Intergalactic travel too long? Just play Mass Effect!
Mass Effect is a pretty difficult game to score because there are something’s about the game that seem inexcusable in terms of it’s overall polish and even flaws within the inherent design itself, but there are some things about the game that other games try to do what Mass Effect does but either never really exploits or achieve it, and in itself you may be thinking just like me of the question; “What made that game so great?”
First off Mass Effect was made by Bioware. Bioware has typically done very high quality RPG’s and Mass Effect is not only on that list, but it also comes out being one of the best, up there with games like Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights. That may seem like a bold statement as both of those games are in their own right phenomenal games, but Mass Effect not only does enough to hold its own against those games, but also does enough to set a status of its own.
If you have been following along with this game then you would know that this is one of Bioware’s rare occasions of developing original stories and settings. At first glance it may look very much like a Halo game, but to judge the setting by that would be very much wrong. Shying away from the Star Wars art style, Mass Effect is a more utopian future with… architecture that’s very difficult to describe. One reason for this is because there are a wide variety of both citadel science fiction environments and more wild uncharted environments, but none the less they are beautiful to look at not only from a technical standpoint, but an artistic standpoint as you’ll sometimes wish you could just take a picture of the scenery. I won’t go into too much detail of the environments because there just that good to hold back from, and it’s just best to experience them first hand.
It wouldn’t be a science fiction game without fiction, and if anyone thought that a science fiction game from Bioware would never be as good as KOTOR because the fiction wouldn’t be as rich as Star Wars, they’d be wrong. Mass Effect’s universe is incredibly rich with detail, and how Bioware overcomes this is that they carved out the fiction mostly in the form of codex. Now what a codex is is essentially an encyclopedia of topics about the Mass Effect universe. Everything from how faster-than-light travel works to every species you meet, the codex will fully explain the fiction,even better is that it’s voiced. Speaking of species, Mass Effect has a lot of them, and none of them feel like skins over humans or non-sentient aliens. All of the species have a distinct characteristic to them both physically and socially. Again I don’t want to ruin anything for people playing this game, but the characteristics of the aliens you meet can be hard, polite, robotic, or even condescending. Also adding to the fiction of the game are the planets. There are about 17 different clusters in the Milky Way of Mass Effect, inside that is several systems like our Solar System, and inside that are individual planets, moons, asteroids, and even ships. What’s amazing about these planets is that they all have their own bio. Though it’s not as meaningful in the game as the Codex’s, you can read up the history of several fictitious planets and even real planets like earth, and all of the biographies have detail on either/or pressure, environment, climate, temperature, geography, civilizations, settlement, history, or physical characteristics such as orbital length. All of this really adds to the fiction and makes Mass Effect’s universe highly believable and a universe of its own, and if this trilogy continues it may be just as deep as the Star Wars universe or even the Star Trek universe.
But enough about the setting and fiction, it’s what the gameplay that matters right? Well Mass Effect has thrown traditional basic hack and slash sword fights or turn based combat for a more action orientated experience. It plays very much alike to Gears of War, as you have a similar cover system and aiming mode, you also have access to 5 different types of weapons at any given time which pretty much cover your basic shooter weaponry which is the shotgun, the pistol, the assault rifle, and the sniper rifle. All of the class’s minus the solider though cannot use all of these weapons, well you can use them, but you can’t really aim with them. If you use a weapon marked “untrained” you can’t use the aim function on them, effectively making them near useless. In place of that for many classes is the ability to use biotic and engineering powers, this is where the combat system gets a little more exciting and complicated than your regular shooter. Engineering skills are more of your basic lock picking hacking skills that allow you to hack open crates or use computers which offer different solutions to what usually may be a direct one. In combat, engineering skills offer more indirect methods of damages such as causing toxic damage, hacking robots to attack each other, or overloading shields to get rid of them while causing damage at the same time. Biotic skills are more direct in that you manipulate enemies by lifts, throws, and vortexes. What these skills do is offer much more tactical choices in combat especially since you’re on a three man team. For instance you can use the vortex skill to converge enemies onto a location, use the overload shields technique to both weaken and cause much more effective area of effect damage, and finally use the soldier’s rocket like ability with the shotgun to finish them off. There are a lot of choices and combinations to make which makes the action part of the gameplay more exciting than even many other games that focus purely on that, but if Mass Effect was just a shooter, it still be a very good game but there is more to this game than just shooting.
