Mass Effect - Belated Review
Thursday, November 13, 2008 | Author: Mad Typist

So, I finally finished Bioware's latest epic RPG Mass Effect a month or so ago. I have this thing where I adamantly refuse to pay full price for a newly released game (save for the Rock Band 2 bundle, which will be in my trunk this weekend), so I usually don't get around to playing the popular games till a year or so after their release. I had heard that the PC version of Mass Effect was superior to the Xbox one. However, my cousin gave me the Xbox version, and I never turn down free stuff, so I bypassed the PC version and played the Xbox version instead.

I'm not going to go too in-depth - there are countless reviews out there that have full details on how the game works, looks, etc. However, here are some impressions based on my first run-through.

Here's the general gist of the game, for those of you who somehow missed out: you are Commander Shepard (you get to pick your first name, not that it matters), a human soldier in some futuristic sci-fi universe in 2186AD. You and your supporting cast of characters explore the known universe, while attempting to head off an alien force that threatens to destroy all life as we know it.


Customizing the character - I like to play female characters when given the choice in RPGs, so I went ahead and created a character I named Jara. The game allows you to completely customize the look of your character's face - I spent 30 minutes adjusting the bridge of my character's nose, the width of her mouth, debating which set of eyes looked just right and then agonizing over which haircut best represented who I thought Jara Shepard should be. You also have the option of picking your character's backstory (your family background, plus your experience in a particular battle - war hero, sole survivor, etc), which you will see reflected in dialogue throughout the game.

There are six possible classes you can choose from: Soldier, Engineer, Adept, Infiltrator, Sentinel, and Vanguard. I am a hack-and-slasher at heart, which means I usually end up playing all RPGs in the traditional "warrior" class, in this case the Soldier - heavy on combat, light on the magic stuff (a.k.a. "biotics" in the Mass Effect universe). Then, based on the class you've chosen, you get to pick which abilities to apply skill points towards (you'll earn more points as you level up throughout the game). Tip for Soldiers out there: apply points to the Pistol until you unlock the Shotgun, then just focus on that and the Assault Rifle for your weapons specialization.

Combat - Bioware has this gift for making games with compelling storylines and questionable game mechanics. That trend continues to be true for the Xbox 360 version of this game. Mind you, I've heard the PC version fixes most of the major annoyances, so consider that when reading this. Anyway, the combat system is an over-the-shoulder camera style 3rd person shooter, in real time. You always travel with 2 companions (you decide who you take on each mission), each with their own skill set (each of the 6 classes described above are represented by the various characters you add to your party).

Combat is... okay at best, but combat can get a bit confusing, and your teammates like to run directly into your line of fire, which isn't very helpful. The basic strategy I employed was to run away from my teammates (to avoid killing them) and then circle strafing like a freak, blasting away at anything that moved. Having unlimited ammo took a lot of the drama away, though the lower grade weapons do tend to overheat quickly, so that at least prevents you from holding down the fire button the entire time. Towards the end, if you do all the side missions, you'll find yourself able to acquire such powerful weaponry that combat is almost ridiculously easy.

Vehicles - There's also several sections of the game where you'll be piloting around a 6 wheeled tank thing known as the M-35 Mako. Most of the side missions take place on random planets, where you land and drive around in your Mako trying to get to various way points on the map. On occasion you'll do combat in the vehicle, utilizing the mini gun, plus some kind of cannon thing, to destory your enemies. Or, at least you'll TRY to.... driving this thing with any accuracy is an exercise in futility. It swerves and bobs all over the place, and trying to drive and aim the gun at the same time is impossible. Eventually, once I leveled up my sniper rifle enough that it could actually aim (another complaint - the sniping system is not so good), I ended up stopping my Mako outside the range of my enemies, and just sniping them from a distance. Fortunately, there's only one point in the plot where the Mako is super important, and for that you can drive straight through without worry about shooting stuff.

Inventory - During the course of the game you will pick up various pieces of armor and weaponry after combat, plus a variety of ammo and upgrades to make those items even more powerful. I'm not going to lie - the inventory is a freaking mess, just as it was in Bioware's previous titles Jade Empire and Knights of the Old Republic. You'd think they would have figured out by now that scrolling through a single list of all your armor, weapons and upgrades (none of which seem to be in any particular order by name or quality of item) is a terrible system. Again, the PC version should fix this, but it just frustrates me that Bioware's Xbox division continues to insist on making the same usability mistakes over and over again.

Storyline (mild spoilers)

But let's not forget that we're playing an RPG here, and the gameplay mechanics are just a means to get into the story. And boy howdy, did Bioware go out of their way to craft a sprawling epic space opera storyline.

