Mass Effect 3 could be the most forgiving Mass Effect yet. Recognising that a hefty percentage of series fans aren't at all fussed about combat, and that a similarly hefty percentage couldn't give a monkey's for the on-going narrative, BioWare has cooked up "Action" and "Story" modes that let you streamline one or the other aspect of the experience.
It's a more flexible and accommodating, gentler breed of action-RPG than you may be used to. But just because it's potentially the most forgiving Mass Effect, doesn't mean it's not also the most punishing. Penetrate past the fluffier title options and you'll encounter the grim, wrist-shattering majesty that is BioWare's revamped Insanity Mode. As part of issue 82's hands-on, we spoke to lead designer Preston Watamaniuk about how Mass Effect 3's tougher difficulties will squeeze your lemons till the pips squeak.
Building on Mass Effect 2's slick but slightly fleshless cover-shooter template, the third game lets you combine biotic and tech powers more often and with more dramatic results. This isn't essential to success, and Watamanuik expects players who opt for easier difficulties to get by on gunplay alone. "People invariably use powers to quite a low degree, so the average player probably won't explore these new combos as deeply. I love using powers, so I use them a lot."
Insanity, on the other hand, will hand you your arse on the point of an Omni-blade if you're fuzzy on the difference between Singularity and Carnage. When we reflected that there seemed to be more demand for powers during our hands-on, Watamanuik cautioned us: "you'll notice that if you play on Insanity, that sort of general rule of thumb is even harsher. You'd better be doing everything well, or you'll die."
Rather than simply fattening health, armour and shield bars, BioWare has come up with different, more elaborate and more testing AI models for Insanity players. The inspiration came partly from the audience, partly from Watamanuik's peers. "I had a lead designer for another game write to say 'make Insanity harder!' And I was like "OK!" This was a really well-known and respected guy, so I was like 'OK, I'll do my best.'
"We really thought about it hard. On Normal you'll be able to power your way through the game or shoot your way through the game, but when you try Hardcore or Insanity, you're not going to be able to do that any more."
BioWare hopes that when Insanity kills you - and more often than not, it will - you'll understand why. "You really will have to think about each combat, who the enemies are, what kind of resistance you're presented with, and then strategise to take them down. I'm hoping that it'll feel like you made a mistake, and the game called you on it, rather than "I thought I was playing well, and then I died".
Turning off auto power usage for allies may be advisable; nothing kills squad morale like finding your best Biotic has dropped a telepathic nuke on a single, wayward foe, leaving you to fight the remaining half-dozen using guns alone. "If you're just into pure mayhem, on Normal you can get away with that. I find that on Insanity, it's a little harder. Like, I wish I had Liara's Warp right now, but she's already cast something. So on Insanity I prefer to turn it off and keep full control.
If you're worrying that signing up to Insanity is obligatory to appreciate all that Mass Effect 3 has to offer, don't. Combat has become more tactical across the board, whether it takes you one shot to down a Cerberus trooper or 20.
Pecking at the opposition from cover, for instance, won't be as easily abused a trick as it was in Mass Effect 2. "We've tried to make it so that it just feels like if you're working the problem, using all your squad, all your powers, picking the right guns, you're going to get through that combat. It's not going to be 'I sat in cover and popped out five or six times to use powers and stuff'."
Mass Effect 3's Shepard is a nimble beast, as BioWare continues to learn lessons from other shooters. "There's all the cover mobility, there's increased mobility in and out of cover, like being able to Storm out of cover, roll into cover, roll out of cover, a lot more agility around that.
Weapon modifications, another new feature, will mesh with powers for the ultimate tactical payout. "We have more involved powers, power combos, mods and the mods interact with the powers. Being able to take a Claymore shotgun and put a shredder mod that allows you to penetrate through enemies, and then you put Cryo ammo on top of that, and all of a sudden you can pull the trigger once and blow four husks away."
Watamanuik accepts that individually, none of Mass Effect 3's new combat options is headline material, but reckons that you'll really feel the difference when you revisit Mass Effect 2. "I think it's just a bunch of little changes where the cumulative effect is greater than the sum.
"It's just real focus - we've had a guy full-time on the project doing nothing but working with cover animation from day one, making that feel really really good. And another guy full-time just on creatures, from day one. Those guys have worked on nothing else for the entire game, so it's really paid off."
Look out for more on Mass Effect 3 all through the week, including BioWare commentary on the new Normandy and Citadel, our thoughts on how returning Mass Effect characters will evolve, and pointers for the upcoming Mass Effect 3 demo.