Game Review: Mass Effect

Courtesy BioWare
“Don’t argue with me. You’re the one who killed the last keg, so you’re getting us a new one!”

In preparation for the upcoming Mass Effect 2, I thought it would be appropriate to see how this new series of sci-fi role-playing games began. As a caveat, I played the first game on the X-Box 360. After playing Dragon Age: Origins (which I also hope to review soon) on the PC I believe I might be getting ME2 via Steam, partially because the PC control scheme seems more suited for RPGs and partially because GameStop no longer takes pre-orders for the Collector’s Edition. Jerks.

The year is 2183. Humanity is, as far as the rest of the galaxy is concerned, a new kid on the block and with their violent and xenophobic history, somewhat unpredictable. They’ve only just discovered the disparate ways of manipulating mass effects, which are phenomena of physics that allow what we understand as physical laws to be bent. On a personal scale, this permits certain adepts known as ‘biotics’ to manifest telekinetic powers, while starships with the proper equipment can interface with ancient mass relays to catapult themselves across the galaxy at speeds exceeding that of light. As humanity struggles to gain more recognition among the established democratic government of the galaxy, based on a space station called the Citadel, Terran officer & player character Commander Shepherd encounters a dire threat to all sentient life.

Stuff I Didn’t Like

Courtesy BioWare
“I said ONE keg, not THREE! How are we supposed to scale that cliff with all this extra weight?”

  • The Mako. I know it’s trendy to rag on the vehicle sections of Mass Effect, and this might sound like me baying along with the rest of the herd. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what went wrong here. It’s an excursion vehicle that allows the crew to cover a lot of ground on a planet’s surface, it’s capable of moving quickly over all sorts of terrain even in defiance of gravity, and it’s reasonably well armed. I think part of the problem is that it’s not terribly well protected, and when you hit the button to make repairs, the ENTIRE vehicle shuts down and sits there idle, just waiting for the Geth to shove rockets up its exhaust pipe. While the Mako sections could be somewhat tolerable if a tad tedious outside of combat, going from one plot point to the next in the thing whilst navigating a gauntlet of Geth had me nearly spiking my 360 controller on more than one occasion. It’s one thing for a game to be difficult, but Braid never made me want to break things and Mass Effect, while overall a good game, is no Braid.
  • As an aspiring novelist, I appreciate long passages of prose, and knowing that there’s some thought and foundation involved in the universe being created is, to me, both a comfort and an inspiration. That being said, a video game does not need to unceremoniously dump reams of text into my online codex just becase I glanced at a monitor in the course of the game. As fascinating as I find mass driver weapons technology and the concepts behind different forms of interspecies communication, I’m a bit busy trying to save the galaxy or at least salvage something cool from the nearby planet and don’t have the time to read all of this stuff. Save it for a wiki or online database. Unless you want to include a minigame of Shepherd on the toilet.
  • This is a minor nerd quibble, but the gravity on all of the planets I explored was apparently the same. Shepherd and the team never had trouble walking around the surface of a planet at their normal brisk pace, and the Mako was capable of scaling rock faces regardless of the planet’s location. Footage of astronauts on the moon showed that a reduced amount of gravity can change how humanoids move from A to B while on foot. Given the amount of work (and text) put into things like the red & blue shifting involved with faster than light travel and the particulars of the hand-held weapons systems, I would’ve thought somebody at BioWare would have taken the time to refresh their memories on how space exploration has been going so far.
  • The lack of a tutorial, the abrupt nature of some combat encounters and the sporadic way in which the game automatically saves means that Mass Effect has something of a steep learning curve. It’s also unapologetic in the occasionally brutal way it’ll kick your ass. Ignore a certain adversary entering the fight or forget to use a particular ability and whammo, Shepherd’s twisting in a grotesque way as the dire and deep ‘Game Over’ music plays. Some of my deaths might have been alleviated in the PC version of the game, given my experience with Dragon Age.
  • Along with lots of exposition, the game likes to dump scads of weapons modifications into your inventory. The micromanagement of equipment does allow the player to match the weapons of the party to the upcoming threat, but it’s rather tedious at the same time. It also means that whatever modifications you don’t need can be sold or broken down into the goop that repairs the Mako and hacks crates, which goes a ways to solving any money problems you might have.

Stuff I Liked

Courtesy BioWare
“If anybody makes another crack about Robot Chicken, I will turn this ship around!”

