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EA shares details of a combat-heavy Mass Effect 3

Electronic ArtsBioWare division has had a great run with the Mass Effect series. Today the company is releasing details about the latest game, Mass Effect 3. So far, it isn’t a disappointment.

EA just disclosed the latest details at at its E3 press conference in the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. We got a first look at the game play and are looking forward to seeing more. This game could be that rare title that builds its fan base, stretches dramatic arc, and refines its game play so much that the third game could be a far better experience than the first game. It’s an important title for EA as it continues its bid to return to the top position in the video game industry in competition with rivals such as Activision Blizzard.

EA chief executive John Riccitiello has said the company is working to get this game right, which is one reason it delayed the title until 2012. The sneak peek we got in advance of E3 is the first indication of whether the games is on track. While I’m not so sure that EA’s Star Wars the Old Republic will be a hit, I’m convinced Mass Effect 3 will be. The game debuts March 6, 2012.

The first Mass Effect game established the franchise and introduced a great new story and universe to gamers on the Xbox 360 in 2007. The game presented you with interesting moral choices, like whether to save or shoot one of your friends who has learned a secret that could jeopardize a larger mission.

In Mass Effect 2, you could import your game data from the first title, so that choices you made had consequences for how the game proceeded. If you killed your friend, then that friend’s alien race would be really frosty at a time when you need help from them. Mass Effect 3 producer Casey Hudson, pictured above, says that the choices you made in the second game will also affect what happens in the third game. That’s a pretty cool hallmark in customizing a game to the player’s own experience of a game so that it becomes a unique storyline.

In Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, you can play the game as Commander Shepard, a human who has to enlist the help of various aliens to build a team that can survive some serious suicide missions that have to succeed in order to save the galaxy from some overzealous Reapers, a race of sentient machines that cleanse all life from the galaxy so that it can start anew. In Mass Effect 2, you collected as many as 10 comrades (I called them the 11 Samurai) to take into the final mission. If you lost some of them, they won’t come back in Mass Effect 3. But for the most part, you should see familiar faces from the friends of Mass Effect 2.

The story starts a few months after the end of Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect 3 opens with Commander Shepard on trial on Earth. Then the Earth is attacked by the Reapers and Shepard has to flee. He has to take off in the Normandy ship, gather support, and mount a counterattack. Shepard has to court entire civilizations like the Salarians, the Turians and Quarians to rid the galaxy of the Reapers. As with the first game, you collect intelligence along the way that changes your mission.

Hudson showed a level on the Salarian homeworld where the third-person combat was more refined than in the past games. You have to rescue a Krogan princess. The princess is key to reuniting a divided homeworld of the Krogan species. Of course, this rescue mission and the make-up of your team depend on what you decided to do with the Krogan character in Mass Effect and whether your full team survived Mass Effect 2.

In that battle, forces of Cerberus — a darker mercenary faction working for the Illusive Man — show up and fight against Shepard for some reason, and Shepard says, “every war has its traitors.” During the fight, you come across a vehicle called an “Atlas” that you can drive in the game.

Players no longer have to slide into cover and then hop over barriers. You can sprint, roll, and climb ladders. You can fire your weapons blindly around a corner and maneuver your allies to outflank enemies. Shepard can use a tech blade (the Omni Blade) around his wrist to kill enemies with a single blow. The artificial intelligence will be better and more enemies will attack at once. They will be tougher, more aggressive, and come in via rocket boosts. They can use shields, but you can rip those shields away with biotic (psycho-kinetic) powers.

“We are focused on improving the moment to moment game play, driving toward intense action,”  Hudson said. “We get a better feel for the weapon, new aiming and new weapons like hand grenades. You can fall, climb over ladders, and take advantage of vertical positions. Shepard can climb over cover while on the run.”

Shepard is a lot more agile and can fight in a more brutal fashion. The story will round out with an “epic conclusion,” Hudson said.

“Mass Effect 3 is about the galactic war,” he said. “You need to unify the forces of the galaxy as much as you can and take that fight back to the Reapers on Earth. You can build up your war assets. The more you build, the more success you can have in the final battle with the Reapers.”

You’ll be able to modify your weapons. You will also have to determine the sacrifices to be made in order to fight the Reapers. That means you may have to make moral choices about your friends again. If you fail, the whole galaxy dies. You have to figure out how to beat the Reapers. You can explore the galaxy while you’re at it, but you won’t have to stop and mine planets to get resources.

Hudson said the structure of this game isn’t like Mass Effect 2, which was like the Dirty Dozen. You knew what you had to do in that game and you had to collect what you needed for it. Here, the story unfolds over time, moving from Earth to the larger story about how you can unite the alien races. You have twists and turns in that story as you try to make progress.You deal with a smaller number of characters and have deeper relationships with them.

Hudson said that the developers liked the balance of story and game play in Mass Effect 2 and they did not consider moving to a first-person combat game. They knew people wanted a deeper role-playing game system and better fluidity in action. They built those changes into a new storyline that will wrap up the series.

The game arrives March 6, 2012, on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and the PC.

On stage at the E3 event, Hudson showed a scene where Shepard has to take on a Reaper — a giant mechanical creature — all by himself, using support from his friends at a distance.

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