A milestone in demonstrating the persuasive power of hype
There is an awful lot which can be said of Bioware's latest RPG offering, Mass Effect. For the most part, it is a very ambitious title screaming of artistic inspiration, but it also harbors a huge list of problems and cut-corners. Both in terms of technical performance and design, development seems to have been expedited. while leaving behind countless traces of either a lack of time or effort. A seemingly very ambitious creation appears to have been castrated into nothing better than average by neglecting it's numerous faults.
“Surely, this cannot be! Is this really the Mass Effect game they have been talking about for ages now? Is this really the game so many people are proclaiming to be so close to perfection? ” – I find myself saying that an awful lot while going through the game again, after completing it once already. I suppose I should explain why I am even playing it again if I harbor such feelings. You could say that I am an achievement hunter, since that is one of my main motivations in replaying. Above all else, I really felt it was my obligation to get a better sense of this game, and to find out what it is that everyone is seeing which I am not. So far, my journey has not turned up the mysteries to which I desire to unlock.
I mean, surely someone must have noticed the game is creeping along at a constant frame rate under 20 frames a second. Surely, someone must have noticed the constant screen tearing and incredibly delayed texture pop-in. Surely, I am not the only one that felt all the planets and buildings look virtually identical inside and out, and surely I can’t be the only one who was left feeling that the universe is extremely small, bland and lifeless.
Apparently, if what I am seeing and hearing about this game is any indication, than I may be the only one to be disappointed at the abundance of poor implementations here. Say it isn’t so – someone else out there must not be as quick to forgive these numerous problems either. Left and right I am hearing perfection, and I am now beginning to wonder if I received the wrong game, or perhaps there is a new drug everyone else is on that I haven’t heard of. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to say that this is a really bad game. However, I am left feeling quite concerned and skeptical to the general feeling behind this game, when I cannot look at it without constantly feeling that Bioware cut a tremendous number of corners when designing and building it. I guess one thing is for certain; Mass Effect is a shining example of a game that has escaped impartial scrutiny and alleviated itself to the state of supremeness, thanks to the video game industry’s hype-machine.
Again, please don’t jump to conclusions just yet and think that I am trying to preach about this game being a disaster, because I am not. I don’t think this is a bad game, but I do think it is filled with a number of major problems, - both design and technical - and it seems to me as though Mass Effect has escape objective criticism. I can admit that I did get a small sense of satisfaction out of playing this so-called epic tale, but only to an extent. I do not feel that it is a “space opera”, or even the grandeur many seem to claim it is. It is a pretty generic science fiction game which does host a few original traits, but also hosts a number of performance related problems and an overall sense of emptiness.
Is the video games industry so scarce of creativity today that we must quickly praise anything that offers a new idea? It seems rather troubling that because a game can do one particular aspect very well, we – as gamers – are so quick to forgive the other glaring faults. Such is the case with Mass Effect – its character models are superb and unmatched by any game to date, yet no one seems bothered by the horrible frame rate and near constant tearing and texture pop-in. Much like with the concept of being able to travel to new words being somewhat of a new notion, it is a bit weird that more gamers don't seem bothered by the fact that less than 20% of the worlds are even accessible to you, and of those that are – they all look nearly identical.
Let us start with the visuals, since these are what seems to move games off the shelves the most today. Mass Effect definitely takes the cake in terms of character models. All of the character models boast a huge number of polygons and look incredibly lifelike. The facial expressions and animations are also excellent and portray the emotions very well. The particle effects also look pretty good, such as snow blowing in a fierce wind, but it should be noted that particle effects are not that common. Without a doubt, the thing people are seeing that will likely have them talking the most are the amazing character models. The facial curves are top of the line and jagged edges are almost nowhere to be seen (on characters that is). If you were to snap a screen shot of the game, the viewer is sure to love what they see, but seeing the game in fluid motion is a completely different story. The graphics have several major problems, which in my opinion are far to constant and annoying to be forgiven.
