With the Mass Effect 3 demo arriving in just a few days, gamers are preparing to ignore their spouses to make BioWare their Valentine. The RPG powerhouse is hurtling at faster-than-light speed toward the game’s March 6 release on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3, and we had a chance to play a new segment of the single-player content featuring characters old and new.

Before we got our hands on the game, we were given a walkthrough of both upcoming Mass Effect iOS apps. The free, iPad-exclusive Datapad app and the companion cover-based shooter game, Infiltrator, will both be available close to the release of Mass Effect 3. More importantly, both are tied to your Origin account, which keeps spoilers quiet in the Datapad and enhances Commander Shepard’s Galactic Readiness Rating, which plays an important role in how the story will end..

For the purposes of streamlining our time with the game, we were dropped in with a default appearance, male soldier Shepard (sorry FemShep fans, I can’t comment on how much ass she kicks). We also were playing the game in the default mode, though two others (one more action-focused and one designed to highlight the story) will be available in the retail version.

We began with the second major mission in the story. Shepard and his team of new crew member James Vega (voiced by Freddie Prinze, Jr.) and returning teammate Ashley Williams, have been tasked with the infiltration of a Cerberus base on Mars.

The first thing I noticed was that, somehow, BioWare managed to make the dialog feel even more natural. Nothing has changed in the mechanics, but the conversations, which already had a natural cadence and flow, seemed even more cinematic. They could have easily just imported the Mass Effect 2 system wholesale and been successful. That’s not how BioWare works, though; always improving, forever refining.

Once I was in control, I had the opportunity to pump points into my skill tree. This was one of the biggest changes I experienced. As you improve your abilities, you’ll notice that additional bonuses appear along the way. Disruptor ammo gains the ability to stun enemies entirely for a short time. Incendiary shots can cause enemies to flee in fear, making them easy pickin’s.

Once you hit a skill’s third level, you’ll have to make a pretty big decision. Each branches into two paths that provide further customization focusing on one aspect of the skill’s utility. I assume that you’ll have the ability to fully re-spec on the Normandy, similar to Mass Effect 2. If so, you should feel comfortable experimenting to find the best combination for your play style… as long as you have enough Eezo to reset your abilities.

Combat largely felt familiar, with BioWare, again, refining what worked in Mass Effect 2. The power and weapon wheels return and ammo is, again, a limited resource. Weapon modifications have returned, though they’re a bit different than their presentation in the first Mass Effect. Along the way, you’ll find attachments that can be added to your armaments at workbenches. Thankfully, they are in more limited supply and, combined with the improved inventory system from Mass Effect 2, you won’t feel overwhelmed determining how to trick out your Avenger.

Even in this limited section of the game, the enemy types were varied, forcing me to use strategy to survive. In particular, enemies with riot shields posed a problem that could only be solved with strategic use of different ammo types: biotic powers and Shepard’s concussive blast. The series has always encouraged the use of skills in combination. As with everything else in this third entry, though, the stakes are higher and suggestion has transformed into mandate.

Before the end of my 45 minutes with the game, I ran into an old friend (no, I won’t tell you who). This character embodies the great writing that Mac Walters and team have poured into the game. We are experiencing the impact that Saren’s betrayal, Shepard’s death/revival and now, the Reaper invasion, have had on people we’ve known since that fateful day in November 2007. The weight of these effects drove home how intense an experience Mass Effect 3 will be. Shepard, his/her crew and you, the gamer, will not be the same.

Why you should care about Mass Effect 3:
Earth has been invaded. You need another reason? OK, fine.
BioWare has refined the fantastic combat and RPG elements from Mass Effect 2.
The series’ delicate balance between tense action and intense relationships reaches its peak.