee range. But melee attacks aren't guaranteed kills, so my victim's staggering back with a bit of life left, and his buddies are pissed.

Luckily, my buddies are pissed too. Garrus and Liara swoop in behind me, their rifles unleashing all sorts of pain on both sides of me (I use the familiar squad command system to make sure they're moving where I want them to). I finish off my melee victim with a couple pistol shots to the chest, and as he goes flopping backwards into the planter, I toss a grenade at the other two. The quick, contained explosions sends the troops ragdolling into the nearby planters. First area secured.

I see my objective up ahead and rush towards it without any more hassle. Mordin, the Salarian scientist and singer companion from Mass Effect 2, is inside the lab working (if he didn't die in your playthrough of ME2). I'm supposed to buy him time to help protect and move the female Krogan, who's dressed in a sort of gypsy outfit, and who makes a joke about Wrex definitely showing up if there's a female there to mate with. I may never be able to completely erase the mental image of Krogan mating rituals from my mind, but when it comes to game demos, sometimes you have to take the bad with the good.

The good is definitely interacting with your *other* companion characters (you know the ones you always leave behind on the ship) while out on a mission, even though you haven't selected them to join my squad. Based on the videos and demos I saw at E3 this year, it seems likely that this could be a regular occurrence in ME3. At different points, I saw Legion driving a massive tank through a wall across a chasm from Shepard (later, Shepard jumped on top of the tank and used its turret to paint a massive Reaper with fiery lead), Mordin interacting with different scientific consoles inside locked areas, and Ashely and Joker swooping in on the Normandy to give you some much-needed air support. It's a terrific way to remind you that you're part of a big crew, working together - not just a pack of three characters conquering the galaxy while their entourage sits on their butts waiting back on the Normandy.

I helped Mordin with his science mumbo jumbo by interacting with a nearby computer console, and then got back to the refreshing fun of taking down traitorous Cerberus soldiers. This time it wasn't so easy, though: a hulking soldier with a massive shield led the enemy squad, and his armored shield can take a beating. I activate my Concussive Shot ability to super-charge my next shots, dealing some serious damage (special abilities and weapon skills are upgraded via a familiar insert-points-to-gain-passive-bonus-to-that-ability/weapon system that is very similar to the previous two games), but it isn't enough--the walking tank maintains his steady march towards us.

Liara threw out the helpful suggestion that I should try flanking him, so I action-roll to my right, and find a small hallway running parallel to the one the enemies are marching down, with a short wall between them. I order my squadmates to charge the enemy position, and while they enemies are distracted, I pop up and shred them from my flanking position. It's a fun tactic that the developers obviously intended to be a prime option, and that hospitable architecture design (two parallel hallways with line of sight between them) was repeated several times in my playthrough.

The next encounter offered the perfect opportunity for me to re-attempt my stealthy kill approach: one lone soldier stands idle facing to my left, with his back to a tall planter. I channel my inner ninja to sneak my way along short walls to the planter behind him, and move in for the melee kill. When I hold down the melee attack button, the camera once again zooms in for the big energy blade strike. But this time, instead of jabbing it into his gut while he's standing, Shepard stands up from behind the planter, grabs the unsuspecting guard by his collar and pulls him over to his side of the divider, throwing him on the ground and burying his energy blade into his chest before the poor sap even knew what was happening. It might've been faster to run in guns blazing, but my time spent sneaking and plotting paid off with a super-short semi-cinematic that felt incredibly visceral and satisfying.

We're not talking about having a Deus Ex-level of options for choosing how to kill your enemies, but the map design did a great job of supporting all of the classes, especially the new Infiltrator, which sports stealth mechanics and boosted melee attacks in addition to its Sniper Rifle focus.

As I continued down that path, dispatching packs of soldiers as I went, I found a work bench nearby where I could swap out parts on my rifle to gain different benefits. But the work bench interface is much more fun to play with than ME1's nightmare interface. In it, your weapon lies in the middle of the screen and each part - sights, damage and range modifiers, etc. - you swap in or out visually alters it on the fly, letting you preview what the weapon will look like with each prospective kit you're contemplating.

But you, my fellow Shepherds, can keep your high-tech guns and their fancy appearance-changing mods. Just give me that sexy energy blade, a dark hallway with an inconspicuous planter to hide behind, and an endless stream of enemies to stab, and I will truly be happy.

That's where my hands-on demo ended, although I was able to watch the more gameplay in a hands-off walkthrough of an early segment of the game on an invaded Earth, where Captain Anderson makes a return and you're emotionally manipulated into feeling sympathy for a small child before his shuttle gets blown to bits by the Reaper bastards. Curse you, BioWare, for making my feel the full breadth of my emotional capabilities!