Mass Effect 3: behind the scenes. “This is your personal war”

Mass Effect 3 demo PS3

There’s a familiar, determined look in Commander Shepard’s eye. He knows. That in about ten seconds, the Reapers will land and tear the Alliance HQ apart, along with the rest of Earth. That the fate of the planet, even the galaxy, hangs in the balance. That this is the battle he’s been waiting for since the Mass Effect trilogy began. And while generals and bureaucrats wring their hands with indecision, Shepard’s calm and ready.

ME3’s opening cinematic neatly sums up what the series has always been about: close personal relationships against a backdrop of intergalactic conflict. As Shepard marches the Alliance HQ corridors with either space fratboy Kaidan Alenko or stratospherically annoying Ashley Williams from the first game’s crew, the history is deep, the atmosphere is thick and the impending doom matters because you’re facing it
with characters you care about.

Over the years there have been seven Star Trek and 24 Star Wars games on PlayStation, but just two instalments down – one if you consider that the original wasn’t released on PS3 – Mass Effect has overshadowed the lot and blasted its way into the sci-fi hall of fame.

How? By consistently serving up XXL portions of deep, character-driven RPG action set in troubled space. The Mass Effect universe is about exploration, adversity and an immersive level of detail – present in just about every space curio you bump into, from hyperactive flat-faced Salarians to Mass Relay devices more befuddling than an astrophysics degree.

But even more prominently, there’s a key theme running through the series that’s amped up to extreme levels in the third game: victory through sacrifice. From the opening scene, the Reapers are already on Earth and the entire flippin’ galaxy’s at war. The calls Shepard made in the previous games affected individuals, and this time those calls are tougher than ever – because whole civilisations are at risk.

Hundreds of gameplay hours have been leading up to this moment, and the stakes are higher than ever. As lead cinematic animator Parrish Ley puts it: “When it came to Mass Effect 3, we made this big promise and we really need to deliver. We wanted to make sure that the scale was right, that it was as big as our imaginations knew it could be. We knew it was a lot of work, but we dug in and got some really exciting stuff.”

All of this large-scale conflict is meaningless if the ground-level action tastes a bit off, and while combat has never been a highlight of the series, it hasn’t been the focal point either – until now. It’s an area Bioware needed to shake up, and during my hands-on time at the studio’s Edmonton HQ the changes become immediately apparent.

Shepard is infinitely more agile – you can now leap and dive around in a manner that’s previously been conspicuously absent. With Cerberus-brand bullets whizzing overhead, you can dive-bomb to the nearest cover and make quick runs to the next safe place to avoid getting flanked or flushed out by Cerberus-brand grenades. Cerberus are pretty mad at you, by the way. Aiming and shooting are far more fluid now, and in a concession to Call Of Duty and Battlefield 3 the satisfying white crosshair appears when you’re zeroed in on a trooper and ready to put his head into orbit.

The wet-flannel melee attacks of ME2 are gone, replaced by a much more convincing attack repertoire. Commander Shepard’s holding up one end of the bargain, but the AI needs to be sharp, too, to make a triple-A combat experience. It’s a quandary not just for the design team, but for the artists as well. “We [thought], ‘What’s gonna make this guy interesting to shoot?’ We figured out his AI, how designers will know how to build the levels,” explains art director Derek Watts.

“We built the block models so we could see how they’d react to some of the powers – you’ll see some of them do the roll – how they’d evade some of the shots. This is important for us, because now we know how they react in certain levels – what kind of cover they need and how far apart it should be, how high cover needs to be.