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A screenshot from BioWare's upcoming Mass Effect 3. (BioWare)
A screenshot from BioWare's upcoming Mass Effect 3. (BioWare)

Mass Effect 3 sneak peek plays up emotions Add to ...

I was under the mistaken assumption that I had it made when, upon arriving at EA's E3 booth Monday afternoon, I was handed a shiny black VIP badge and told that it would get me to the front of any EA line for closed-door demos.

I tried it with BioWare's sci-fi role-playing game, Mass Effect 3, and it worked splendidly. I was in the door in ten minutes and got an in-depth look at one of the truly great games of E3 2011 (more on it in a minute).

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But then I went to the room for DICE's Battlefield 3 -- the standby line for which wrapped all the way around EA's enormous pavilion -- and was informed by an attendant that no one would be getting in for the next hour because the game was being shown to "White House staff." I furrowed my brow and asked if that was for real, and was assured that it was.

I guess there are VIPs and then there are real VIPs -- you know, the kind who can have the world's most powerful military come down on you if you don't acquiesce to their request to see how your game depicts that same military.

But hey, at least I got to see the final entry in BioWare's brilliant sci-fi trilogy.

There is a vocal minority that believe BioWare sold out with the second Mass Effect because of its mainstream third-person shooter mechanics, and these people will likely be less than thrilled to learn that Mass Effect 3 appears only to augment and fine tune this sort of action.

I saw the game's hero, Commander Shepard, manning an emplaced gun on the back of a vehicle, firing at an enormous enemy walker of some sort. It was basically an action-packed on-rails action sequence that simply requires the player to keep a finger on the trigger.

On the ground, Shepard can now make better use of cover, cinematically leaping from one object to another while remaining hidden. It appears to add an element of stealth to the action, but when he breaks from cover and attacks, it seems to turn back to business as usual -- running and gunning.

Oh, and he has an "omniblade" that he can use to stab nearby enemies.

And he can jump into a battlefield-dominating mech called a Cerberus Atlus.

Clearly, BioWare wants Mass Effect 3 to go head-to-head with other spectacular action games. But while the action looks good, it doesn't seem to be as refined as you'd find in some other cover-based sci-fi third-person shooters ... such as, say, the Gears of War franchise. A new weapon modification system lets players swap out mods and upgrades at workbenches found throughout the game and adds a novel element of customization. But I doubt it will be a game-selling feature.

However, the thing about combat in the Mass Effect series is that it doesn't have to be brilliant. It's fun, but it's not why people play these games. Rather, they play them for the franchise's sweeping far-future space opera fiction, which has been carried beautifully and seamlessly from one entry to the next, including the third game.

All of the decisions players have made leading up to this finale, which may have resulted in the deaths of certain important characters and potentially even entire species, will be reflected in the narrative, creating an almost unique experience for each player.

What's more, there are apparently plenty of fresh story-altering decisions to be made. The demo showed a scene in which the fellow playing decided not to go after a boy he found crawling through an air duct in a burnt-out city, which resulted in a highly emotional scene just moments later that may not have happened had the demo player made a different decision.

Indeed, it looks like emotions will run high throughout the final instalment, which begins with the franchise's feared Reaper aliens finally attacking and occupying Earth, forcing Shepard to go in search of help from humanity's alien allies. BioWare has shown that it has no problem killing off popular characters in past entries, and with the series now coming to a close, no holds are barred.

We can expect to learn a lot more about this Canadian-made gem in the months leading up to its release next spring.

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