Mass Effect for PC: A Shiny Gem in a Turd-filled Bucket of Issues
Mass Effect, a hallowed and highly anticipated RPG from BioWare first graced the Xbox 360 last year and was subject to many favorable reviews and commendations. Sadly, this is not the case for the PC version. While it has potential to be as great as its console sibling (where potential is measured by the power of your PC), it ultimately fell short when ran on something less beefier.
I played Mass Effect on a machine slightly over the minimum requirements and I was shocked at how poorly it scaled. I ran the game at its lowest settings (640x480, all visual effects off) and it looked and played poorly. My computer was unable to handle anything above these settings, and it was still routinely laggy and would often freeze for a couple of seconds or crash my computer entirely. Although I'm told this game looks delectable at it's highest settings, it quickly became a parade of awful textures, jaggies, and rooftile-sized pixels on the lowest. I have a theory that the reason developers invest in making graphics cutting edge is to make players want to look at the game, and this does the exact opposite. I cannot stress how awful this game looks. For comparison, this game looks worse than Half-Life 2 or Knights of the Old Republic at their lowest graphics. In fact, I would rather look at the graphics of the first Half-Life before looking at this mess. And besides newer innovations such as bump-mapping, better lighting, and newer particle effects, I'm still mystified as to what is slowing it down.
Sound was of standard quality, though the taxing of system resources meant that at heavy bits the sound occasionally stuttered and crackled. Otherwise, the voice acting is supreme (top of its class) and the score, though occasionally overly epic and spacey, is acceptable.
This general slowness and choppy presentation did not render the game unplayable but came close. Combat and movement became arduous tasks, but this is due to technical issues. Having played this game on the 360, I appreciate the new gameplay system molding 3rd person shooting into a traditional RPG. However, it's far from flawless. The cover system was not the buttery smooth action players of other games such as Rainbow Six Vegas or Gears of War are used to, and I often found that taking cover still left my character open to fire. Squad mechanics, though present, are mostly ineffectual, and I often found my team members either hanging back and never shooting or wildly entering the fray and summarily being annihilated. It's considerate that BioWare has included medpacs that affect the whole squad and recharging shields, but it still feels clunky. Gunplay is vastly more satisfying and visceral then your standard RPG fare, but I found the class limitations on weapon use (unless you play the Soldier class, you will be limited to being able to use only the pistol and another weapon type effectively) a damper on fun. Plus, until you invest a wealth of points into your weapon stats, your aiming will be rather inaccurate (some would say this makes sense in an RPG setting). The PC version also implements a tidied-up menu system, which unfortunately still feels like it was made for the console-tards, and also brings a quicksave system. This quick save system is a welcome addition, but handles nothing like any quicksave out there: firstly, there is no quickload key (?), which is an obvious pain. Also, the game refuses to let you save in combat situations or anywhere it deems plot crucial and it wants to shoo you along to the next cutscene. For example, the game refused to let me quicksave from the time I became a Spectre till departing the Citadel (which I could never successfully do, more on that later).
Next, let me bring up loading, one of the severe new changes. I don't think this would even change on a top of the line PC, for now there are multiple new instances of small loads within levels. These range from moderately frequent to incessantly annoying; for example, in some parts of the Citadel one can only take about 10 steps before being accosted by another load, and the staircase in the Normandy gets two of its very own load times. The large loads (between areas) are lengthy as well, and demonstrate how poorly optimized the game was for PC: the visual of the spinning mass relay frequently freezes and lags, and the sound becomes oh so choppy. And that's on a load screen.
Last of the game aspects – the plot. To paraphrase that old saying, you'll come for the plot and stay for, well, the plot. The plot and story of this game was the only thing that kept me going through performance hell. BioWare is a master of RPG plotlines and Mass Effect is no slouch. I would not call this game their magnum opus, but you won't be disappointed. It's a story with characters you can care about, and one that leaves you carefully plotting your actions (albeit not as carefully as KOTOR due to the double meters of Paragon and Renegade that can both be filled without subtracting from the other). I won't go in-depth here but the plot is definitely above video game par.
To conclude, Mass Effect could have been a good game but is severely marred by technical issues that I assume arose from sloppy porting, courtesy of Demiurge. Though users with high-end gaming rigs undoubtedly get the full experience, those who run machines above the minimum requirements but not overly powerful will be left in the dust. This game simply does not scale; it looks bad, and it handles bad. When developers alienate a majority of gamers and don't take the time to make this game enjoyable on all levels, they've forgotten what gaming is all about – having fun. For this, I award Mass Effect for PC 1 out of 5 stars and a swift kick in the DVD.
P.S. Let me tell you a secret, I didn't finish the game. Wanna know why? Because it crashed my computer every time I tried to access the galaxy map!