If you've been paying attention to Mass Effect 3, you'll be au fait with a handful of headline features. The new cooperative multiplayer. Kinect voice commands. Freddie Prinze Jr.
You'll know this is the third and final act in a galaxy-wide fight for survival. The implacable Reapers are preparing to purge the Milky Way of organic life, for real this time, setting the stage for an epic, space-operatic endgame.
You'll have noticed how pretty it all is, from the scuffing on Shepard's N7 battle gear, to the sleek squidbots descending on Vancouver harbour. In our recent hands-on with the upcoming demo, we watched red storm clouds roll in over the Mars horizon, flickering with otherworldly lightning, and they looked spiffy too.
But beyond the all-new co-op, celebrity cameos, and ever shinier visuals, Mass Effect 3 is about to hand Mass Effect 2, masterful though it was, a beating on a galactic scale. Here's why.
[Warning: may contain traces of spoiler. If story hints bring you out in a rash, click away.]
Don't fear the Reapers.
1. More customisation
Mass Effect's weapon and character customisation is richer and more meaningful than that of its forerunner, which cut a bit too deep when trimming the customisation fat. Options are still on the streamlined side, but this time your Shepard (and his or her crew and gear) will be a creation all of your own.
Biotic, tech, and combat powers are at the heart of customisation again. You can level up each of a character's powers through six ranks, with a branching choice after rank three, offering a couple of tempting specialisation options. Compare that to the four ranks per power in Mass Effect 2, with the option to finally evolve it into one of two more-powerful versions right at the end, in rank four. Evolving a power much earlier makes the choice more significant, not least because you'll spend much more time using it before (probably) nipping through a Mass Relay for a heroic final rumble with the Reapers.
Weapons also hit a sweet spot of streamlined customisation. Take scavenged upgrades to a weapons bench, and you can add a couple of mods to each gun, boosting damage, range, and the like. And your choices are reflected in the weapon models as well as the all-important stats so, hey, your gun will look different to how your gun looked before.
2. Shepard's got moves
Shepard is scrappier and more agile this time around. In addition to that flashy omni-blade melee kill, Shepard can sneak in, grab an enemy from behind cover, and give it a surprise helping of holographic stabbing. Other abilities include tossing grenades, sliding into cover, and vaulting up onto obstacles without pause.
Getting in, out, and around cover is smoother in general, and there's more up-and-down action, too; the levels we saw were generously populated with ladders to showcase Shep's all-new ladder-climbing power and designated points for hopping down onto lower levels.
And those early concerns that some shooter extremists at BioWare were turning Mass Effect 3 into a balls-out gun game and nothing else have resolved into something much more agreeable: shooting stuff is just plain more fun in 3 than it was in 2, whether you're sniping a riot-shielded enemy right in the eye slot or peppering a Reaper minion with space bullets from up close.
3. The old gang is back
So what has Liara been up to? Is Miranda still genetically perfect? Did Garrus ever fix that gaping hole in his armour? This we need to know. Tighter gunplay and fuller character customisation are grand, but it could all go hang if this last game in the trilogy weren't a big old Mass Effect reunion party. Luckily, it's a little bit of just that: all the squad members from the first two games make a return in Mass Effect 3. If you didn't get them killed, obviously.
They won't all be coming back as playable squad members; we're told there are fewer characters to team up with than in the expansive Normandy roster of the second game, with its crowded character select screen. But everyone's back in some form, with "a lot more of an organic feeling to the relationships," says associate producer Mike Gamble.
The first mission, in which Shepard swings by Mars on the way to the Citadel to investigate a Prothean technology archive, reunites her with two Mass Effect old-timers: Liara and either Kaidan or Ashley, according to which one you sacrificed all the way back in the first game. With Liara conjuring biotic singularities over clusters of bad guys, Kaidan snap-freezing them with cryo blast, and you gunning down the lot, it feels just like old times. Aw.
4. Cerberus are baddies, for real this time
We spent Mass Effect 2 uneasily cooperating with Cerberus because they had the resources and the intel we needed, but they were always shifty pro-human militants named after a triple-headed hellbeast; it's well past time those guys showed their true colours. Look for that in Mass Effect 3.
As the game begins, Shepard has severed ties with the Illusive Man and his posse, though Kaidan (or Ashley, presumably) is still giving you trouble for having done their dirty work. And up on the red planet, Cerberus soldiers are getting their hands bloody, executing the staff of the Mars base housing the Prothean archive.
They may have spared no expense bringing Shepard back from the dead in game two, rebuilding him or her around a charred scrap of corpse, but like holographic Martin Sheen says: he needed you once and now "your time is over." We predict plenty of Cerberus thugs mixing it up in the enemy ranks, alongside all the multiracial Husk variants. As a pitiless, genocidal machine-race, the Reapers are officially the Big Bad, but we're looking forward to being back on the right (wrong) side of Cerberus.
He's back as well.
5. Earth, at last
Though we had a tantalising peek at Earth from the moon, Mass Effect never let us set foot on the blue planet. Through all of Shepard's planet-hopping, there has been no trip back to the cradle of humanity--until now.
Mass Effect 3 kicks off in future Vancouver, home of humanity's Defence Council, and with respect to that city, we can't imagine that's the only Earth location in the cards. Though the early trailer depicting a Reaper attack on London may have been just for flavour, not a promise we'd be omni-stabbing Husks in Hyde Park, we'd bet on Earth turning up more than just once.
"Earth in general has some significance," says associate producer Mike Gamble, and that's all the encouragement we need to be daydreaming of epic ground battles across semi-familiar territory. Because there's no place like home(world).
The Mass Effect 3 demo launches on February 14.