Riddled with technological hiccups, a great story prevails
Fair. What's a fair score for a game that is rich with story and character development with breathtaking visuals to boot but fails in technical performance and repetitive environments? A game that leaves you speechless by the end but trying to drive around to complete missions and actually get to the end is a frustrating chore? A game where every choice you make will have an impact on how that mission, and possibly future missions, plays out but auto-saves are so poorly placed that failing a battle will have you talking through the same dialog over and over?
Before I go any further, let's get one thing straight. I loved Mass Effect. Certainly one of the best games I've played in a long time. It could possibly go on my "ever" list. Despite all its technological shortcomings, 35 hours later I can't wait to start all over again with a completely different character. It's story isn't original and is something of a hodgepodge of Halo, Star Wars, the Matrix, Contact, you name it. Some may call it predictable. But it works. And the characters make it work on a personal and emotional level as well.
Unfortunately, the game is riddled with problems that ruin the game for many. So let's get those problems out of the way first.
Biggest issue? Definitely texture pop in (up?). The graphics in Mass Effect are gorgeous and understandably it takes time to load them – especially in open world environments where the system is trying to buffer data around your location before you get there. While a few games have been successful at this in the past it seems developers haven't quite got the handle of it yet on the new consoles. So the biggest visual drawback is lots of texture pop in. Mostly only after loads but it can really occur anywhere. I even had it happening during cut-scene conversations which I think is inexcusable. That's just bad programming and resource management.
Random loading. While you're playing, Mass Effect is trying to load content into its buffer before you get there. Unfortunately, the buffer can't always keep up, even when you're not moving quickly. While it's not nearly as bad as Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, it happens and anytime you're walking around freely, only to be interrupted by a frozen screen trying to load content, it breaks the mood and takes you out of the environment. An interesting side-note: All the slow-moving elevators that people complain of are actually cleverly disguised loading screens.
Inventory management. This one has come up a lot. It was even discussed with the people at Bioware in a 1up.com article who said they didn't think it was a problem. And no, it's not huge. Inventory management is certainly doable. The problem is that there is no way to sort your items. So like Oblivion, you're stuck scrolling through long lists of items. This is so easy to fix. Why can't developers get this sort of thing right? And how do these poor management systems get approved to begin with?
Poorly placed auto-saves. Part of the problem here is that they're inconsistent. On some missions they'll be at the perfect spot – right after long dialog and right before the battle. In others, even if you save manually (which you can at any time as long as you're not in combat) you're forced to go through long sections of dialog before the difficult boss battle. Fail the battle and you restart from your last save (however far back that was) only to have to go through the entire dialog again... and again, and again. Very irritating.
Terrain variety and the Mako. Driving the Mako around in and of itself isn't so bad. Sure, trying to back up or get turned around can be frustrating but I can deal with that. Mostly though it's the terrain that you're constantly bouncing wildly over that's the issue. Why is it that every planet you land on has very little flat ground and instead has super steep cliffs that take ages to crawl up? Although it is nigh impossible to flip the damn thing. I did however manage to do it: on flat ground nonetheless. Which sucks because there's no way to right the thing.
Terribly written love saga. For such a wonderful story this inclusion sucks. Seriously, who wrote this part? The same people that wrote Star Wars: Episode 2?! "Hi, we just met. We're suddenly awkwardly in love. Let's do it. No, we have to wait." I'm all for a little love story but it could have been handled much better. For how quickly things start, the mood just wasn't there.
Mission environment variety. It's not really that the missions are repetitive. In any game you're pretty much going to be doing the same thing over and over. The missions here even do a pretty good job at distinguishing themselves. But every moon base and cavern is exactly the same. You can walk into each one and know exactly which rooms the enemy will be in – also because there's only four rooms. It's for this reason that non-story missions begin to feel tedious. Enter a system. Pick the one planet you can land on. Bounce around wildly for 10 minutes. Reach objective, maybe encounter outside base defenses. Enter base. Enter hall. Enter main quarters. Defeat bad guys. Explore other two rooms and wrap up mission criteria if necessary. Blah.
Short. At 35 hours?! Yes. Truth is, if you skip all the side quests Mass Effect only has about 6 "chapters." Each chapter may take you a couple hours to play through but it's a little disheartening when you look at your mission list and can see 3 objectives that, once completed, will lead right to the last mission. More story development and searching the galaxy would have been excellent.
Crates. Yup, just like any RPG you have your standard crates full of weapons and health packs. Ok, cliché but no big deal. Except you have to play some little "Simon" mini game for nearly every one. Fine, but is that really necessary?
Unrelated dialog options. Admittedly, this isn't a big deal and most RPGs of this nature are guilty of it but, to me, I feel it affects the mood of the game. The scenario is some kind of heated situation when suddenly you're presented addition dialog options to inquire the person on a more personal level. It's not the response you'd make naturally. And that response is present in your options. But you know that if you want to get more info and experience you'll have to take that awkward dialog detour. So it's a matter of do you stick to the feel of the situation or do you play the points game? I wish developers would come up with better solutions for these types of situations.
Still with me? Good. Because if you can overlook all of Mass Effect's little inadequacies you'll be immersed in an imaginative world full of unique and memorable characters with a great story to boot. Which is what this game is all about. If you can lose yourself in the story, then just like a good book, it'll be hard to put down.