Screen tearing is horrible and occurs almost constantly. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this term, it is when the vertical synchronization of the frames are broken and portions of the screen display parts of different frames than other parts of the display, resulting in lines that are broken all over the screen. It happens almost constantly – so much that I found myself wondering how it was possible the developers managed to create so much tearing on a native 360 title. It is more understandable when a game port contains tearing since getting the v-sync right for the particular hardware being used is always an issue. The frame rate also constantly stutters and rarely (if ever) exceeds 20 frames a second – for the most part, it seems to dance around 15 frames per second with occasional increases if there is little on-screen. Since Mass Effect is a native game developed from the beginning for the Xbox 360 console, it's sad just how poor its performance is, since it has had its whole development cycle to get it right. Unfortunately, the game tears and stutters almost all the time, regardless of how much or how little is on-screen.
When present, the textures look excellent and are all high resolution, but textures come with their own problem as well. Texture pop-up is probably worse than both the tearing and frame rate combined. Anytime you enter a new area or approach distant objects, you will think for a while how bland objects look – seconds later the textures will pop in restoring the detail you would expect. It isn't a rare problem either; it happens all the time, in every location, and in some cases the textures can take five to ten seconds to even appear. I've seen texture pop-up occasionally before, such as slightly in Dead Rising, but Mass Effect is probably beyond the scope of anything you have ever seen before. Another gripe I had with the texture work is that in many cases the textures are re-used far too frequently, while occasionally changing nothing more than the color tone. While most of the textures look great, some of them don't look like that which they are supposed to represent. For example, I found it rather puzzling that as far as the eye could see there isn't a single crater on Earth's moon – either that or the craters look nothing like craters.
A weird quirk that many gamers may not even realize is that, while the game by default is very dark and grainy, it doesn't have to be that way. For the first few hours of playing I kept saying to myself, “aren't the graphics and shading really grainy?”. It turns out that this is an option you can disable if you go into the game's settings. I suspect it may have been turned on by default to protect the already poor performance of the game, but if this is the case, I can't say I noticed any performance improvement. In my opinion, the graphics do look quite a bit nicer with the grainy effect turned off, but many shadows still have the grainy effect whether you disabled the setting or not.
An even more annoying quirk is that objects and characters get stuck inside of other objects and characters from time to time. It doesn't happen very often, but happened to me at least several times. When it does happen you can't help but sit back and laugh at how cheesy it all looks. To say that Mass Effect is a feast for the eyes is not only a bit impartial, but it is quite a bit unrealistic and only takes into account one single aspect of visuals – the character models. If you are to take an overview at how it all comes together into simply being, then I highly doubt one could reach the same conclusion. Sure, there definitely is a lot to be seen and maybe even drool over, but there is just as much to be desired and just as much to complain over as well. Graphically speaking, just as much is wrong as there is right.
When it comes to the sense of hearing, Mass Effect definitely delivers. I wouldn't say it really comes through on the musical end, because for the most part, the music is just what you'd expect and nothing more. I can't recall being entranced or having any of the music stuck in my head. At the same time, the music didn't drive me to swan dive out my window either. There are a few nice sounding techno beats and the music does generally keep pace with the game, so for that it should be commended. The biggest disappointment in regard to what you are hearing are the obnoxious and repetitive one liners during combat. Sadly, the presence of these one-liners really down-plays the game to feeling cheesier than it already is because there are so few one-liners and they are constantly said. If you haven't cleared all the enemies in an area, the game still believes you have a threat in your vicinity, when you really don't, so you are likely to repeatedly hear “enemy is everywhere” over and over. At first you may just take heed, later on you will begin to ignore it, but several hours in the game, you will become really irritated with the stupid lines spouted by your characters during battle. Mass Effect's aural saving grace is really when characters speak. The voice over work is top-notch. None of the dialog really seems to be overly stressed, so the tone always sounds perfect. Surprisingly, all of the spoken dialog is superb. I can't recall a single character who sounded corny or unbelievable, which is something I couldn't say about too many games.
During discussions you often get the opportunity to choose how John Shepard will respond, which definitely adds a lot of life to the game. Oddly enough, the text you select on-screen sometimes greatly differs to that of which our protagonist will speak. I guess it's not so much of a draw-back since the game will always know how to interpret what you felt and wanted to say, but it is still sometimes annoying to hear a line that sounds quite a bit different than what you had selected. What is more of a kick in the crotch is the fact that much of the interactive dialog has an almost insignificant effect on the actual game. I tried replaying many scenes with different responses and came to realize that what you say is usually highly irrelevant since the other party always seems to react in a particular fashion in order to arrive at the same result. Of course, there are some occasions throughout the game in which you really do have a moral choice that will affect how events play out, but much of the time you are only being humored.