  • The SSV Normandy feels like a military vessel. It’s compact and sleek, clearly designed for speed and maneuverability. In comparison to dreadnaughts and other large capital ships, it appears small, almost tiny. I feel this is more appropriate for a game where you are a special ops agent and need to get from place to place quickly, rather than having the Powers That Be say, “Well, you’re the protagonist, so here’s our shiny new flagship that’s 172 decks tall and bristling with firepower. Try not to scratch the paint, now!”
  • The powers of biotics are well-realized and seem more grounded than the magic powers in some other games. You won’t be shooting lightning from your hands or setting things on fire with your brain, but tossing objects and people around, surrounding yourself with a protective barrier or stunning an oncoming baddie are all possible. The most potentially outrageous power is the creation of tiny black holes, but considering the powers tie into the manipulation of mass and whatnot, it’s not as far-fetched as the whole Force lightning thing.
  • Despite my annoyance at pausing the game to swap equipment around every few minutes, I like the weapons the party uses. The devices all collapse down to a portable form when not in use, and they’re light enough that everyone can carry a few at once. This means you can visually see a character swapping one weapon for another rather than it magically appearing in their hands. It compensates for the breaking of immersion by the micromanagement bits, and adds a feeling of dynamic action when you tap a single button and watch your character holster their pistol to reach behind their shoulder for the assault rifle.

Stuff I Loved

Courtesy BioWare
“Kegs are stowed and tapped. Set course for the nearest intragalactic strip club!”

  • The galaxy map is one of the best realized aspects of the game. Now, this might only be my opinion since I’ve been a space nerd since I was knee-high to a corn stalk, but seeing things like the Horse Head Nebula displayed in vivid color with different worlds of all kinds to explore kept me very happy for quite a while. I almost forgot about the impending doom of all peaceful life in the galaxy as I sent the Normandy from one system to the next just to poke around and see how many habitable or near-habitable worlds existed. I was reminded of days gone by when I’d play ‘Privateer’ until all hours of the night just taking cargo from one place to another because I wanted to see new systems. I think I’m going to stop on this point, however, because between this and the gravity quibble, I’ve just demonstrated how incredibly dull I am.
  • As much as it’s fun to give BioWare a rough time over the sheer amount of text they toss at you, the writing that they produce is always good. Mass Effect is no exception. I’ve heard some people complain that the games produced by BioWare are somewhat formulaic. I will admit that but I’d also ask the question of why it’s a bad thing. The last time Coke tried to drastically change their formula, things ended horribly. Applying archtypical characterization to different people in different genres isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. It’s like killing an established character – it’s all in how you do it. And BioWare has proven they do this quite well.
  • The conversation system is another key to the success of Mass Effect’s immersion. It’s one thing to hear an NPC give their exposition then choose from a number of responses ranging in tone from “Selfless defender of the downtrodden” to “Dickhead.” It’s another to pick a general mood you want to convey, and have the voice actor convey it for you on command. Not only does it maintain the flow of the story, it allows us to be surprised at Shepherd’s choice of words.
  • On top of everything else, the game looks fantastic, even on the X-box 360. The expressions of the characters perfectly match the excellent voice work. You get an appropriate sense of scale from the way things are put together and despite being a science fiction game, the ships and structures have a realistic feel to them.

Bottom Line: Since the game hovers around bargain prices in most places and is available on Steam, I say buy it. It’s some of BioWare’s best writing to date, with a compelling story, plenty of content and action… oh, yeah, and sex, too.

3 Comments

  1. “I’ve heard some people complain that the games produced by BioWare are somewhat formulaic. I will admit that but I’d also ask the question of why it’s a bad thing”

    Why? Because I played with the same characters in Neverwinter Nights. I played with the same characters in KOTOR. I played with the same characters in Mass Effect. I played with the same characters in Dragon Age.

    At least in Dragon Age, they got more unique personalities. But it’s still the same ragtag group of characters that fill the exact same roles.

    In fact, I bet I can give accurate descriptions of almost all the characters in Mass Effect 2, and I haven’t even read material on the game.

  2. Here’s what I think you should do:

    – Write the names of the ME2 characters on an index card.
    – Next to each of them write out your descriptions.
    – Seal it in an envelope.
    – After the game’s been released and people are tearing it to pieces, open the envelope.

    If you were right, have yourself a beer on me.

  3. I can’t name them. The names aren’t formulaic. But I can give you a paragraph description that’ll fit each of them.

    And I think I will.

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