While it's unfortunate that the revolutionary dialog system (the one that let you interrupt NPCs while they were talking) got dropped from the final build, you're still left with several dialog options that will affect the outcome of that meeting and may impact future missions. Increase your Charm or Renegade attributes (I went Renegade which was a blast) and you'll open more options that can dramatically change the course of a conversation or even avoid a conflict altogether. It's through these options that you'll face some tough choices – the outcome of several which will lead to some amazing "holy ****!" moments. The ability to make choices with a real impact as well as the number of different character c1asses you can create and teammates you can play with really adds some worthwhile replay value. It'll be the same story of course, but it certainly won't play out the same way twice.
Example: In one side quest I found myself confronting a soldier holding a scientist hostage at gun point. Well, no, not hostage. He was about to kill him. The scientist was meek and non-threatening so my initial reaction was to simply take down the man with the gun. I am a Renegade after all. But rather than hastely kill him, I chose to ask some questions and it turned out that the situation was related to an earlier mission and the scientist was part of a group that I had dispatched of earlier - so technically, I was on the same side as the would be killer. With this info I now had four options: kill the soldier; try to convince the soldier to "stand down;" let the soldier kill the scientist; or kill the scientist myself. I won't spoil the ending but my version was definitely a "holy ****!" moment. I'm eager to find out how that, as well as many other missions play out when I make different choices.
And yes, that little irrelevant side mission was superbly detailed with unique actors for each part - or well unique enough. Which brings up the point again that the story and the visuals are really the hallmark of this title. If you're willing to immerse yourself in this universe, the cut-scenes will be a joy and will carry you through to the end. And really, any time you're talking with another non-player character it'll be easy to get wrapped up in it. While the lip sync is far from perfect, it's good enough to be believable. Add in the excellent voice acting, lighting, modeling and textures and you're left left with truly cinematic scenes that are engaging and fun to watch as well as play through.
But the story is only half of it. This is an "RPG-shooter" after all. Even with some squad based tactical elements. This too I've heard complaints about. For me I thought it worked well. Your teammates may not be the smartest but I never once found myself at a disadvantage or killed because of their actions. That's not to say that you or they won't die. It's not uncommon for them to die but it isn't the norm either. Plus, you'll eventually get a handy little ability to resurrect fallen teammates during battle so it's not really an issue. Unless of course, "dead" teammates returning to "life" ruins the feel of the game for you. The key to combat in Mass Effect is using your team's powers to your full advantage. Everyone has something to offer and in difficult boss battles it's worthwhile to make use of those abilities.
Except for some frustrating boss battles, the combat is straight-forward and relatively easy - especially as your hero(ine) levels up and acquires more powerful weapons. Playing as a Vanguard, I found the Pistol/Shotgun combination to be quite effective - the shotgun taking down lesser foes with just a single shot on the Normal difficulty level (from just about any range). A nice feature of Mass Effect I feel is the leveling system itself. On normal your team will level up by themselves. As you increase the difficulty, enemies will level up as well to match you. Personally, I've never cared for enemies leveling up. I think it defeats the point of leveling in the first place. (If we're going to remain on even ground, why go higher?) This seems to be a really good compromise however, allowing the player to adapt the game to their preference of play. On the whole, my teammates did a fair job of protecting themselves: they'd take cover and use shield power-ups when necessary while I managed their attack biotics and special abilities.
Mass Effect's version of "magic" or "the force" is biotics. A special case that grants the wielder the ability to physically manipulate others around them. This includes things like pushing groups of charging enemies away with an invisible burst of energy or suspending them helplessly in the air, to disabling enemy shields or causing their own weapons to explode and damage them. While it's doable to play through the whole game just shooting your way, I found it much more enjoyable when I employed my own biotic abilities in conjunction with those of my teammates to easily bring down difficult foes. There's just a very satisfying sense of power when you can have one teammate disable the shields of a Geth Colossus while you lift it helplessly into the air with another going fully automatic on it with an assault rifle, then finishing it off with a shotgun blast of exploding bullets.
Despite side missions taking place in similar locations giving them a somewhat repetitive and tedious feel, they are enjoyable. The real meat of the game though is within the main storyline. Some of the side quests feel a bit tacked on as if Bioware was just trying to fill out the game and make it longer. While the story is very well developed as it is, I wish Bioware would have spent more time creating a longer story that involved more missions and more exploration and detective work.
When all is said and done, I think Bioware put out a remarkable product and I can't wait for the sequels. While the ending of Mass Effect sets you up for the next chapter, it ends well with a fairly solid conclusion, albeit a bit cheesy. There's still questions left unanswered of course. Mass Effect is intended to be a trilogy however and one that I'm quite looking forward to completing. And with any luck, Bioware will be able to complete all 3 for the 360 before the next-gen consoles.
While there are many technical problems, I never found them to be so distracting or insurmountable that they detracted from the enjoyment of the game. Driving the Mako got laborious and repeating scenes of dialog over and over after dying in battle was frustrating these were minor instances and once overcome they were quickly forgotten. Even the constant texture pop in after loads weren't enough to disrupt my pure enjoyment of this story.
Whether or not Mass Effect is a must buy depends on your personal taste and own buying habits. Personally, I quite often regret outright buying games without trying them beforehand. Mass Effect is not one of those. I enjoy it immensely now and it's the kind of game that I'll be able to go back to a year later and enjoy all over again without feeling like I've "been there, done that."