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“Mass Effect” review

by on Mar.27, 2010, under Xbox 360 Game Reviews

Game: Mass Effect
Developer: Bioware

Put that copy of Mass Effect 2 on hold for 20 hours. You’ll be glad you did.

I have an embarrassing confession to make. Mass Effect, Bioware’s much hyped science fiction RPG, completely slipped under my gaming radar when it was released on the Xbox 360 several years ago. For some inexplicable reason all the hype, glowing reviews and internet kudos this game garnered in 2007 failed to register at any level within my cerebral cortex. This shouldn’t have been such a drama as I didn’t own Microsoft’s recent gaming console at the time. Unfortunately, I also failed to notice the PC version that was published roughly six months later. It was only the recent spate of media releases covering the imminent appearance of Mass Effect 2 (and my impeccable skills in counting that I picked up in Grade school) that made me think “Hang on a minute … when the heck did Mass Effect 1 come out?” As a keen RPG aficionado, and with a few weeks off during Christmas, I decided to embark upon a thorough investigation of Bioware’s original sci-fi intellectual property. After 50+ hours of gaming and three complete play-throughs, I’m about to expound upon the reasons why anyone who hasn’t yet experienced Mass Effect, should strongly consider doing so, and why potential buyers of the just released sequel should fire up its progenitor first.

Mass Effect can best be summarized as a science-fiction role-playing shooter that borrows heavily from many of the mainstream movies and science fiction novels published over the last few decades. As Commander Shepard of the Earth Systems Alliance, you play a pivotal role in the emergence of the human race as it takes its first tentative steps onto the galactic stage. Charged with recovering a valuable artefact from a long dead precursor race of aliens, a chain of events is rapidly set in motion that will eventually culminate in Shepard determining the fate of galactic civilization. Although the above précis is a nebulous (ahem) plot description to say the least, exposing any more detail would seriously tarnish a potential player’s experience with this game. I don’t like spoilers in my reviews, and I’m not about to change this position, even if the reviewed game is two years old.

In order to meld RPG and shooter elements into a game, a radical departure from Bioware’s previous turn based designs was obviously needed. The solution they developed is a third person camera perspective view linked with what is in essence a real-time dialogue engine. Rather than reading and interpreting lengthy sentence structures on screen, the player chooses a desired character mood to progress the conversation. This allows dialogue to flow smoothly as the game transitions between third person exploration/combat and conversational perspectives. There’s also an alignment dichotomy present where the player can choose between paragon (good) and renegade (evil) conversation moods, akin to the moral choices made in their earlier title Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The developers then went one step further by coupling this with dynamic backgrounds, motion captured character movement and facial expression, full voice acting and an impressive orchestral score. The end result is a free-flowing cinematic space opera that wraps the player in a vice-like grip and refuses to let go. The pacing within this composition is nearly impeccable. Transitions between cut scenes and game-play are seamless, and the frenetic fire fights agreeably counterpoint the well scripted dialogue most of the NPCs have to share.

Drawing upon their previous experience in RPG world design, Bioware have created an intricate and believable galaxy within which to set the pivotal events of the game, and the attention to detail they’ve lavished on even the most insignificant aspects is incredible. There are myriad snippets of information to collect as you explore the galaxy, ranging from detailed sociological and theological leanings of the alien races, to the discovery of faster than light travel and weapons technologies. Those of us not interested in reading lengthy text blocks can freely ignore this flavour text, however it’s still an impressive feat how the justification for just about everything within the Milky Way has been considered during the design process. There are also dozens of visual and aural references to many recent sci-fi movies, and if you’ve seen Starship Troopers or any of the Star Trek and Star Wars movies, you can clearly witness their influence on this game. There’s even a level near the end game entitled “Trench Run,” although there’s nary an X-Wing or Tie-Fighter to be seen.

While there are plenty of opportunities for combat scattered across the various planets and space-stations throughout the galaxy, much of the game focuses on your interactions with NPCs and your various team members. The decisions that Shepard will be forced to make can dramatically affect events later in the game. In many of these situations, the consequences can be dire, making the game eminently replayable. Bioware is one of the few developers who consistently create complex and interesting characters in their games, and the team members you’ll encounter in Mass Effect are no exception. Their colourful and often flawed personalities invariably instil a strong emotional attachment to your in-game avatar and it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with them (in some cases literally.) These character interactions also lead directly to the reason why you should play this game before you even consider playing the sequel. Mass Effect 2 allows you to import your character, complete with all the game changing events and interactions he or she made. By doing so, all those moments of joy and pathos you experienced carry on into the next chapter, with possibly more unforeseen consequences to be uncovered.

Number crunchers, fearing a dearth of statistics, can rest easy as Bioware has continued their trend of providing plenty of skills to level up over the course of Shepard’s adventures. There are six character classes to choose from, each focusing on one or two sets of skills. The Soldier class focuses on combat while the Adept and Engineer concentrate on biotics (“Force” like powers) and technical (hacking and reverse engineering) respectively. There are also three multi-classed options where you can choose skills sub-sets from two of the primary classes. While cynics might suspect that George Lucas did a late night edit on the design document when Bioware weren’t looking, the biotic characters are particularly fun to play, giving you the opportunity to throw, lift and pummel your opponents without lifting a finger. While there are plenty of varied weapons, armour and upgrades to be found as the story progresses, it has to be highlighted that having separate inventory and character management screens makes optimizing your team’s load out a tedious affair. The main problem is that most of the information displayed uses too much screen real-estate. This forces the player to execute multiple button presses and stick wiggles to gather all the pertinent information on new equipment. The same problem extends to interacting with shopkeepers. Invariably most players will probably find it easier to just hoard extra weapons and armour until your limited inventory space fills, then quickly optimizing your team and performing an complete inventory fire sale.