A good RPG always as a competent if not fantastic story to go along with it and Mass Effect is no exception. You play as Commander Shepard, a human who’s caught up chasing this fugitive named Sarren, and that’s basically all you need to know about the review because I can’t go into the story for your own sake, because it’s really worth experiencing. Everything from the small little game of galactic hide and seek with Sarren to the climactic end is simply amazing and really well handled, but most of your time will actually be spent talking to people. Don’t be fooled by the action combat, this is still a Bioware RPG and here the dialog system and alignment system has changed dramatically but at the same time still feels like a Bioware RPG. First of all the dialog system has been replaced with a dialog wheel which instead of giving the whole response line, paraphrases it into a short “Can I help?” or “Screw you.” However the response given by Commander Shepard is in whole sentences. The alignment system has probably changed the most because instead of one bar that represents good and evil, there are two bars that represent Paragon which is your “nice guy” points and Renegade to represent your “bad guy” points. These don’t just translate into good and evil as paragon is more representative of your morals while renegade represents your lack thereof, however being renegade can represent you doing things for the greater good such as killing a terrorist by sacrificing hostages. These seem like big changes but the overall RPG game still feels like Bioware.
It helps that Mass Effect looks really good as well, thanks to the Unreal Engine 3. Textures look crisp and nice, lighting is also fantastic, reflecting off skin and metal, and during some of the elevator transitions you can see the real time shadows casting as you go down. The details on the characters are also superb, especially on the more alien characters where you can see creases in their skin, and metal platelets to a solid thick looking exoskeleton. But all of this is probably not the biggest graphical showcase of Mass Effect, because where Mass Effect truly graphically shines is in its facial animations. The facial animation puts even games such as Half Life 2 to shame and that’s probably part because more of your attention is designated towards these heads during dialog, but you can see when someone is being sarcastic by their faces, being angry, sad, fearful, and they also use body language such as tilts of their heads, and rubbing of their necks. Also said before, the back drops and art direction is also amazing, as in some missions you’ll be on rolling hills and mountains while looking at the beautiful blue sky’s.
One of the other gameplay sessions of Mass Effect are these driving sequences. Mostly during the side missions you get hot dropped onto a planet on a rover called a Mako. The Mako is possibly the most all terrain vehicle ever built as it can scale mountains and high angles, and will survive in hot, cold, dry, pressurized, and humid climate conditions. These sequences show off the amazing looking backdrops and environments Mass Effect has, while adding a more exploring context to the game as you can also be sidetracked looking for insignias, minerals, or writings all over the planet and other planets. You will also be combating in the Mako with a tank cannon and a coaxial machine gun at hand. However these sequences aren’t that great because of some problems with the sequences. For instance there are some monsters called Threser Maws that pop up when you drive on flat terrain. These can be really cool since they are huge and rumble your controller like crazy but they can spawn sometimes right beneath you resulting in frustrating death or glitches. The other problem is, is that your gun has a limited Y axis which makes some fights really frustrating as you can’t line up your shots. Though the overall combat and venturing feel is still good, especially on the main quests where more thought is put into these sequences, if you want a better experience with Mass Effect, look for my future game guide that will tell you some ways you can deal with Threser Maws that wont result in instant death, or how to deal with the limited Y axis.
