A funny thing happened when I sat down to test out Mass Effect 3's ability to shout out orders to my virtual squad mates: I resisted. Big time.
As a longtime Mass Effect fan (I'm almost embarrassed to admit I've played the previous two games enough times to see virtually all of the different endings), it was difficult not to fall back on to old habits. Despite some tweaks and additions to the game, Mass Effect 3 played similarly to its two predecessors, so the temptation was there.
But I persevered and actively avoided using buttons and pausing the game, instead barking my orders via the Xbox's Kinect peripheral, which powers the feature. After the initial awkward few minutes in which I learned the different commands on the fly, I was routinely telling my squadmates to fire singularity warp fields and throw grenades just as naturally as if I asked my co-worker to hand me an extra notepad. The result was a more satisfying experience and a stronger personal connection to the virtual characters flanking me in combat.
Gamers will get their own chance to try out the game on February 14, when EA and Bioware will release a free demo online to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles, as well as the PC. The game hits stores on March 6.
Mass Effect has been a monster franchise. Having been delayed a few times, fans have been eagerly anticipating Commander Shephard's final mission for a while. More importantly for Microsoft, Mass Effect 3 gives the Kinect a marquee title, something it has largely lacked. Sure, there are a plethora of dance and sports games, but there hasn't been much reason for the hardcore gamer to jump on he motion-sensor craze. The voice-control capabilities are exclusive to the Xbox 360 and the Kinect.
Aaron Flynn, general manager of Bioware, said Microsoft approached him and his team while they were developing Mass Effect 3 to see if the Kinect could somehow be used in the game. His team worked with the Kinect for a while before settling on the voice-recognition capability as something that can easily be added to the game.
"We didn't want people to feel that it's a cheap tacked on thing," Flynn told CNET in an interview.
The system understands English (as well as British and Australian accents), French, Italian, and German.
From my all-too-brief run-through of the game, the voice recognition does indeed fit well with the game.
The level I played, which EA representatives told me was about a third of the way through Mass Effect 3, had me busting through a lab with Liara T'Soni, gave me a love interest in the first game who returned for a cameo in the second (only to become playable through an add-on downloadable level), and let me visit with a new character, James Vega, who is meant to introduce new gamers to the Mass Effect universe. The aim was to save a female Krogan, a creature that people who have previously played the game would know provides a potential answer to the race's inability to reproduce.
Once I figured out their key abilities and how to shout out the orders, I was on it. I found myself yelling, "James, carnage!" and getting a nice, satisfying explosion for my effort. Rather than push buttons, I could tell Shepard to open doors or pick up a gun. It's probably better to save my twitchy fingers for the gunfights anyway.
Still, it was an awkward few minutes as I attempted to learn through the frenzy of a firefight. A Microsoft representative said the early part of the game would provide an easier transition for players, allowing them to gradually start to shout commands in a friendlier setting.
An EA representative noted that a second person could conceivably ride shotgun on your couch and shout out commands for your teammates while you focused on Shephard. While it's something you can do, I doubt it'll be something anyone will want to do. How many buddies are willing to sit next to you for hours on end shouting commands for a game they're not really playing? Oh, and forget about holding a conversation with your friend; any talking between the two of you nullifies the Kinect's ability to hear your commands.
Mass Effect 3 will have a multiplayer component to the game, although that part wasn't available in the demo. The Kinect feature won't work on the multiplayer part of the game though.
The game, for the most part, plays nearly identical to the previous two iterations. New additions include the ability to take cover and then roll forward to the next bit of cover, similar to the Gears of War series. You can interact with more things, such as climbing ladders and jumping over objects. There's also a more powerful one-hit kill melee move that is viscerally satisfying. I found myself running up to enemies just for the chance to stab them.
Mass Effect 3 delves back to its role-playing game roots and offers the option for more customization in its weapons, armor, and other items, something that was stripped away from the second game. Likewise, the levels aren't as linear as before, allowing for Shepard to approach each area in multiple ways. There's also a greater diversity of enemies to fight, so you aren't bored with the same old Geth or Asari assassins.
The developers were mum on the storyline, only saying it would tie up all of the loose threads of the previous two games. But Bioware is bringing back all of the characters from the previous game--assuming they survived in your play-through. The Salarian scientist Mordin Solus was a non-playable character that showed up during the demo level. Had he not survived in the previous game, another character with different a different personality and motives would replace him.
One of the most innovative hooks for the Mass Effect series has been the notion that actions taken in the past have consequences that affect this upcoming game. With so many different variables out there, it'll be interesting to see whether Bioware can conclude the trilogy in a satisfying manner.
I, for one, can't wait to see them try.