Speaking of choice – there are lots of opportunities for it. Most of the conversations you have with people will allow you to select different things to say, and many quests and side quests put an emphasis on you deciding whether you want renegade points – awarded for being a hard-ass, or paragon points – awarded for being kind or courteous. While your choices do seem to have immediate effects in the conversation, and sometimes even in how the events will unfold directly in front of you; they don't really seem to have a prolonged effect on how people will view you. The disposition level NPCs maintain almost completely disregards your notoriety and reputation, aside from things you may have said directly to them. This leaves the world feeling somewhat stale, since everyone claims to have heard about you, but no one acts any differently towards you based on how you have been treating people. In all fairness, this isn't something that is a requirement in a game, but one of Mass Effect's aims was to create a subversive world in which you felt that you were really a part of it. I can't say that I really got that feeling.
In fact, the more I played, the smaller the universe felt. One of my first impressions when getting into the game was the belief that there were a lot of side quests available. It turns out that there aren't nearly as many as there should have been, and it only felt like there were a ton at first because so many were readily available to you as you start off. In comparison to a game like Oblivion, I don't think Mass Effect had anywhere near 1/10 as many side quests. In fact, I completed the entire main story and the majority of all the side quests within around 20-25 hours. As an admirer of RPGs, I found that to be fairly disappointing, especially because I was lead to believe that the universe was huge and contained so much life and action.
Huge and full of life? Sadly, that couldn't be farther from the truth. I first realized this when I realized how few people there were in the Citadel, the capital of the Milky Way galaxy. I would expect such a place to be booming with life. Nope. The population density when you are out and about is incredibly limited and people are almost nowhere to be seen considering we are talking about such a major landmark of civilizations. The scope of accessibility throughout the Citadel is also quite limited. There are no living quarters to speak of – at least which you can visit. Instead, you can visit a couple consulate offices, a bar, casino, a couple small markets and other random minor places of interest.
Aside from the citadel, the galaxy is is made up of around 15 star clusters – each of which may contain 1-3 visitable worlds. Much of the exploration in the game feels a bit too much like a pen and paper RPG. For example, “visiting” some planets is nothing more than a dialog box that pops up on the screen telling you something like, “you step out on the cold planet and discover some minerals”, et cetera. Now to me this pen and paper approach not only feels cheesy, but seems as if development was being rushed.
Instead of actually letting you go about and explore these worlds, many of them are nothing more than bits of text you'd read in a paper-based RPG. All in all, I'd estimate that you can truly explorer no more than 20% of the planets in the galaxy. In fact, aside from the citadel to the left side of the galaxy, all of the star clusters are situated over to the right of the galaxy for some strange reason. Flying from star cluster to star cluster, or even planet to planet is nothing more than selecting its location on a galactic map and then watching a quick cut scene of your spaceship, the Normandy, flying. You do not actually get to control the spaceship at any point, if that is what you were thinking. While each of the star clusters may contain 1-5 solar systems, only a few scarce solar systems contain planets which will allow you to land. Even more disappointing is just how limited your access is on these explorable planets. When you set out to explore a new uncharted land, the routine is always the same. First you see the same quick cut scene showing the Normandy in the sky flying by and dropping off your all terrain vehicle, known as the “Mako”. Exploration consists of nothing more than a small square of terrain that you can explorer. Of this small accessible area, you will find that each planet looks virtually identical. Terrain is basically the same, textures are roughly the same, and if it weren't for the color variations you could easily mistake yourself for visiting any given world numerous times when in reality it is your first visit. You rarely will find traces of any civilizations on any of the planets, aside from those few which have a part in the main story. The rest may or may not contain an abandoned structure used by pirates – each structure looking identical no matter what planet you are on. Literally, go anywhere in the galaxy and almost every building has an identical interior design. With the exception of where some boxes and crates are positioned inside the structures, the layouts are identical no matter where you go. What sucks the most about these re-used structure interiors is that there aren't more than a few different ones, so you will visit the same looking buildings over and over again. Even more bewildering, or amusing I guess you could say, is the fact that you will occasionally run into a giant worm-like creature while cruising around in the Mako. Regardless of what planet you are on, evolution apparently always seems to create the same exact looking creature light years apart by a total coincidence. Lame.
