Mass Effect 3 is the concluding entry in BioWare's acclaimed sci-fi role-playing series. It sees Commander Shepard - a character players have shaped and moulded over the course of two games - recruit other species in a fight against enemy forces the likes of which they've never seen before.
We go hands-on with the opening 90 minutes to uncover new and returning characters as well as changes to combat in our spoiler-light preview.
The opening moments of Mass Effect 3 are easily grand and epic enough for the game's finale. The Reapers, an absurdly powerful alien race that has been routinely wiping out civilization across the galaxy every 50,000 years, and a threat that has been teased since the first Mass Effect, has finally arrived. And as luck would have it, they make Earth the first stop of their intergalactic tour.
The fall of planet Earth
Commander Shepard is court marshalled on Earth for his prior actions. The dialog neatly sidesteps the events of the 'Arrival' DLC by making his transgressions more vague and applicable to anything he did in Mass Effect 2 - most likely his alliance with shadowy pro-human organization Cerberus. After meeting new character James Vega - a meat-head soldier who still respects Shepard - and Ashley, sporting a promotion and a new hairdo to boot (or Kaiden, depending on past choices), Shepard is promptly brought before the council.
They've lost contact with outer colonies and nearby moon defences, and after arguing with stubborn council members through dialog choices, Reaper ships pierce through the atmosphere and lay waste to the city outside. Making your way over rooftops and building wreckage with Anderson in tow, the scenes of the invasion are stunning - there's an eye-catching vista of mile-high Reaper ships towering over a city, firing lasers that cause sweeping explosions, and a sky overhead peppered with dog fights.
The tutorial-oriented section sees you help rescue a boy from a ventilation shaft and join soldiers in fighting zombie-like Husks, before the Normandy makes its entrance and whisks you to safety. It has its fair share of emotion-filled moments, from leaving Anderson behind to fight to witnessing citizen ships getting wiped out moments after take-off, powered by an emotional score. However, despite the city-wide destruction and tender scenes, there's little sense of the wider scale of the invasion going on at this point and the human cost, but perhaps that's something that'll be explored much later on.
Get your ass to Mars
Racing through the atmosphere amongst waves of burning debris, Shepard, Ashley and Vegas are told by Joker to ignore a Reaper invasion they're powerless to fight, and instead turn their attention to matters elsewhere. They head to Mars, a recent site of Prothean research into a powerful weapon that could turn the tide of the war, lead by Liara T'Soni. Problem is the site has gone quiet, so it's up to the team to touch down and investigate.
Up against more complicated enemies than mindless Husks and with team mates in tow, it's here that we flex our muscles and discover the changes in combat. Pleasingly, the fundamentals and general feel of combat is practically the same; the controls feel slightly sharper and weapons sound as if they pack a bigger punch, but the way you change weapons and command your squad and use abilities from a wheel that freezes combat all remains thankfully unchanged.
The most notable addition is a melee attack, an instant-kill move that takes a short amount of time to warm up. Since enemies can dodge out of the way, it's best for stealth, especially when an enemy is in reach from behind cover. Also new are proper grenades, which are thrown and behave how grenades should, instead of the original Mass Effect's bizarre frisbees. They are, though, still technically an ability that must be assigned to a button first, so role-playing elements still oversee their use.
Combat: Deeper, trickier and better explained
It also better tutorialises Mass Effect's combat strengths in this opening mission, something which the first two struggled to do well. At one point it forces the player to use Singularity at cover to lift hiding enemies into the air so they can be targeted, while another has you explicitly direct teammates either side of a doorway before enemies enter your location. A powerful auto turret section also forces you to learn the advantages of cover-to-cover movement, too.
It's actually a lesson well heeded since combat is a little trickier and varied. More enemies appear in a single location at once, making better use of cover while others slowly march their way to you behind the safely of a shield. Grenades that land beside you can also take significant chunks off your health. Don't mistake this for a pure shooter, though; abilities like Singularity and the slow-mo Adrenaline are still incredibly useful, as is ordering team mates to stay put or cover certain spots.
There are other few external changes to how combat works. Weapon boxes appear at regular intervals, allowing you to upgrade or change your load-outs depending on any blueprints you find. Meanwhile, experience points are now dished out on regular checkpointed intervals rather than the end of missions. Both these systems allow you to customise and upgrade mid-mission, instead of waiting until the end to make use of your well-earned riches.
Those worried about the seemingly dumbed down, action-filled gameplay teasers from early announcements can rest easy, too. The trip through the research base was standard Mass Effect fare, with regular chances to engage in dialog with your team and read research notes on what's been happening there. It also featured some puzzle elements, including a decontaminated room with sweeping lasers that had to be moved to just the right position in order to progress.
We won't give away exactly what happens in the Mars research base - who the army forces are and why they're there - but we will say that Liara T'Soni is safe and sound and joins your party once again to relive old times. The area concludes with the appearance of an old friend and a number of surprising twists and turns, even this early into the adventure. From there, it's assumed Shepard will travel to the Citadel on an inter-species recruit drive that will help stop the Reapers for good.
Mass Effect 3 is undoubtedly one of the year's most anticipated releases, and thankfully all signs suggest that it'll live up to the hype. The opening 90 minutes is a tense and action-filled start, kicking things into gear almost immediately. Concerns about dumbed down role-playing elements appear unfounded, but what changes there are to combat makes it feel sharper, and it does a far better job at explaining its intricacies to new players without lessening the pace. It's an impressive opening, and you can see how it all ends in little over a month's time...
> Read our hands-on preview with Mass Effect 3's multiplayer
Mass Effect 3 will be available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC from March 6 in North America and March 9 in Europe.