Mass Effect Reader Review
I've finished a Normal run through Mass Effect in about roughly 25 hours. I would say it has been one of the most exciting and involving pieces of game play I've had this year. I must declare the fact that I come to Mass Effect prepared, in that I'd given enough time to read the prequel novel to the game beforehand. I enjoyed that novel and its story immensely. It was good, believable Science Fiction. Continuing that story into the game itself, was a big part of the experience, because I was able to step into that universe and take an active (if fairly predetermined) part in it. Places and races I'd imagined through the writings had become tangible and interactive. The pleasurable fog of imagination had been gently blown clear to reveal a living and pulsing environment where I could explore (and sometimes scrutinise) individuals to my hearts content, where I could exercise control over bursts of action, and decide what parts of the unfolding destiny I would delve into next. The prequel novel is by no means a requirement to enjoying Mass Effect, and if you question the right people, you get a summary of the books plot explained to you fully. But, what the prequel did was whet my appetite for this world, tease me with tidbits for the epic scale of the tale about to be told in the game.
I could wax lyrical about the game in terms of my emotive attachment to the character I created and controlled in that world. But I'd like to get across not only the cinematic euphoria that you open up along the way, but the mechanics by which they assemble this journey.
Highlights of the game:
I've mentioned the Story already, a very adult and convincing story that takes place in a very believable setting. Drew Karpyshyn http://www.drewkarpyshyn.com, the writer, has certainly won me over and I'll be looking forward to sampling his other titles.
"Acting" and dialogue:
Normally imparting a lot of dialogue to the player can slow things down, and hinder any sense of forward flow. Players begin to skip over sections in favour of tasting the action based "sweet spots". Bioware has managed to craft a mechanism by which NPC's can perform their lines with believable acting. Coupled with excellent voice acting, natural conversational flow and concise trimming of the information presented, their ability to impart story elements in a fascinating and engaging way is probably one of the games major achievements. I have been guilty of dialogue skipping in the past in many info heavy RPG's, but Mass Effect had me positively excited at the prospect of learning more about a character or about a story hook, wanting to delve deeper into the conversational tree and unearth more treats.
Much of the planetary exploration is done via the Mako, an all terrain vehicle, resembling an armour plated moon buggy. I found the Mako a joy to drive/pilot, I believe many people found the controls to be awkward. I think if you come at the Mako as if it was a Warthog from Halo, you'd be misjudging its elegance in control. Whilst it does have a similar point and move interface the right stick is primarily used for aiming the main cannon, or artillery shot. Moving the aiming reticule left of right will attempt to adjust the Mako's direction in small increments, if the left stick (for throttle) is pushed forward. However, the left stick is the key to controlling the Mako, not the right stick. Point the left stick hard left and the Mako will move forward in that direction, left. Move the stick back and the Mako will move backwards. So its entirely possible to circle strafe an installation or enemy using the left stick to determine the Mako's direction, and the right stick to aim the cannons. This coupling (and independence) of the two sticks makes the Mako a very manoeuvrable vehicle indeed. Plus on top of this you have the jump jets, that can launch the buggy up in the air - particularly useful for overcoming difficult terrain and avoiding slow moving rocket fire. The machine can turn on a sixpence and is very adept at climbing up steep mountainous landscape. I had nothing but fun with the Mako, driving it and positioning it for strategic shots was most rewarding. Escaping and taking cover and repairing it was necessary at times. It is a powerful armoured transport, but its no way invincible. The Mako physics were a real treat, once you understood and adapted to the controls.
I found the combat to be fast paced and tactical. A major step forward in terms of going real time and ranged, from the turn based approach Bioware used in the Knights of the Old Republic games. What was extremely satisfying was the fact that if you died taking one particular approach to the combat, you could load the save game, change your tactical approach and see obvious advantages and disadvantages quite clearly. The gunfights are more Rainbow Six than Gears of War. But they still delivered the action based adrenaline surge, with the satisfaction of seeing different RPG tweaks and modifications manifest into victories or defeats.