Speaking about the Mako, I thought I should take a moment to get this off my chest - what in the hell where the programmers thinking when they devised this control and camera scheme? The terrain of the worlds you explore will almost always be rocky and ridden with crevices that make maneuvering a chore. Fortunately, your Mako is an all-terrain vehicle and doesn't have much of a problem climbing really steep cliffs. Unfortunately, for some reason the camera always finds a way to get caught below the Mako, making controlling it quite a tedious task. Combat in the Mako is also quite a hassle since the cannon loves to shoot in areas that the reticule isn't pointing.
Controlling the Mako isn't the only problem with the control scheme. The button mapping doesn't seem to be very well devised. The A button is used far too much and many other buttons are almost never used. Throwing grenades is done with the Back button – you heard right, that small button left of the Start button. This was one of the poorest control choices since it puts an action you'd intend on using fairly frequently in one of the most inaccessible areas. I found myself throwing grenades but only a few times during the entire game because of how difficult it was to access them in the heat of combat. Since you always have two members other than yourself in your squad, you have the ability to control them. Doing so is done with the directional pad, which also seems oddly planned out, considering how you need to keep readjusting your handle over the controller just to do different things. An efficient control scheme should mean that you are capable of doing everything you need to do without having to re-adjust based on what you plan to do. Sadly, that isn't the case here. What's worse is the squad commands feel very unresponsive. Sometimes your squad will completely ignore the commands you give them, while other times they will just wait several minutes before executing them. Pulling up your weapon and special move selection menus will temporarily freeze the game as you sort out what you want to do. You can interpret that as a good thing or a bad thing, since it does make combat easier. However, I was under the impression all of the combat was real-time, which simply isn't the case. The control isn't unmanageable, but there are definitely some causes for concern which should have been addressed.
Ask role playing gamers what the most important aspect of an RPG is, and without a doubt, many of them will respond with, “a good story”. Well, thankfully Mass Effect's story isn't half bad. Actually, it's pretty strong for the most part. To summarize, mankind has just entered the era of galactic union with civilizations throughout the Milky Way. Recently discoveries are underway which unveil alien technology, which enable sling shotting through space. Since humans are new to the galactic scene, many other civilizations are a bit skeptical over their position in the galaxy and feel that the galactic council is babying humanity as its pet. Of course, humanity has the opposite viewpoint and feels as if it is being treated unfairly by the galactic council. Much like Star Trek and Star Wars, it's filled a lot of political rhetoric. At least, there is a considerable amount of character development as well. All of the playable characters you will encounter in Mass Effect are not only unique, but have a history surrounding them that you can learn about as you progress in the game. Each of the different “alien” races hosts its own unique physical characteristics and culture which the game does well to establish. While there is definitely a degree of variation between the different races, I was surprised to see so few races present, considering the enormous scale of the galaxy and likelihood of intelligent life. Of course, it could be said that it was better that development focused on clearly defining and creating a few species as to creating loads of mediocre ones.
As an astronomy enthusiast, I was disappointed to see how little research was even put into designing the game. Sure, these aren't worth making a big deal over or belittling the game for, but I couldn't help but notice how scientifically inaccurate certain aspects of the game were. Besides the obvious lack of more of a variety of sophisticated life forms (which one could argue is only theoretical anyway), I was a bit amused to hear the speakers on my television rumble when the Normandy would be sling shotted towards your destination; the ironic part being sound waves don't travel through the vacuum of space. The way solar systems are constructed also contradicted what we know about planet formation. For example, inner planets tend to be smaller and rocky, while outer planets are usually gas giants. Not so in Mass Effect; everything is just thrown around in any which way. Now of course to the layman this is nothing, but it is my feeling that if you are going to bother to do something to begin with, you might as well research it to make as many people buy it as possible. Sure, these examples are nothing worth making a fuss about, but to me it demonstrates a lack of planning and research, and that is something worth making a fuss about.
