My playtime with Mass Effect 3 was set on the Salarian homeworld of Sur'Kesh. Ostensibly, my job was to escort a Krogan princess offworld. But in practice, my main job was kicking Cerberus ass across a science station, and Shepard was more equipped than ever to get the job done.
A host of seemingly small additions have changed the way Mass Effect 3 plays. Basic character movement is more responsive for starters, more animated. Guiding Shepard around is less of a struggle than it's ever been. Aiming also felt snappier, and guns have the punch now that they've always lacked.
These changes alter the way you can move around combat zones in Mass Effect 3. Previously, firefights in Mass Effect were mostly static affairs. You'd find a good sized bit of cover and fire away, or throw abilities at your enemies hoping they'd never really get in close enough to make Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2's unwieldy combat controls a liability. If you were a Vanguard, you might risk your life to use your powerful charge move, but it was an awkward maneuver that missed as often as it hit. But Mass Effect 3's revised movement and aiming make Shepard viable at variable ranges in a way he never was before.
Moving and shooting, a previously suicidal maneuver that most players outgrew within a few hours of Mass Effect 2, isn't just an option now - it's a good choice. Cover is still important; it's also been revamped from the last game, easier now to traverse and use dynamically rather than finding a point to set up at and pray that enemies don't close the gap. But BioWare wants you to mix it up in close - something made obvious by the revised melee system.
Cerberus shock troops? Not a problem.
The awkward melee shoves and slaps of past Mass Effects are gone. Formidable melee punches and attacks specific to each class have taken their place. The Soldier Shepard I used delivered some solid, fast punches that knocked enemies back without causing me to double over like I had shattered every bone in my hand. But the real new addition to close quarters combat is the instant melee kill - hold down the B or Circle button and Shepard will wind back to deliver a killing blow unique to his class, in this case a tech-blade in my Soldier's wrist armor. Shaped similarly to the energy-based armor used by Sentinel classes in Mass Effect, it cut down enemies in one hit. Other classes have their own heavy melee attacks - Adepts have blades of psionic energy that they use to cut down their enemies in close, for example.
Then there are the grenades. Mass Effect 3 sees a series debut for actual, round, conventional grenades. This adds yet another combat option to the game that changes the way Shepard can engage with enemies, and adds a new tactical wrinkle to flanking and other maneuvers.
All of these things combine to provide a shooting experience that, honestly, feels a bit surreal in a Mass Effect game. As I made my way to the Krogan princess on the other end of a science platform with my teammates Liara and Garrus, there was a point in the demo where Cerberus operatives stormed the opposite end of the corridor. The platform had the standard smattering of cover objects between us and the Cerberus forces, but there was also a passage to the right that flanked to the other side. Ordering Liara and Garrus to use their abilities as a diverson, I stuck to cover and ran to the corridor. I made my way to the end and blind-tossed a pair of grenades into the other side of the room.
As the explosions rocked the Cerberus personnel, I swung around the cover and quickly popped a pair of enemies with my assault rifle. Then I dashed forward, sprung over a bit of cover, and took out another Cerberus agent with a pair of quick melee strikes, then ducked back into cover and made my way around to the remaining enemy's rear, cutting him down with Shepard's tech blade.
It all felt like a different game, like a different series even. Where Mass Effect 2 felt like a slightly tighter Mass Effect combat-wise, Mass Effect 3 is in an entirely different space. The familiar elements that need to be there are intact - powers and talents are still in the same menu wheel structure, and weapon types remain unchanged. You're not going to select an assault rifle and be shocked by its looks. But you will be taken aback by how well it works. I was. And now the wait to play Mass Effect 3 until 2012 is that much harder.