I talked to a guy named Ray a couple of weeks ago. He was with his buddy Greg. Ray said he had played BioWare's Mass Effect 3 end to end already.
I believe him.
He told me what it was like to play through the whole thing. Ray is, I should note, really into BioWare games.
Ray played through the game as a male version of the series' protagonist, Commander Shepard.
He played the previous Mass Effect through a couple of times, as a male Shepard and as a female Shepard.
The first Mass Effect, he said, felt like it leaned toward being a role-playing game. "The second one was aimed more at the action or shooter side. This one is both. Both sides have been amped up really well."
Decisions matter in the new one, he told me. Didn't they matter in the other ones, too, I asked?
"It's like Decision-making with a capital D," Ray said. "Every time there was a big decision—when something bad happens and or good—something impactful happens with consequence when you make a decision. There's lots of them through the game, they all feel like, ‘Yeah that was appropriate, but holy shit! That was expected, but boy, that was hard. I'd still make the same decision, but boy that was interesting. That was compelling.' There are kinds of moments in the game that I think people will talk about years from now. It's a significant game in that respect."
That was in the previous games, but it's been intensified, Ray said.
Look, Ray is pumped for this game. He just rattles off all these things he likes about it:
"A lot of the [series'] elements have been refined: the progression system, having a weapon bench so you can tinker with your weapon and mod them, it's really fun. It's cool. The mining experience… using it to find materials that are required for quests. It links together really well. The multiplayer, the way it's integrated in and the seamless way it helps amp up your galactic readiness and gives you more resources to build your fleet, your alliance against the Reapers. They're very thoughtful the way they're apportioned and is building on a foundation from ME 1. I think it's really taking the best of what we've seen and added significant elements of innovation too."
I'd played a little bit of Mass Effect 3 myself. Some multiplayer and a mission on Mars in singleplayer, both at events set up for members of the media like me.
Ray is not a member of the media. By having played through the whole new game, he has seen a whole lot more of it than me. So I asked him if the side stuff really was better. It always seemed like the weak part of these games. The mining and exploration? Kinda mindless and sometimes tedious, no?
Ray said that everything I mentioned has been addressed in this game.
"The exploration in this game is really cool," Ray assured me. "The system involves a Reaper threat. The Reapers are on the edge of the system. By scanning the worlds, the Reapers actually get engaged more and more. You have to scan the planets to find key objectives, to find away-team missions, to find resources that actually solve RPG quests back on different planets. You have to bring things back to a planet and talk to people and they'll be like, 'Oh, cool, I'll help you now' and that kind of thing. If you scan more the Reapers start coming in and you have to evade the Reapers in the system by literally having to drive the ship around. It's actually kind of fun.
"There's no limit on scans now," he added. "There's no limit on probes. That's not a constraint anymore."
Ray said that BioWare has a core value of "humility," of listening to fan feedback, including complaints about mini-games, so of course they were improved.
Greg chimed in to speak up for Mass Effect 2's less awesome planet-scanning mini-game. "I actually liked that, but I'm kind of a freak...I found it strangely soothing." (Semi-disclosure: Greg has been playing The Old Republic. That's his game, these days.)
I still don't get this Galactic Readiness thing, but Ray does. It's a meta-game system that links single-player and multiplayer into the larger context of a galactic war. Earning readiness points through either element of the game improves the chances of getting the game's best ending.
Ray was the first person I'd spoken to who could articulate how this thing plays out for a gamer. "It shows the state of the galaxy, what resources you've got at this point, which regions are controlled and which ones aren't. It gives you a sense of where to go. You can go back and talk to the admiral and get some more feedback. ‘How are the Krogan feeling?' ‘OK, I've got to spend a little more time on them.' ‘Are Cerberus allies?' 'I gotta get some more of those.' I started really getting engaged by the moment-to-moment anticipation, but the decisions would also weigh on me after the fact. For me, it really struck me that, as great as Mass Effect has been to this point—and we're very proud of it—I think this is the best of the franchise. And I think it's a game people will talk about afterwards in a very fond way for years to come."
Did you catch what he said there, readers?
"We're very proud of it."
Belated spoiler: Yes, Ray is Ray Muzyka and Greg is Greg Zeschuk, co-founders of BioWare. Yes, developers usually rave about their own work. But, hey, at least Ray has played the game. He knows what it's all about in ways that we don't.
He's beaming about this one. It'll be out on March 6.