Where do I start on the audio? Well I can start by saying Mass Effect possibly has the best audio of any game to date,* as the voice acting alone makes this bold statement true. Voice acting from Keith David playing a serious alliance captain, and Seth Green as a cocky show off pilot that has the skills to back up the attitude. The best thing you can say about the voice acting though is you don’t really think about it. It all just seems to blend together in this world that almost seems real because of the dialog, the voice acting, and the facial animations. It’s hard to shake off the fact that they are just bits of code since they react realistically to your responses, and believably to your actions. Of course I wouldn’t say it has the best audio without saying that the music is anything less than fantastic.
Bioware has always been one to use amazing original scores, so much as to reject the faithful John Williams soundtrack in Knights of The Old Republic for an original score that fits perfectly into the Star Wars universe. It’s no surprise that Mass Effect has the same thing in that the music fits perfectly, but what’s surprising is that while there are some amazing orchestral scores, the game doesn’t rely on that, but instead the soundtrack is mostly consisted of trance or techno music which gives the game a much more futuristic sci-fi feel, which is something you don’t see many science fiction anything these days, and it’s nice to see Mass Effect going in a direction of space opera that makes it feel sci-fi at the heart. However it’s not as if the orchestral scores are a weak link, in fact the techno trance music help the impact of the orchestral scores even more as when it is playing it signifies the severity of the situation and makes if feel very epic, so moments when the orchestral music kicks in it makes it feel special. Bar none if there was any game that I would choose that had the best audio, Mass Effect would stand tall as one of those choices.
Mass Effect isn’t without its flaws however, and as being such an ambitious game you’re bound to seem some imperfections. For one, there are graphical glitches to the game as you can occasionally get stuck in the geometry of objects which may set you back to a last save, and being an Unreal Engine 3 game there are texture pop-ups but what’s even worse is they pop-up very frequently as it shows up when you encounter a mineral or even when you talk to a person. Framerate dips are often but tolerable considering the scope of this game, however if you are someone like Jeff Gertsmann who cannot tolerate frequent framerate drops, it be best to proceed the game with caution or buy the PC version if you have a nice PC. There are also some gameplay flaws consisting of the already noted driving sequences, but also on foot action has some dire need of tweaking. For one the automatic save system is severely flawed as there are just not enough of them. When you die and forget to save you can be placed a whole hour behind what you’ve done and it can get really frustrating to the point where you just want to turn off the game and try another day. There is a manual save system which I advise you use frequently, but manually saving is a pretty big pain and it also breaks up the pacing of the game. This wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t so easy to die in Mass Effect. Including the Thresher Maws, on foot there are one hit kill rockets or one hit kill snipers that you have to deal with (two his if your lucky or playing a tank), mix this with the broken autosave system and you have a recipe for frustration. My biggest beef with the gameplay is that of the side missions. There are some genuinely exciting side missions with some dealing with negotiations of your persuasion skill, perception skill, and your own personal tolerance, and by personal tolerance I mean your own will to tolerate others. But most of them consist of going to a specific planet and killing a bunch of guys, robots, or alien life forms and possibly but very rarely dealing with a dialog tree or two. Another big problem is that all the side missions that involve you going into a facility that uses the exact same layout every time and there are only about 4 layouts. Eventually the side missions get monotonous and thankfully they are optional, and the main missions have more thought put out through them, but you’d probably wish that a little more thought was put into more of the side missions.
Though with all those flaws I still believe Mass Effect is a five out of five, even though those flaws would turn any other game into a four out of five, or even a three out of five. But there are something’s that Mass Effect does that rarely any game, let alone RPG does, and that’s to give an immersive experience with an amazing story, with amazing characters and presentation that the player will never forget. I know this review has broken past the 5 page mark, but even then there are things I haven’t scratched the surface on, and those will be things you will be pleasantly surprised such as character creation, upgradeable weapons and so on. If you love games with amazing stories with morals, messages, and a climactic satisfying ending, or if you love actually role playing as a character, Mass Effect is a must buy, and it’s a game you will defiantly want to play more than once.