Mass Effect 3 hands-on

Any chapter in the Mass Effect story has a responsibility to shoulder. In a time when so many games are over in a 6-hour flash and rely heavily on multiplayer for any sort of longevity, Mass Effect 3 has to deliver the thick storytelling that practically all contemporary titles lack.

We played through the first 90-minutes odd of the game at a preview event to get a feel for what Mass Effect 3 is going to offer when the game launches in March. Talking to a spokesperson from BioWare, we got confirmation that this instalment will be similar in length to Mass Effect 2, so that's about 60 hours of gaming, with plenty of replay value based on how you approach the game.

You get to pick your game style at the outset. You can play it as an action game, with the dialogue section playing as cutscenes rather than user triggered section. Many, if not most, will elect for the traditional RPG approach, or you could play in story mode, which cuts down the difficulty of the combat. 

There is plenty of scene-setting as the game opens and some stunning graphics too. There will be some spoilers in what we cover here, but nothing that should ruin your game experience, given the length and variety it offers. If you've seen the trailers, you've been given a good taster on what is to come anyway.

Mass Effect 3 is similar in look and feel to Mass Effect 2, although there has been some obvious tweaking to character modelling in cutscenes. We thought things looked a little too shiny in ME3, but it was smooth and detailed, with masses of attention in faces that reflect tension and stress, which is important to building the central story.

Our man from BioWare told us that the preview portion we were playing was almost finished, so aside from the occasional pause in animation, there was very little to complain about. 

The opening is rather cinematic, and like Mass Effect 2, there is plenty of rich storytelling to get you going. Nothing happens without reason and there is context to everything. Starting out in Mass Effect 3, the context comes from the previous games. 

As such, if you're a newcomer to the game, some of those familiar faces, who nod in recognition or surprise, will be lost on you. But you're not left high and dry: there is enough here to set you off on the right path, and even if you're not totally conversant with Mass Effect lore, you get eased in gently enough. 

Returning as Commander Shepard, Mass Effect 3 sees you battling to save the Earth from the invasion of the Reapers. The action opens with the huge Reaper ships dropping from the sky to tear your world apart. This is where the first playable prologue section begins too, which will quickly outline the main controls as you fight your way to extraction on the Normandy.

With the Reapers ripping the place up, you take Shepard through the smashed city, up and down ladders, jumping gaps and vaulting walls, outlining the skills you'll need in the game to come. The controls are very much as they were previously, although the menus have been redesigned slightly to power-up various skills, but not drastically so.

If anything, you might find that there is a little too much dependency on the A button when it comes to control. It opens doors, it puts you in cover, vaults cover, it makes you sprint. That means you're juggling different actions through the same control based on the game situation. We were cut down several times trying to sprint to cover and duck, but instead vaulting over that cover, into the line of fire.

But this is partly due to the complexity that Mass Effect 3 brings with it. It's not just shooting from the hip, it's a whole range of other actions and skills too, all of which have to be mapped on to a console controller. At least it's easy enough to assign powers to buttons to get things running the way you want. 

You'll finally make your way on to the Normandy, but not before Mass Effect 3 throws down one of its emotional story hooks. A boy sheltering in air ducts (invoking memories of Newt from Aliens) that you tried to rescue, makes his way on to a transport ship, only to be annihilated by the Reapers. Mass Effect isn't scared to tell its story and it's delivered with more skill and maturity than the brutal shock value of something like Homefront.

Having made your escape from Earth, you're off to a colony on Mars on an information gathering mission, the first proper level of Mass Effect 3. The destination is the Prothean Archives, but this isn't simply the case of waltzing in. Almost as soon as you've set foot on the red dust of Mars' surface, you'll find things aren't going to be that simple. 

You'll get to put your gunplay to the test here as well as find, swap and upgrade weapons as you roam around. Now that you have the semblance of a team forming, you'll also be able to command your teammates and start to get to grips with the various powers you have at your disposal. In this section you'll be reunited with Liara and have to put her skills into play. Even in these early sections, it becomes apparent just how much you can come to depend on your allies.

Even playing in action mode, you can't just shoot your way through. You'll need to use everything at your disposal - there isn't enough ammunition for sustained gunfights, after all. And yes, we did find ourselves faced with an empty clip and multiple skirmishing enemies on several occasions. As you proceed through this level on Mars the plot thickens. As with the opening levels of Mass Effect 2, you're fed information in tiny amounts as the plot twists and squirms, throwing out surprises as it reveals itself.

We leave this intense, but satisfying, re-introduction to the world of Mass Effect with a thirst for more. To us Mass Effect 3 already feels like it will be an unmissable title for 2012 and as we've seen with Mass Effect 2, it's likely to deliver that deep satisfaction that many games currently lack.