Classes and Difficulty:
The three main classes, plus the three hybrids give enough breadth for you to try the play through with a few characters and still see different approaches to the same tactical combat situations. The mix of ranged weapon types, with biotic powers and technological devices creates a very interesting mix for your characters development and those of the main accompanying squad members. You also have 6 squad mates who you can pick and choose from, with their fixed class/race representations. So you could play through with the same character build, and just choose different squad members to ally with and possibly have a different approach to combat situations. The variety on offer fuels your enthusiasm for creating a different build, and playing through again on a harder difficulty setting. As soon as I'd completed the game, I'd already mapped out what I wanted to be and how I was going to approach it on my Hardcore play through. I must say, as hardcore ramps up the enemies health and resistances, it does turn the game into a much more tactical experience.. and part of me wished I'd done it on Hardcore from the start. The combat now has to be thought out almost before the first shot is taken. And with a single run under my belt, I can now feel my way through parts of the game I didn't explore with my first character. I think the game has succeeded in creating something which is at least re playable and still entertaining for two or three passthroughs. Unlocking the specialist armour and arms in itself is a draw for some people.
It may not appeal to everyone, but the almost vangelis like musical score sits very well with the art direction and general theme of the Mass Effect world/universe. I found it enhancing during combat situations and mood setting in most places. I like the enjoy game music outside of the game too, Anarchy Online's soundtrack still being an all time favourite of mine, and I think Mass Effect's musical score has a similar appeal.
Lowlights of the game:
There were a number of times when your squad members get stuck, or move somewhere inappropriate and get chewed up. I found if you paid close attention to the commands you sent your squad, holding them back mainly and opening up long range or crossfire opportunities, you could minimise these 'errors of judgement' on your allies part. But sometimes they hinder your movement in narrow corridors, sometimes they don't move when they should - stuck on environment.
Adopting a very simple key tap process to give the impression of a complex hacking task is a bit too much like over-simplification. If they could have varied it slightly for different operations. Added some other mini-game mechanic in there to keep the process time dependant and interesting it might have helped. As it is, its hardly a 'mini game' and even lockers/containers that are deemed HARD, seem very easy to tap open. Its not a major downer, because it becomes just a pedestrian task to have to do, to get at the all important loot.
A loading mechanism, that seems to be used very often in the game. The world of Mass Effect is littered with Elevators. And whilst you do get a chance to listen to some snippet of radio chatter, or your squad members banter, it only serves the purpose of slowing down the game with long inactive pauses. I realise with such a lot of information needing to be loaded its more aesthetic than a loading screen. But the long elevator rides do wear away at some of the enjoyment, possibly keeping you back from exploring places, simply because you cannot bear another long pause of doing nothing. I used most elevator rides to spin the camera round and admire my character's outfit and other attributes.
In addition to the main storied planets, you can explore Uncharted Worlds. Essentially some of the planets in each galaxy, star system can be explored. Whilst this was a welcome addition, in terms of including side-quests (assignments) to the main story, the reality was that only one planet per system usually allowed set down, and then once there only one or two curiosities were available for you to drive up to and investigate. Sometimes you'd have to assault a base or check out an anomaly, but the bases tended to be built around a very limited set of tiles, often encountering the same base type on a number of Uncharted Planets. The freedom of the Uncharted Worlds is a real plus point in terms of longevity from Downloadable Content, because I can see a lot of scope for including additional content through this exploration mechanism, or even randomly generated assignments, the ability to do this is there, whether it is on the cards at Bioware I'm not sure. The limited implementation and repetitive use of tile sets at the moment take away from the feeling of galactic freedom that the game seems to promise.
Some frame rate slowdown when the combat becomes very frantic and littered with enemies. That was the main graphical downer for me. And I must say it only happened a handful of times. People have reported the texture pop-in being a major cause for concern, but I didn't find that annoying really. It meant less time loading in elevators or in game transitions and more time in game. So there were few seconds of low texture mapping till the proper textures were loaded up, it was a price I was prepared to pay.
Bioware had me, as I delved into their prequel novel. I was sold on their concept of bringing a believable science fiction universe to life, where I could take part in the main story line, and explore the nuances of the details left in all the sub-plots and side assignments. Mass Effect is going to be a trilogy, but the first installment was satisfyingly brought to a close without leaving a frustrating cliffhanger. The game world has enough depth to open up the story for the next games to come, I think Mass Effect will become a very popular vehicle for Sci Fi RPG's on the 360, and I'm hoping they will boost the games longevity with key downloadable content, building upon the uncharted world mechanism they have in place. Despite the few niggles and mechanisms that don't seem to work that well, I think Mass Effect has pushed the envelope significantly forward on what we will expect in our action RPG's in the future. What worries me is how can I watch other games dialogue scenes without having the same level of "acting" and lavish story detail? They've set a new bar for NPC interaction, and I doubt most games will be able to hurdle it.
Mass Effect, well worth your time and money, if you have any interest in good Science Fiction, Tactical Action, and Character progression/tinkering.
9 / 10