During my holiday break, I got my hands on BioWare’s brand new science-fiction role playing game, Mass Effect. With Mass Effect, I sought to fulfill the fantasy of commanding a starship like Picard of the Enterprise or Adama of the Galactica. Mass Effect, in many ways, exceeded my expectations and allowed me to not only command a starship, but to also play the role of an interstellar diplomat, an explorer, and a hero of the galaxy. As wonderful as it may seem, my experience was marred by Mass Effect’s numerous technical and gameplay faults. What were these faults, you ask? Were they really that bad? Read on.
This chapter of Mass Effect revolved around a human, which I customized to my liking. Everything from gender, eyebrow heights, firstname, eye color, class and back story was available for personalization. I was Commander Elena Shepard, a red headed Vanguard who was proficient with shotguns, pistols and the limited use of Biotics, Mass Effect’s Force powers equivalent. I liked how I was able to choose which back story the NPCs could play off from. “Commander Shepard? The hero of ‘such and such’?” An interesting mechanic. Elena was not the prettiest gal in the galaxy, but I found her spunky attitude entertaining. One day I will see if her male counterpart is as likable.
The intrigue of Mass Effect obviously lied with the game’s antagonist, Saren, the Turian rogue Spectre. “What was he up to? Why did he betray the Council?” Mass Effect’s entire story apparently stemmed from his actions. Unfortunately, as much as BioWare tried, I did not find Saren to be as treacherous, dangerous or bad ass since “The Council”, Mass Effect’s all powerful tribunal, inducted Shepard into the Spectres and tasked her with the responsibility of hunting down Saren. Spectres have the power to do go anywhere and do nearly anything they wished; they only answered to The Council. I found it slightly odd to give a human so much power considering how young humans were compared to the other species. Hey, what do I know? Aside from being a racist (he hates humans) I thought Saren’s lack of villainous acts beyond the first planet, Eden Prime, did not help his “I’m the bad guy” campaign.
I commend Mass Effect’s writers for creating so much back story for everything in the Mass Effect universe. The “Codex”, a personal encyclopedia, contained all the optional information which pertained to the alien races I met including info about their technology and their history on the galactic stage. I found most of the information given to be fascinating and insightful. I also found answers to many of my trivial questions such as “Why the Elcor were so descriptive in their speech?” and “Why were the Krogans slowly fading away?”. Unfortunately, only the “Primary” texts were read aloud within the codex menu. I would have appreciated the “Bioshock tape” approach where the information could be heard while in-game and not only through the menu. In many ways, these texts helped immerse me into Mass Effect since they brought an additional level understanding.
Conversing with NPCs via the “dialog wheel” was one of Mass Effect’s greatest innovations. Since the wheel’s choices were mapped to the left analog stick, navigating through dialog trees felt intuitive and natural. The dialog wheel also required minimal amounts of reading since the choices available were reduced to short phrases which summarized what Shepard would say or do. The “good vs evil” system, known as ‘Paragon’ vs ‘Renegade’, was infused into the dialog wheel which mapped the positive outcomes on the top of the dialog wheel and the negative choices on the bottom. It was rather easy to predict the outcome of any given situation thanks to the lack of ambiguity in the choices. I would have appreciated the morale system a lot more if BioWare excluded the actual “good” or “evil” gauges. They should have reflected your morale standing through other means like through the NPC’s perception of you.
I simply adored the characters in Mass Effect. Regardless of the urgency of the situation I always took the time and listened to their life stories. Some may find their chatter to be rather verbose, but not I. “Please, Wrex continue on your tirade against the Turians and how they helped nerf your species reproduction.” Through the conversations with the characters I was drawn in closer to the Mass Effect universe. The characters not only shared information not found in the codex, they also expressed their personal opinions and views on the matter.
Mending the galaxy can be boring at times
Mass Effect’s structure follows the standard RPG formula. There is the main quest which has its share of unsurprising twists and turns until the very end; people were saved, people were killed and in the end I was left wanting more. While the final third of the game felt a bit rushed, I enjoyed the simple story. I was even intrigued enough to believe that Mass Effect’s story could happen in our own world.
