Mass Effect 3 is one of the most-anticipated games on most gamers’ 2012 radar, the thrilling conclusion to one of the most epic trilogies in the industry. This Tuesday (Feb. 14), Xbox 360 and PS3 owners will finally have a chance to get their hands on Mass Effect 3 via a new demo, with Xbox 360 owners getting a particularly special treat if they have the Kinect hardware. The Mass Effect 3 Xbox 360 demo includes voice-command features, much like the full Xbox 360 version will have when it ships March 6 (the PS3 version does not support voice recognition). We had the good fortune to voice-command Commander Shepard and his cohorts before the demo released and came away impressed with the results.
Our “voice-on” preview took place in the Sur’Kesh: STG Base, a level that’s been demonstrated multiple times since the first days of Mass Effect 3 gameplay teasers. Taking place on the Solarian homeworld, the level feels like a space-age business park, with balconies, elevators and planted areas that provide plenty of opportunities to test the game’s cover mechanics, melee combat and strategic use of voice commands.
We played through the Sur’Kesh: STG Base demo as Cmdr. Shepard, with our two squadmates being Liara and James Vega, the latter of whom is new to the Mass Effect series. This mix was perfect for the demo, as it clearly demonstrated the different abilities of distinct character classes. It also showcased the difference between voice commands, as Bioware has implemented some voice commands unique to each class.
When in Combat, Commander Shepard responds to seven different vocal orders: “switch weapon,” “sniper rifle,” “shotgun,” “submachine gun,” “assault rifle,” “heavy pistol” and “sidearm.” When Shepard’s poking around the world in Exploration mode, players can issue one of 12 different verbal commands: “activate,” “bypass,” “deactivate,” “examine,” “open,” “pick up,” “reactivate,” “salvage,” “support,” “talk,” “warn” and “quick save.” Some of these verbal commands are shared with the other characters, as you’ll see below, but because Shepard is a Soldier Class character, players also have several class-specific commands related specifically to Soldier abilities: “Adrenaline Rush,” “Concussive Shot,” “Frag Grenade,” “Incendiary Ammo,” “Disruptor Ammo” and “Cryo Ammo.”
Liara responds to 10 different commands, several of which are unique to her class: “move,” “attack,” “follow me,” “singularity,” “warp,” “stasis,” “warp ammo,” “submachine gun,” “heavy pistol” and “switch weapon.” Series newbie James Vega rounds things out by responding to 11 different commands, most of which are shared with Shepard and Liara. The redundant commands are “move,” “attack,” “follow me,” “Incendiary Ammo,” “throw grenade,” “frag grenade,” “assault rifle,” “shotgun” and “switch weapon.” It’s really the two Vega-specific commands that rock, though: “Carnage” and “Fortification,” the former of which activates a sort of temporary berserker mode that’s graphically violent and a guilty pleasure to watch unfold.
As you’ve likely gathered by reading through those commands, the Power Wheel is back in Mass Effect 3, which will surely be music to many fans’ ears. But, using the voice-recognition power of the Xbox Kinect hardware, you can essentially browse the Power Wheel and select weapons from it without pausing the action, which keeps you in the game.
Also, although this sounds like a lot of commands, for all practical purposes you’ll generally only issue four or five to your cohorts and about the same for Commander Shepard. Part of this is because the action is so fast that it’s hard to call out that many verbal commands and keep tabs of what’s going on. Not in a bad sense, mind you, but in a “holy crap, this is an RPG?!” sense. Mass Effect 3 has infinitely more in common with Gears of War than it does an RPG like Skyrim, so at times your mouth just can’t verbalize the commands as quickly as they need to be issued.
The second reason you’ll probably issue most commands via your fingers is just a matter of habit: we’re simply used to issuing commands with button presses rather than vocal chords. Mass Effect 3 isn’t the first game to use voice controls; Rainbow Six 3 tried it back with the original Xbox Communicator and had varying degrees of success. Since that time we’ve issued thousands of squad commands by pressing face buttons, so even though Bioware’s execution is much more responsive than Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six 3 implementation, it’s still just instinctual to jump for the A or X button than it is to speak out loud.
While fighting my way around the Sur’Kesh: STG Base, I quickly found a nice balance between button-based and verbal commands. For instance, when I first encountered an ambush, I hastily pushed the A button to position my squadmates behind cover, then issued verbal commands to them while I blasted away at the enemies myself. Occasionally I had to repeat a command to get the game to recognize it or respond, but the need to repeat never got overly annoying or resulted in death. I also noticed that speaking the command was just as effective as yelling it, although to be honest I felt compelled to yell because the firefights were so intense that it felt like I needed to get my squad’s attention over the sound of explosions. Chalk one up to immersion, eh?
The most memorable voice-command moments, though, came in a mini-boss battle against a veritable tank of a foe. Taking place in a sunken courtyard of sorts, the battle was both hectic and hard-fought, but leveraging the unique capabilities of each character’s class I was able to come out victorious. Upon seeing the baddie head my way, I yelled at James Vega to go all “Carnage” on him, which at away at the enemy’s health but also distracted him from pounding on Shepard. With the enemy looking the other way, I verbally told Shepard to switch to incendiary ammo, then issued a verbal command to Liara to use stasis on him. With a little more breathing room, so to speak, I focused on traditional button-based commands from there on out, eventually coming out victorious. Sure, I had been yelling at the console and looking like a fool in front of five complete strangers, but when given the controls they did the same thing, so I didn’t feel too bad.
There did seem to be a little bit of a delay between issuing certain commands like “move” or “switch weapons,” but the delay was always responsible, as if the AI were actually hearing, processing and then acting on a command they heard in battle. I wouldn’t say it made playing with verbal commands a disadvantage when compared to playing with button-based commands, but be prepared to repeat yourself a few times before you realize the delay was simply the “natural” pause between hearing and executing a command.
But delay or no, voice commands elevate the sense of immersion in Mass Effect 3 by an order of magnitude. I suppose it’s suitable for the final game in the trilogy, because no other entry in the Mass Effect series has had this much riding on it. Nothing less than the fate of the (digital) universe is at stake, and the battlefield du jour is none other than planet Earth. Mass Effect 3 will be one of the most epic games of 2012; the addition of voice commands will suck gamers into Bioware’s world like never before.
ADDENDUM: The Xbox 360 version of Mass Effect 3 will support voice commands in the following languages: English (including British / Australian English), French, Italian and German.