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Mass Effect 3: The first 2 hours

Spoilers from the start as we catch up with Commander Shepard...

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It's also an opportunity to enjoy what feels like a series of gentle improvements to the character models. Ashley's probably still a big alien-hating racist, of course, but she's bagged herself some much nicer make-up this time around, and the rest of the game's cast have come on a long way, too.

Eyes are a little more sparkly, gestures are a touch less robotic - except on the robots, obviously - and at least one of your inquisitors offers cast-iron proof that the 'severe bun' schoolmistress hairstyle has survived, against all odds, well into an era of flying cars, laser guns, and chatty food-vending machines. If it works for you, why change it? (Because it's horrible.)

Court is quickly dismissed, however, and not because you make a very convincing case. Instead, it's the darn Reapers calling a recess, by arriving on Earth just as you're getting to the good bit of your speech, and proceeding to blow the entire building to pieces. Flame and rubble follow, as does the obligatory movement tutorial, as you and Anderson make your way through the disaster zone towards an evac ship.

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Mass Effect 3 is a far more gymnastic game than its predecessors, by the looks of things. Previous instalments certainly took you to exciting alien lands, but you tended to then wobble around them as if you'd had all your joints fused together, or had thrown a disc out while having vigorously unpredictable intercourse with an alien crewmember.

This time, if the opening level is any indicator, you can expect to spend a lot of the adventure climbing up gantries, leaping across death-defying drops, and generally sprinting around like the galaxy depends upon it.

And it probably does. Earth certainly isn't doing so well, with the Reapers descending silently from the clouds and setting the surrounding skyscrapers on fire with apparent ease. It's clear that this is more mass-murder than two-sided battle, and BioWare isn't afraid to crank up the pathos, sliding in a tiny cut-scene in which Shepard spots a golden-haired scamp, separated from his family, hiding in a ventilation shaft. (Not saying what happens, but you probably shouldn't get too attached to him.)

Luckily, you've got other things to take your mind off the human misery and genocide, as your route across the shattered skyline takes you through a series of quick battles against husks and cannibals.

Husks can now clamber up walls, swarming over the edges of parapets in a distinctly creepy manner. Cannibals just pootle about like boil-infested walruses, but take a lot more damage before going down. Enemies are now quick to flank - and the environments are a little larger too, giving them room to do that - so you've been given a new charge-up melee attack that provides you with much meatier options when fighting toe-to-toe. Thwack.

This is just a quick introduction to the fighting, mind, and pretty soon you're getting ready to head off-world so you can find some way of sticking it to the Reapers permanently. Anderson decides to stay behind and protect what's left of the planet - within a few hours, he'll probably be able to fit most of it in a Pop-Tarts box - and you're back on the Normandy - yay! And there's Joker, too! -reinstated as Commander, and looking for some kind of battle plan that will allow you to rally a fleet and save humanity.

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The solution, as I believe Arnie once said, is to get your ass to Mars. Down on the Martian Archives, it looks like somebody may have unearthed an old Prothean device that could do the Reapers in for good. The ancient civilisation designed a weapon, anyway - they just never had the time to build it. Maybe they got side-tracked by unblocking the Hoover or something.

There's just time for a little light levelling - each power you select now has an upgrade tree attached to it, meaning you have to be a bit more tactical when assigning points - and then you're landing on the Red Planet with Ashley and some hulking muscular guy called James, who I don't know very much about at this point. He looks like a tank character, anyway, and he says things like, "This is loco!" so he's alright with me. After all, this is loco.

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