Mass Effect Reader Review
I’m a Star Wars fan. There, I said it. And so, of course, are many other sci-fi and fantasy geeks, from Beckenham to Mos Eisley. Now, before you think you’ve clicked on the wrong link and found yourself reading an old Knights of the Old Republic review, let me continue. I’m also a fan of the Terminator series, you know. And, while Star Wars is considered ‘cool’ when put next to an extreme sci-fi geekcore franchise such as Star Trek (which I’m also a huge fan of, but don’t castrate me), Terminator is a series with almost unanimous ‘cool appeal’ for the... how can I put it... ‘general population’. Star Wars and Terminator have two very important things in common, in the context of this review. 1) they both have ‘80s sci-fi’ written all over them (yes, I know the first Star Wars was released in ’77, and Terminator 2 was in ’92, but 80s sci-fi they are, so there) and 2) recent sequels, or prequels as the case may be, have been disappointing-to-crap in comparison to the original classics.
This raises the question of whether sci-fi movies in the modern era can ever be as good as the aforementioned series. Well, of course they can, in the same way that the Star Wars prequels could have been just as good as the original films had their scripts contained decent dialogue and remedies to various other ailments. In short, just make a good movie, damnit, instead of churning out franchise extensions for the Hollywood cash cow. Mass Effect, of course, is a video game. God knows a good film could be made from its concepts, but given the fairly high chance that a mess would be made of it, like the Phantom Menace or Terminator 3, it’s perhaps a relief that the game itself delivers as near to a top-drawer cinematic experience as any video game has delivered to an audience thus far.
Of course, Mass Effect is just the first title in a projected trilogy, so the threat of sequel syndrome will not apply until we get our hands on Mass Effects 2 & 3. It does, however, like Star Wars and Terminator, just scream ‘1980s sci-fi’. But this is just the general feel, and in no way do the characters, aliens and technologies found within the game seem dated or out of touch. Mass Effect is in fact outstandingly modern in these areas, yet the game does retain that 80s feel, largely thanks to Bioware’s attempts to make the game not only look, but sound like a classic 80s sci-fi picture. Two features, film grain and motion blur, are in effect both in-game and in cutscenes, and give the visuals a sense of character that really prick ones nostalgia nodes. Both features are optional, and can indeed be switched off if desired, to give the visuals a clearer, crisper look. But this takes something magical away from the onscreen proceedings, leaving a shallow, uninteresting void. Options they are, but frankly, I fail to see why anyone would wish to turn them off. But then, I fail to see why anyone wouldn’t like Star Trek, so each to their own horse for a course, or starship for a galaxy.
I did of course mention Mass Effect’s sound, and the score provided is both appropriate for the 80s feel, and of sufficient high quality. Electronic, synthy sounds are reminiscent of the first Terminator movie, and are a welcome deviation from the modern hard rock soundtracks a lot of games with big guns tend to employ nowadays. The music never feels out of place - ‘bad guy’ tracks are big and sinister, while victory tunes are suitably uplifting.
Having established that Mass Effect would make for a bloody good film, we’re onto the question that is most important if we’re going to play this thing all the way through - do the ingredients Bioware have thrown into the galactic cooking pot actually make for a good game? Fans of RPGs, which Mass Effect most definitely is, and fans of RPGs made by Bioware in particular, will already have been 99.9% sure that the answer to this question would be a resounding ‘yes’, given the developer’s track record in delivering high quality titles that end up defining that particular genre. And so it proves that the RPG elements of Mass Effect are its strongest, with character building and interaction through dialogue shining the brightest of all the stars in the Mass Effect galaxy. You play as Commander Shepard, a member of the human Systems Alliance tasked with saving the galaxy from certain doom. You can play as the ‘default’ Shepard if you so choose (i.e. the guy on the cover of the game and in all other related artwork and released screens) but I found it easiest to identify with your character if you make him (or her, as the case may be) how you want him. There are further creation options, such as the Commander’s background story and class that give you plenty of scope to develop a character exactly how you wish, whether that is in the form of a renegade Earthborn Soldier who gets the job done, no matter the collateral, or a paragon Biotic (think Jedi) from the colonies who goes about his tasks in the ‘right’ manner. The options available really allow you to be anything in between, with an engineer-like Tech class available for selection too, as well as several options to play as ‘in-between’ classes, with a mix of Soldier, Tech and Biotic abilities. Your character’s skill tree can be filled with Talent Points as you level up (no RPG would be complete without a levelling system) to be put into whichever ability you desire; become an expert sniper and surgically pick off your opponents, or wage war as a shotgun toting carnage machine. The choice is yours, with the same choices available for Biotic and Tech skills, should you play those classes. Another RPG staple is the collection of and continuous upgrade of items like weaponry, armour, and other tools. Found a kick-ass set of armour on an unchartered world? Equip it to your character and sell the previous armour, or palm it off to one of your squad mates. And you can upgrade that shiny new armour with better shield interfaces and damage reduction pick-ups to boot.
The other important RPG element in Mass Effect, that being its dialogue choices and how those impact the world (or galaxy, I should say) and characters around you, does not disappoint either. As with most other games of the genre, dialogue choices range from ‘nice’ to ‘mean’. In fact, in Mass Effect these are probably better referred to as ‘response choices’, given that they only hint at what your character will say or do. Choosing ‘Screw you!" may in fact result in your character saying ‘Go to hell!’ and punching an NPCs lights out, and it’s exciting to realise that your choices will play out like a moment from a film, as opposed to Shepard blandly reciting the exact line that you’ve picked. With the range of these choices as they are, it is only right that other characters will react differently depending on what you select. If you want to pander to everybody and make friends, well go ahead, but if you want to be a bastard and piss people off on your way to saving the galaxy, then fill your anti-grav boots, space cowboy.