The combat system is reasonably forgiving although it’s not as polished as many other dedicated console shooters. While it’s hard to fault their pedigree in role-playing game design over the last decade, the developers are definitely “testing the waters” with this creation and there are a few warts that detract from game play. Entering and leaving cover could definitely benefit from a button press rather than having you head butt a wall to trigger the action. Cover is also incredibly “sticky” requiring tedious side-stepping and camera movement to get your avatar moving again. The combination of NPC artificial intelligence and restrictive maps can also channel your squad mates directly to you, occupying the cover you want to use and generally making a nuisance of themselves. While there are rudimentary squad commands available to send them on their way, you invariably end up starting engagements by moving them out of the way and letting them fend for themselves. On the positive side, increasing the controller sensitivity and turning on combat assistance will make your first few engagements easier. The ability to pause real time combat by pressing the right and left bumpers is also appreciated as this allows you to target and queue up biotic power use and weapon selection for you and your squad, as well as lining up on any fast moving foes that have moved out of your field of view.

Bioware’s exploration into the realm of shooters has also picked up some questionable habits from the 90’s when this genre was all the rage. It would appear that the design team purchased a subscription to “Exploding Barrel Monthly” magazine, because every map seems to have its fair share of volatile canisters, conveniently positioned to inflict maximum damage on your foes. Admittedly, they have been thematically rebadged as plasma/cryo/ion/fusion containment cells but I still question why you’d want to keep quantities of volatile plasma in your sleeping quarters. The excessive clutter that surrounds us in the 21st century also remains an unresolved issue in the distant future. Despite two decades of game development, crates continue to make their ubiquitous presence felt. Mass Effect’s environments are full of crates, some large, and some small. A few of them levitate amusingly when they are hit with your biotic powers. Other’s just squat on the ground, jealous of their airborne brethren and wallowing in self pity at their tedious and monotonous existence. Isn’t it time that we consigned these faceless monoliths to the game design dustbin of history? Let’s face it; if Gary Gygax solved storage problems back in the 70’s with the invention of the Bag of Holding, surely Bioware can invent some means to euthanize these hulking containers and design some more varied and aesthetically pleasing accoutrements for us to throw and/or hide behind? Please, no more crates!

Although Bioware’s previous ventures have often been praised for being open and less restrictive experiences with plenty of variety in how players can approach each game, Mass Effect returns to a more controlled and linear game flow. This is understandable given the exacting overall narrative that has been crafted for this adventure. While each of the major quest hubs can be tackled in any order, they are all self-contained linear experiences with very few opportunities for deviation from the path the writers lay down before you. Side quests are normally provided to give players the occasional lateral distraction away from the main story, but most of these are bland and repetitive excursions across re-textured planetary zones and a half-dozen repetitive star-ship and facility maps. For exploring uncharted worlds, a heavily armed APC called the Mako gives your team the ability to rapidly transit the wide open spaces between points of interest. Although it has enough torque to tackle 70 degree inclines and small jump jets to free you from the unforgiving geometry of most worlds, it handles like a moped with an overly loose steering column. When you accelerate over a cliff and land facing in the opposite direction, you can’t help but wonder if a Mako factory recall notice is sitting forgotten in someone’s in-box.

Technically, Mass Effect is incredibly solid. Although there are a couple of bugs documented in forums, none of these appear to have affected my multiple play-throughs to date. The texture pop-in issue, however, is something that has to be emphasized as this seems to have affected everyone who has played the game. Even installing the game to your hard-drive (a feature that wasn’t available in 2007) doesn’t solve this problem resulting in several seconds of un-textured characters and background after many of the game loading screens you’ll encounter. And speaking of loading, if you ever climb into a lift to transition between levels, feel free to go and make a snack, because they all appear to be powered by asthmatic gerbils on treadmills. Although these extended segues have been spiced up with some elevator music or audio newsflashes, grabbing a carbonated beverage and sugar-laced snack from the kitchen is still the lesser of two evils.

To start wrapping things up, I guess one question we should consider is, did Bioware want to create a hybrid title that appeals to both RPG and shooter devotee’s? I suspect the answer is in the negative. Given Bioware’s pedigree, their creations have always favoured role-playing story and character development over the visceral combat savoured by shooter fanatics, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. After all that’s what they’ve effectively mastered over the last 15 years with their D&D and Star Wars franchised titles. What the passage from turn based to real-time combat/conversation has done is create a continual stream of game play that keeps the player focused entirely on her avatar’s progress throughout the story. There are no jumps to CGI rendered cut-scenes, no extensive combat rounds to organize and no conversational trees that take minutes to navigate. Every effort has been made to keep the player centred on the here and now, where every decision is made on the spur of the moment, and where the consequences of those actions might not be apparent until many hours have elapsed. Although “suspension of disbelief” is still required to appreciate video games in their current form, Mass Effect offers a step towards a future where such a prerequisite may not be necessary in order to savour this form of digital entertainment.

All blemishes aside, Mass Effect is still one of Bioware’s best sci-fi RPGs created to date. An epic storyline, memorable characters with stellar voice acting and a near perfect blend of cinematography and pacing, make the game almost impossible to put down. When you sense that the culmination of all Shepard’s endeavours are nearing fruition, make sure you set aside a couple of hours to fully appreciate the experience. The conclusion is assuredly best appreciated in one sitting and unlike those single cut scene endings you used to find in old-school RPGs, the game still has much to offer before the end credits roll.

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