Mass Effect 3 Preview: The Good Shepard?

BioWare sets the galaxy on fire.

The townsfolk have been listening to Shepard pulling the old "Commander who shouted 'Reaper!'" ruse for some time now. First she (he, if you're feeling obtuse) shouted 'Reaper!' when she discovered that the caretakers of the Galaxy were about to sweep up all known galactic civilizations. Then, in Mass Effect 2, she shouted 'Reaper!' after she'd fought against a big icky monster that had been made from human body parts, and had all/most/some of her underlings killed in the process.

Did the intergalactic townspeople listen though? Did they pay attention to this particular Shepard, and her sad tale of a sexy secretary being mulched and, as a consequence, all her fish dying? Of course they didn't. The Earth people were too busy worrying about what their Cerberus faction were up to, the Krogans were whinging about the Genophage putting the kibosh on procreation and the Quarians were preoccupied by wondering what their own faces looked like. Typical. The cretins even stripped her of her rank for something she did in the DLC. Tch.

So now the Reapers have finally showed up, guess who has to clean up all this mess? That's right: muggins here. Good old reliable Commander Shepard - back to save the day with a brand new sexy space adventure.

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Shepard and chums can now damage individual body parts, and knock limbs from the opposition. Or, you know, just spray some pain around.

The backdrop of Mass Effect 3 is that of a galaxy on fire - and Shepard's quest is to unite disparate alien races against their common foe. In the first game the lives of your nearest and dearest were put on the line, in the second your whole crew was under threat - now we're onto ME3 you're dealing with the fate of entire alien civilizations. Decisions made in past games (on Wrex, the Council, the Collector's Base, the Rachni Queen et al) will finally come to fruition as you stockpile alliances for the final showdown with the Reapers. The Geth might have some redeeming qualities, for example, but undiplomatically kicking them off the face of the Quarian homeworld could well reward you with access to the biggest fleet of ships in the Galaxy. In times of war tough decisions will need to be made...

It all starts however, as your correspondent recently discovered during a play through the game's opening hours, on terra firma. The setting is futuro-Vancouver, and it's the day that the Reapers make their dramatic return. Shepard and Anderson have been called to an emergency meeting of Earth's leaders, during which contact with other cities and colonies is gradually cut off. Suddenly the outside world erupts in white light, the room is filled with glass and blood and vast Reapers can be seen piercing the clouds. They soon stalk between the skyscrapers destroying all in their path - each one of them a strange mixture of laser-toting giant squid and upright vacuum cleaner. There's a palpable feeling of War of the Worlds throughout, aided and abetted by the unearthly 'ftang' noise the Reapers make just before they ignite their prey.

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Liara returns - fresh from becoming ever more of a badass in the Shadow Broker DLC.

It's at this point that you gain control of Shepard - capering down the side of a skyscraper with Anderson and getting reacquainted with your pistol as you take down Husks and Cannibals. Shep's more nimble move-set is clear from the off, with even simple stuff like the ability to make running jumps over gaps in the scenery, combat rolls and the ability to climb ladders (ladders!) adding far more fluidity to proceedings than before. As the game continues it takes you to the Prothean Archives on Mars and here too you're instantly impressed by your heavy melee attack, the ability to stealth kill from behind cover and the improved way Shepard snaps herself (or himself, if you're still playing it wrong) to and from cover.

You're sent to Mars as a stop-off before you act as a bloody-nosed Earth representative over on the Citadel, your visit prompted by the discovery of a Prothean artifact that may well help the war effort. Accompanying you, meanwhile, are new boy James Vega (a gruff tattooed military type, whose bravado may well cover up something of a soft centre) and the surviving party from ME1's Ashley/Kaidan dilemma (neither of whom will entirely trust Shepard after her recent dealings with the Illusive Man). Unfortunately, however, Cerberus are also chasing after the Prothean antique - their inhuman tactics of murdering the base's employees with space bullets to the head and busting open airlocks perhaps hinting at the grim future their starry-eyed leader has in store.

Here, again, improvements in combat become obvious - especially in terms of the way Cerberus troops react to you, and the slightly more imaginative battlegrounds where you exchange laser-fire. One instance sees you pushing forward through a lengthy corridor, and as your foes retreat and regroup along it you genuinely feel like you're gradually pushing them back.

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Enemies with massive shields: soon to become a shooter trope as strong as enemies with massive guns.

Elsewhere there are surprise assaults through smashable windows, ambushes to set up on approaching troops and exchanged fire between monorail carriages - all underlining Mass Effect's game by game transition to becoming an ever more fully functional third person shooter. There's far more ebb and flow to battle, conjured up by decent AI that'll flush flanking enemies down pathways adjacent to yours - and who can cause a few issues if they're the variety of soldier that carries a shield the size of a door. (Although by this point Liara has joined proceedings, so a quick dose of her Singularity biotic does wonders...)

You can expect a linear path as Mass Effect 3 opens, but while the wide wonders of space are shut off for two hours at least there's a suitably epic feel to proceedings. Your favourite characters are coyly drip-fed into the story giving you repeated bursts of anticipation for what comes next, and it's all topped off by the reintroduction of Martin Sheen's Illusive Man. The settings meanwhile - both the vista of destruction on Earth and the desolate Mars base in the shadow of a gigantic brooding dust storm - really must be read as a statement of intent on the part of Bioware.

It really does feel like the beginning of a well-crafted reward for anyone who's diligently trekked through the first two games - the closest that video-games have come to a story-closing 'final season' of the ilk of Lost or Battlestar Galactica. Unlike those offerings, however, the pay-off of discovering just who survives this final act is pretty much down to you...

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