You can tell Bioware put a lot of time and effort into crafting a fully realized universe. While you can't go to every single planet, the star map on your ship reveals dozens of interesting worlds, many of which I expect to be accessible in future releases of the franchise. Similarly, they've done a good job crafting a dozen alien races, each with their own history, personality and look. The universe itself has a compelling history, and it helps drive the storyline forward. Again, no spoilers here, so I won't go into too much detail, but I will say that you will be fighting a very ancient evil and exploring long dead civilizations for clues on how to defeat it.

Story quality - The actual main storyline is only about 10 hours or so long, but you'll be cheating yourself if you only play the main quest. Throughout the game you'll have opportunity to take side missions. These side missions really help fill out the universe for you, plus they give you valuable insights into the personalities of your traveling companions. The main story itself is fantastic and compelling, with the last hour of game play really wrapping everything together in a fascinating way. It's fairly linear - while you have some choice between which of the 3 main missions to take in the beginning, ultimately, you need to do them all to unlock the next main story mission, and from there, it's a fair straight line to the ending. That's not necessarily bad, as Bioware really delivers a top-notch storyline that feels like you're playing a role in a really great movie.

Morality system - The nature of the mission depends on whether you're playing as a Paragon (rescue poor helpless hostages and decline the reward money for doing so) or the Renegade (kill the hostage takers for fun, demand extra reward money from those ungrateful hostages). I played the game through as a Paragon, and felt pretty good about the way the storyline played out. The morality system didn't feel as sophisticated as previous games, but then again, I haven't seen the full game under a Renegade style, so I can't be sure how much the game changes based on the decisions you make here.

Dialogue - What makes Mass Effect truly exceptional is their new dialogue system. In previous RPG games, NPCs would deliver spoken dialogue, and then your character could respond from a menu of 2-3 canned responses (which you never heard delivered). In this game, you get a dialogue wheel with possible flavors of response (sympathetic, aggressive, noble, etc) , but your character actually delivers lines of dialogue different than what's written on the screen, making the interaction much more compelling to watch. For example, one character might ask you about your feelings on aliens. You are given the option of responding "I agree, aliens make me nervous" or "They're part of the crew, and I trust them". If you choose the second option, your character may deliver a 30 second speech about why it's important to trust your alien allies and how humanity needs to learn to work with the other races in the galaxy for the good of all. That sort of thing makes the game a much richer experience and feels more interactive.

The voice acting in the game is superb. Looking at Jennifer Hale's imdb entry, you can see she's done a lot of voice work in other video games and cartoons, and that experience has clearly paid off. Her female Commander Shepard is strong and heroic, and never comes across as awkward or hokey. I'm about to play the game again as a male character, but I expect that the voice acting will be similarly great from the male vocal artist as well. Bioware also scored some big actors for some of the characters you run across, including Seth Green, Keith David, Marina Sirtis, and Lance Henriksen.

Video Quality - The video is, no surprise, top notch. In fact, after I finished this game, I was spoiled at the quality of the motion capture and the natural way that the characters moved, and was appalled when I played Ninja Gaiden II, because the cut scenes looked so fake compared to Mass Effect. At the end of each major mission in the main plot, you're treated to some really gorgeous cut scenes, with the ending being particularly awesome.

In fact, because the storyline is so epic and the cut scene are so grand, I wish they would have included an option to watch all the cut scenes in one continual movie after you beat the whole game. I'd love to be able to share this story with my friends and family without subjecting them to watching me play for hours at a time. In fact, I wish all RPGs included that option. I'd also like them to include any scenes that I chose important dialogue that revealed something important about the NPCs I traveled with (e.g. the romance stuff, the part where I counsel Garrus, etc)

Moving forward - yes, it's true, Mass Effect is intended to be a trilogy, if everything goes according to plan. In fact, the game developer has taken the game in a very interesting direction by stating that you should keep your save files from Mass Effect 1, because they'll be used in Mass Effect 2 to determine how the storyline unfolds (since you'll make some pretty huge decisions at the game's end that will change how the universe functions). I'm hoping that I'll have the option to keep my character. Of course, that's just another reason for them to implement my request to "rewatch" the storyline from the first installment.

Wrap Up

Verdict: Run out and buy this game immediately. I was able to overlook the gameplay glitches and enjoy the Xbox 360 version, especially since the cut scenes look awesome on my big TV. However, if that bothers you, go buy the PC version instead.
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On 4:38 PM , Anonymous said...

I flippin' loved this game, it's repetitive nature and all. I explored as much I possibly could of every planet, I loved the story, I highly recommend it. I cannot however, muster up enough energy to play it again. Not at all.

Eddie Lopez

On 3:26 PM , Zane said...

That was a great review, but all I can think of is how in your picture of all the races, the geth look... wrong. Just look at it for a few seconds, you'll see what I'm talking about.