It is understandable that the main story receives the bulk of BioWare’s development efforts, but why didn’t BioWare follow through with all the back story they provided? I admit the quests within the Citadel were somewhat interesting and so was the prospect of romancing one of my crewmates, but most if not all side quests involving other planets ended up being a handful of templates shamelessly repeated. “Oh shit! Biotics/Mercs/Rachni/”some bullshit” got a hold of the mines! Shepard, will you take care of them?” Of course, I said yes. Why not? It gives me experience points, credits and gear. It was not like the quests were challenging since it was the same things over and over again:
- Land on the planet.
- Bring up map and set way points
- Navigate through the mountainous terrain in the Mako.
- Eliminate targets and leave planet.
The structure in itself isn’t disappointing. No, it was the uninspired planets and locales which these quests led me to. Regardless of the planet’s description, these “uncharted worlds” were virtually lifeless and void of any interesting geography. “Oh, this planet has large bodies of water? Then why don’t I see any?” It could be that Shepard and the gang enjoyed landing in the middle of huge continents, but that is just making lame excuses.
What’s the Mako? It was an armored all terrain vehicle with a mounted machine gun and cannon. It also had jump jets. The Mako was an interesting vehicle which I always pushed to its limits in terms of climbing ability. This thing could scale nearly anything. It could also survive any fall, however touching even the most minute amount of lava will render the Mako inoperable, killing its occupants instantaneously.
I am in command?
Mass Effect is undoubtedly a role playing game first and third person shooter second. Mass Effect’s combat is anything, but good; it was not visceral or intense enough. The artificial intelligence as a whole was laughable. The old adage “it’s so bad, it’s good” applies so well here. I loved it when the enemies funneled their way into my party’s gunfire incessantly screaming “Enemies everywhere!” and their intentions to kill me. I also loved how my party members strafed fire their way towards their assigned locations regardless of obstructions. Walls? They can see through them. Why else would they continue to fire?
The controls were functional except for the queer choice of pressing “Back” for grenade throwing. Holding the bumper buttons paused the gameplay while I switched weapons or used various abilities. A commonly used ability could be mapped to RB for quick use and the LB could be used to toggle between two weapons. Depending on which class was chosen, the number of pause induced actions will vary. Fortunately, since I chose the Vanguard class, Shepard’s guns did most of the fighting. Pfft, Biotics. Controlling the squad’s movement could not be easier since it was a simple point and execute affair. Squadmates will take cover when possible, but I have seen them stand there and put their bodies on the line. They also performed their orders in pairs only since there was no way to issue orders to each of them individually.
Aside from talking, shooting and casting there was also hacking to be done. Reminiscent of BioShock’s implementation, the hacking minigame required one of two actions: 1) play a simple puzzle game (in this case a Simon Says-esque game) or 2) use ‘omni-gel‘. The minigames were easy regardless of the rated difficulty. The same minigame was used for recovery of artifacts and surveying of mineral deposits as well. Honestly, they could have done without this rubbish.
Items in Mass Effect were found in crates, lockers, containers and at merchant stands throughout the galaxy. All the items can be equipped to any character; only restricted by their training. These items can also be sold or reduced to omni-gel. Like the rest of Mass Effect, there were a few quirks to detract from the experience. There was a ridiculous 150 item limit, the inability to sort items, the inability to scroll down the item by pages and the inability to remove weapons my characters were not trained for. Oh, they could have used an optimize equipment function to minimize the time spent dressing characters for battle.
The leveling and talent system for Mass Effect could be automated or manually maintained. I chose to distribute those talent points and I am glad I did since the “Electronics” and “Decryption” talents of one my squad mates became invaluable in my quest to get rich quick. I was pleased to learn that I did not have to level each character independently since the talent points I earned on the field were magically transferred to my crew back on the Normandy. Experience points lead to talent points and in Mass Effect: everything gives you experience points. The usual completion of quests and destruction of enemies yielded experience points, but unusual sources such as the inspection of the Normandy’s hull or the surveying mineral deposits also bore fruit. I am not sure how Shepard becomes more ‘charming’ or ‘intimidating’ from reading about the Normandy’s drive core, but it works out.
