In trying something new, Bioware fell short on some fundamentals
Mass Effect has been out for awhile now and its popularity and success are deserved but perhaps a re-appraisal of its content is needed. With two sequels announced, one of which is on the horizon and statements from Bioware indicating that their "cinematic feel" will become a staple of future projects, it is time to look at Mass Effect with a more critical eye.
I should start off by saying the game was fun and I played through it both on pc and xbox360. It has game mechanics that are easy to pick up and there is an efficiency to its storytelling that keeps you playing and interested.
In fact its such a smooth ride that you barely realize its shortcomings until you are done. Upon a second play through it becomes clear that there is very little to come back for besides some different dialogue options. The universe in Mass Effect while deep in its back story, is relatively bland and empty in terms of exploration and game play. All explorable planets outside the main quest line are basically identical. Each appears to be the surface of the moon or mars except maybe with a purple or blue color scheme instead of generic reds and grays. All the explorable content displays a complete absence of imagination or effort.
Virtually every side quest is forgettable. Each one has the same mechanic. You arrive at a planet, drive around in the mako until you discover an enemy base (there are only two variations of carbon-copy bases) and then kill everything there with your party or in the mako. On rare occasion there might be a short dialogue to open the hostilities. Additionally, the very few quests that are based on character stories (all of which follow the same template as other side quests) are inconsequential to the main story and add very little to their own stories.
Mass Effect is also a game that can't decide on which genre it should embrace and in the process excels in no particular gameplay mechanic. While it was marketed and hyped as an rpg, it plays more like a shooter. The result is a game that feels watered down, a game is easily outsmarted and whose mechanics are not fleshed out.
The very base elements of an rpg are certainly there. There are nine possible variations on the character's backstory (though for purposes of unlocking alignment driven variations in the main story only two are recommended). It also presents a good story, although the traditional save-the-world-from-a-great-evil variation pales in comparisons to other Bioware endeavors like the Baldur's Gate series and KOTOR. Its greatest contribution is of course its dialogue system which is entirely voice acted and mostly well written. Mostly. There are some incredibly stupid moments, the most obvious being the sex sequences which add absolutely nothing worthwhile to the game.
However these story mechanics are not enough to overpower the absence of some components which are critical in any rpg. I've already described the game universe which just barely delivers. There are really only three class options with hybrid variations. Soldier is your typical fighter that can use any weapon, armor, and boasts superior health. Biotics use telekinesis to throw, push and spin enemies and while this sounds very cool it is almost always unnecessary. Engineers are able to debuff/damage enemies as well as sometimes take over robotic enemies. Each of the hybrids has the weaker abilities of two other classes and it is usually best to just bring one of each traditional class into battle and sometimes leave out the Biotic.
The game's weapon choices are also bland. There are four types: pistol, shotgun, sniper rifle and assault rifle (machine gun). Each is predictably suited for its traditional videogame purpose, though the pistols are mostly worthless unless your character cannot use the assault rifle. While there are hundreds of models of the weapons, the only statistic that really counts on them is damage, or in the sniper rifles' case accuracy. Additionally the ammo and attachment variations only boost one of a given weapon's stats or improve its damage against a certain enemy. None of the the ammo or attachments are particularly interesting. Worst of all however, every weapon looks pretty much the same. The only variations are in their color scheme and very minor changes to their shape. In the end, it is impossible to recognize a specific weapon unless you designed this game. There are also grenades but they were clearly an after thought, rarely of any use, and never necessary.
Just as the rpg elements felt only half done, so did the shooter elements. Since accuracy was based purely off character ability and weapons stats, there is no point in head shots or any aiming at all. Just point the targeting reticle so it covers as much of the enemy as possible and fire away. Enemy AI is mediocre at best with a few notable exceptions in boss battles. Even in the most challenging battles however, the most successful tactic generally involves finding a piece of cover inaccessible to the enemy or waiting for them to come around a corner. There is very little room for intuitive tactics or squad control. While you can direct your teams abilities and their movements to a limited extent, it more often is best to let them hang back rather than let them stupidly run into an enemy crossfire.
Why was Mass Effect such a mixed bag? Maybe it was because the development team was so obsessed with creating a cinematic experience they neglected the game's foundation.
In the final analysis, Mass Effect feels like an rpg made for halo fans who have never played rpgs. Sort of like Halo Wars. The good news is Bioware seems to have taken the various criticisms of their game to heart and are working to remedy them. As I said at the beginning, Mass Effect is a good game but just barely. So many other reviews have set out to praise it so I felt like balancing it out with some criticism.