While playing Mass Effect, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed at the number of design issues which seemed to occur consistently the longer I'd play. The first one I noticed was that there is an alarming lack of check points (or auto-save points), which will no doubt result in you replaying large portions of the game over again. Further, these points always seem positioned at awkward times right before long sessions of dialog, which means each time you continue you will need to either listen to it all over again or smash down on the control until you figure out there is a skip button. Then I realized stores are virtually meaningless – when you begin the game everything is so incredibly expensive it is out of your range, and by the time you can afford anything you have gear that is far better anyhow. Besides the fact that objects can get stuck inside other objects, they can even move inside other objects. Again, this doesn't happen often either, but it happened several times to me. Once, a leader of a pirate group which I was supposed to take down got stuck inside some crates, making him impossible to kill, and therefor the mission impossible to complete. You shouldn't have to load up your saved game to correct problematic behavior of a game, but I did on at least two different occasions. If you are a hard-core experience-seeker trying to get your characters as buff as possible, you will be very disappointed to know that Mass Effect seems to have a fixed number of enemies in the game. In other words, there are a set number of missions and side missions, and enemies will only appear during these, and once they are defeated that is it. There is no way to constantly level up your characters – in fact, if you wish to get the achievement for reaching level 60 you are forced to replay the game since there is not enough experience points to be gained through one play through. Combat is quite rare too; most of the game you spend just selecting irrelevant responses in conversations, hoping (or at least believing) that what you say will yield some sort of specific result based on your decision. Maybe it was just me, but I definitely felt a huge mis-balance between the amount of time you spend in combat, and the amount of time performing other tasks. Oh, and a word of the wise: if you are playing through it, make sure you have separate saves when you are approaching the ending, because once you complete the game, your last auto-save will be right before the leader, leaving you with no opportunity to go back and play anywhere else in the game.
In terms of replay value, I just don't see it. Virtually all of the side missions consist of the same generic routine as well. Make way to the planet in question, land, find a mineral deposit or debris on the side to break the monotony, eventually locate the abandoned structure, defeat the pirates and/or enemies, talk to the person you went on the mission for, lather, rinse and repeat. Once you've done one of the side missions you have pretty much done them all. There are a few which try to break the mold, but the formula is always pretty close to the same. It didn't take very long for me to get a total grip on what was going down, and what you'd have to do each mission, which really left things feeling pretty predictable. After completing the game the first time, it wasn't until a couple weeks later that I even tried it again. When I did, I didn't even manage to get more than 25% through the game before getting bored and moving onto something new. It's not that there isn't enough to do; it just feels like it's too much of the same thing over and over.
Mass Effect really is an anomaly. It oozes with artistic inspiration and a commendable vision, which many games today lack. Sadly, at the same time, much of the aims feel lost in poor implementations and hurt from so many cut corners. It's obvious just how much potential there is here, but I would feel guilty if I reviewed a game based on it's potential and not on what it actually succeeded in doing. I love space, astronomy, aliens, and role playing games, so you would think this would be the perfect game for me. I honestly wish I could say that it was, but no matter how much I try to make myself love this game I can't get over it's numerous glaring problems. In my opinion, excellent character models and a unique story simply can't justify repetitive game-play and the numerous half-assed approaches. If development had used a bit more time, and a lot more patience, Mass Effect could have truly been something mesmerizing, but to say it is there now is not only unjustified, but unfair to all of the other games heavily criticized for the same problems. I've said it before, and I will say it again; Mass Effect truly is a shining example of what the video game hype machine can do to people's impressions of a game.
Overall Score: 7.3
Gameplay: (7) An admirable approach to mixing elements of RPGs with FPSs - it's too bad that there are so many design and technical problems.
Graphics: (8) Excellent looking high resolution character models. Seeing the game in fluid motion is quite the disappointment - constant tearing and frame rate issues mixed with horrible texture pop-in.
Sound: (8) Amazing voice overs that are delivered with the best possible tones. The annoying one-liners will get to you and the music isn't too memorable.
Lasting Appeal: (6) Repetitive gameplay has a new name. Every side mission is virtually identical, structures and worlds look virtually identical and the actual game can be *completely* finished in under 20 hours.