Beauty with a cost
Not many developers outside of Epic Games can utilize the Unreal Engine 3.0 well. BioShock’s developer, 2K Boston was one of the few who successfully displayed visual flare with only minor technical issues. Unfortunately, BioWare falls short and does not get to join the elite club of Unreal Engine 3.0 developers. Mass Effect showcased nearly every irritable technical issue including framerate issues. Mass Effect does not run consistently at 30 FPS. It tries hard to, but it still exhibited signs of screen tearing and slowdowns regularly.
Framerate problems were tolerable though; I did play Assassin’s Creed on the PS3 after all. The loading in Mass Effect, on the other hand, was the biggest thorn in my side. The length of each load time was not excruciatingly long, however the frequency of some of these load times was just obscene. Games like Metroid Prime utilized elevator sequences to successfully mask the loading. Mass Effect also used elevators to mask loading, however, the game would also take brief timeouts mid-area to further load the area into memory. In addition, texture pop-ins occurred after nearly every load which was especially annoying during dialog sequences when layers of skin and detail suddenly overlay somebody’s face.
Why bitch about all of this? Because it breaks the immersion. The absence of sound during the long elevator rides on the slowest elevators in the galaxy (ex: the Normandy’s elevator) give my XBOX 360 plenty of opportunities to make itself noticeable with its loud disc reading and fans. As if it could not get any worse, I encountered numerous bugs including a weapon switching bug which made it impossible to switch weapons for certain characters because they were stuck in the “switching” state. You can also add — Thorians walking through walls, Shepard getting stuck in unusual places and level loading issues where my entire in-game screen failed to render — to the list of bugs.
Character models crafted for Mass Effect were undeniably awesome. The Krogan and Turian races were especially impressive with their intricate facial details. Everything else including the lighting and animation of these characters were some of the best I have seen to date. I do not believe anything else beats Mass Effect with regards to real time facial animation.
From a distance the backdrops throughout the Mass Effect universe were very surreal. The initial reveal of a new world always captivated with BioWare’s impressive use of different colored tones and filters. I wish I could say the entire game’s levels and areas were designed well, but it was not the case. Like I mentioned earlier, the planets involved with the main quest were the ones which BioWare invested the most time in. These planets were differentiated with actual winding routes, bodies of water, plant life and a variety of different buildings.
Highlight of my ears
The vocals and the phenomenal soundtrack by Jack Wall and Sam Hulick were the highlights of Mass Effect for me. To give voiceovers for every single line of dialog in the game is one thing, but to have every line delivered well is a whole other level. Like I said, the characters were verbose, so you might as well make it so that people want to listen. As for the soundtracks? They kept me immersed in every situation with their sci-fi vibe. Seriously, words cannot describe how much I love Mass Effect’s soundtrack.
A fitting end
I invested approximately 34 hours into Mass Effect, amassed nearly 1 billion worth of credits (off by just 1 credit) and, according to the achievement, completed a majority of the game. I spent a lot of time with Mass Effect and I wanted to love every second of it. Every time any one of the mentioned faults appeared, I did my best to ignore it and push forward in hopes that the game will get better. In the end, I was left a tad bit disappointed. Perhaps it had to do with my own expectations based on reviews and media hype, but I simply felt Mass Effect’s numerous flaws ruined what was arguably one of the greatest science fiction role playing journeys ever. Regardless of the negativity I expressed, I can honestly say that enjoyed Mass Effect. The conversations, soundtrack and the story of Mass Effect are the highlights which I will take from this game. I want to see this trilogy through until the end, so I hope BioWare fixes most of my complaints in the next instalments. As for my recommendation? There are gamers out there who can push the mentioned faults aside and if you are one of them, Mass Effect is recommended. Otherwise, if you are not one of these tolerant fans, I would give this space epic a weekend rental first.
For Fans Only