I already mentioned the game’s Biotics as being akin to Jedi, and the Star Wars comparison continues. The galaxy imagined by Bioware in Mass Effect feels extremely reminiscent of Uncle George’s creation, with a myriad of different aliens and planets to discover, but the Mass Effect universe holds enough new ideas to stand out on its own merits. It’s clear that a lot of thought and hard work has gone into making the 22nd century Milky Way as real and as fleshed out as possible with Codex entries collected as you progress through the game. These give detailed information on alien species, political systems, galactic history, technology, and so on, and succeed in their aim of hugely broadening the scope of the story. Without wishing this to come across as hyperbole, the feeling is that this could easily be a real galaxy somewhere in the future, and via a hook-up to your console, you’re living in it.
I name-dropped Knights of the Old Republic at the beginning, and as those of you in the know will already be aware, KOTOR is another Bioware space-RPG. It comes as no further shock then that Mass Effect plays rather like its pseudo-predecessor, with a system of planet and space station exploration, picking up party members and side-missions from NPCs along the way. A big difference between the two is of course the cinematic feel of Mass Effect, which makes the scenes and dialogue in KOTOR seem rather Betamax compared to Mass Effect’s HD-DVD. Another major difference is combat; KOTOR employed the classic RPG turn-based, point-and-click combat, requiring the player to essentially choose which enemy to attack with a click of the mouse, before sitting back and letting the abilities and items built up for the character to do their thing, only interfering to deploy a special ability or heal up. While the special abilities and healing (in the form of medi-gel pack collectibles) remain in Mass Effect’s combat system, the point-and-click form of engagement has been upgraded to a system that is neither its simplistic forebear, nor full on shooter. Combat in Mass Effect is essentially a style of shooter made for fans of RPG games who are rubbish at, and therefore generally dislike, shooter titles. Yes, this includes me. I’m crap at shoot-em ups, and I wouldn’t play Gears of War or anything similar if you switched on my 360, loaded the tray, and super-glued the pad to my resisting palms. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that many fans of shooting-based titles will feel that combat is somewhat lacking in Mass Effect, but it is also important to note that these folk prefer a more hands-on approach to their brutality, and would turn their noses up at classic RPG point-and-click fests like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights in the same way as I do shooter games. The main gameplay appeal of Mass Effect is in its character building and story elements, and this should not be forgotten.
In essence, Mass Effect helps people who are no good at shooters believe they are, in fact, brilliant at them. Indeed, while escapism accounts for why all gamers play games full stop, this particular brand of escapism is what defines RPGs and thus attracts its fans. As you upgrade your weapons (and choosing ammo suitable for the opponent you’re set to face off against) and advance in levels, your shooting becomes more accurate, but you still have to aim - it’s just that Mass Effect is far more forgiving of your bad aim, and as long as your targeting reticule is within a certain radius of your enemy, it will glow orange and you are good to unload. It’s fun stuff for gamers of... well, gamers like me, basically, although the never-fails method of gunning and running until you lure your AI-retarded enemies to a chokepoint like a corridor can get a little repetitive after a while. But then again, gamers like me are far too busy congratulating themselves for creating such a god-like protagonist to really worry about a minor gripe like that. I said ‘god-like’, and this is fairly close to the truth, and will also come as no surprise to seasoned RPG-ers. It is a little curious that the closer you get to the end of a game, the easier it becomes due to your character’s and your squad mates’ high-level skills (at one point it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d died), but this is another RPG trait and one that pales against the consideration that, by this point, in a game with such grand cinematic scope as Mass Effect, you just want to experience the rest of the story.
There are some more gripes with Mass Effect, the primary one being the Mako, the all-terrain vehicle used to explore the unchartered worlds that contain many of the game’s side-missions. Put simply, it’s rubbish. Too cumbersome and clumsy to effectively drive around and shoot baddies with, which usually ends up with you having to go off and hide behind a rock while you repair and let your shields regenerate. This takes an absolute eternity - several times I just hid the Mako and left the game running while I went to the loo to let my shields come back up. Normally, I’d say all this was just a minor gripe, but given that these unchartered worlds contain so many missions (and thus, lots of xp for advancing levels) having to explore them with the Mako in order to reach the goods was tiresome work. Hopefully this will be remedied in Mass Effect 2.
The side-missions themselves are fun enough, and vital for gaining xp, but given the main story is put forth as a race against time to stop the destruction of the galaxy as we know it, it sometimes feels like you’re Commander Nero, fiddling while Rome burns. Suspension of disbelief, easy for the RPG-minded, takes care of that - but other issues, such as an omni-gel (used for repairs and computer hacking) limit of 999, and an annoying inventory cap of 150 items, can cause you to miss out on some upgrades unless you pay careful attention to how many duplicate upgrades and unneeded weapons you are picking up.
Mako aside, these are minor sticking points in an otherwise epic story of galactic survival. Having reached the end of this very fine instalment of the Mass Effect saga, I can’t wait for the next - here’s hoping that Mass Effect 2 will be another 80s sci-fi classic, and not another drab modern sequel.
9 / 10