If the original Mass Effect attempted to be a sprawling sci-fi epic and the second game was a neo-Western character-oriented action drama, the ME3 demo makes the upcoming third installment look like some kind of interactive Michael Bay movie - and I mean that in both good and bad ways. The most recent version of Bioware's notoriously fluid conception of what a sci-fi action RPG should feel like is clear enough from the demo's storytelling alone, but comes across equally well in the graphics and overall presentation. Whereas the first game distinguished itself by the sheer scale of its somewhat desolate environments and the sequel focused on delivering a slick noir-ish aesthetic, ME3's impressive opening scene has a much less subtle, more muscular emphasis on squeezing in as many polygons as possible on the screen at any given time. In scenes which remind me more of the Covenant siege on New Mombasa in Halo 2's similarily grand introduction than any previous Mass Effect moment, the ME3 demo starts out in a sprawling detailed cityscape with lots of moving parts (many of which are massive and alien in nature) and an equally large and unnaturally unruly body of water cramming an additional layer on top of an already busy and comparatively hardware-demanding background.
As for the writing and actual gameplay, it takes approximately three seconds for it all to reach Wagnerian levels of bombast where it stays for the entire duration of the introductory mission. Exactly what and how much of the full game content of these scenes have been cut down for purposes of the demo download is of course unclear, but in any case it provides a clear enough contrast to Eden Prime's oppressive sense of foreboding and even makes the dramatic space crash/death sequences of ME2 feel subtle and atmospheric by comparison. Within minutes of the demo's non-interactive beginning, ME3Shep starts spewing forth heroically monosyllabic rhetoric in what amounts to a Cliffnotes version of his/her climactic ME2 pep talk; just in time before the Reapers throw everything including the (no doubt exploding) kitchen sink at the Homeland. After that, it's Gears of War-ish traversal through dramatic scenery punctuated by action-filled choke points all the way to the dramatically effective Normandic extraction which ends the first part of the singleplayer demo.
As someone who has played Bioware games for almost 15 years now it's hard not to have mixed feelings about where these celebrated RPG developers have ended up after years of streamlining their gameplay design (which is not necessarily the same thing as "dumbing down", by the way), but at least a part of me can't help but feel some respect for the general path they've chosen to embark upon. As has been evident for years now, they are clearly not interested in catering (solely) to the D&D grognards who want another Baldur's Gate, or even the slightly younger KOTOR converts who don't care about MMOs. Whether foolishly or not, Bioware are hellbent on winning over large swaths of the mainstream/action gamer population which just might be persuaded to invest in a more story-oriented experience than they've previously been known to collectively spend millions of dollars on. And that's the thing; as easy as it is to forget for us oldtimers, Bioware are not merely asking us longtime fans to go out of our comfort zones but also betting on the peanut-crunching crowd to be open to a more multi-layered gameplay concept than merely running from checkpoint A to B to C while artfully killing hostiles on the way (...although Bioware certainly got that bit covered, too). ME3's new Story/Roleplaying/Action system unfortunalety dilutes this potentially radical idea (since such a three-way choice implies that A) all players already know what they want, and B) they are not asked to try something completely new) - but there's still enough daring risk-taking left in the whole project that I think Bioware - and to some extent its comically reviled publisher partner EA - deserves some kudos for the high-stakes game they are playing. However, even after enjoying the sheer spectacle of this demo it's also fair to say that this entry in the series must be the title which makes Bioware consider its future direction carefully. If in spite of all ME3's action movie-esque sound and fury they still can't begin to reach the sales figures of some of the most popular and successful games out there (such as, say, Halo or Assassin's Creed), then maybe they should seriously consider scaling back some of their mainstream ambitions for a while, work on some smaller projects and perhaps even stop trying to be some damn epic all the time.
That last bit doesn't sound too likely, of course, but at least so far I've personally found myself liking the Mass Effect series (i.e. both previously released installments) a lot more than I initially thought I would. Right now I'm on my third ME2 playthrough (first on the PC) and finishing of the great Shadow Lair DLC for the first time and, yes, I sure got ME3 pre-ordered on Origin...