A while back I mentioned that I’d be sharing my thoughts on Mass Effect. I finally got my act together and put down some of my thoughts, so, at last, I give you my “official” (ooh, ironic quotation marks!) review…
I’m not a console gamer. Since I sold my original NES back in 1991 or so to buy a VGA monitor, I’ve been reliant on the PC for my video gaming experiences. (Okay, so I owned a SuperNintento for a short time in college and I’ve got a GBA stashed somewhere, but aside from that, I’m “pure.”) That being the case, I essentially missed most of the hype about Mass Effect when it came out for the X-Box 360 last fall.
Oh, sure, I heard the media buzz about how it’s a revolution in RPG gaming, an incredible interactive story, and all that claptrap from blogger Kevin McCullough about how it’s a sodomy simulator. (I don’t know WHAT game HE’S playing, but it’s certainly not Mass Effect, which has about as much to do with sodomy and–as McCullough put it–“virtual orgasmic rape” as Monopoly has with clubbing baby seals. But hey, why bother to research what you’re talking about when you can just make up inflammatory crap that’ll get you attention, right? But I digress; time for an end parenthesis.) Even so, as I had no ability to actually play it, ME mostly passed under my radar until I heard a little while ago that there was now a PC version.
I asked a friend of mine, who seems to invariably know more about things on the Interwebs than I do, just what sort of game Mass Effect is. “It’s like Knights of the Old Republic without all the Star Wars trappings,” she said.
Like KOTOR? Well hey, that pretty much sold me right there; if I were to make a top ten best games list, KOTOR–with its immersive story, addictive gameplay, and replayability–would be on it. (To be fair, I may be combining KOTOR and KOTOR2 into one game with the strengths of each making up for the other’s weaknesses, but that’s an entirely different blog topic.) So, because I don’t have enough diversions in my life (yes, kids, that’s sarcasm!), I picked it up.
Mass Effect in fact comes from Bioware, the same developers who brought us KOTOR and the Baldur’s Gate series, and the flavor of those earlier works–more so the former–most certainly echo in Mass Effect. The story that drives the gameplay is excellently crafted both in the motion of its plot and the setting through which it weaves. The political structures, alien races, and technology of the galaxy are so developed as to be contained with a codex that the player can read (or in some instances, listen to) as they encounter the subjects in question. It’s so detailed that it’s pretty much a sourcebook for the game’s universe; you’ll certainly never need to know everything listed there, of course. Heck, I suppose you could easily play through the entire game and not open it once, but it does provide an extra bit of insight into things for those who just can’t get enough. (On a side-note, one wonders if they originally designed it that way or simply figured that putting it ALL into the actual gameplay and dialogue would make things too wordy for some players, but didn’t want to throw out all their painstakingly crafted background.) As for the story itself, it makes great use of all that setting (well, okay, not ALL of it, but it IS an entire galaxy, and there are at least two more games to come), and, while not as surprising as KOTOR’s or as philosophical as KOTOR2’s, was more than enough to keep the length of my individual gaming sessions much longer than I often planned just so I could find out what happened next.
The combat portion of the gameplay is, again, quite reminiscent of KOTOR, but with some differences. For one, rather than just queuing up an action and watching it happen, you’re controlling pretty much everything your character does in real-time, ducking behind cover, choosing when to pop out and fire, when to duck back, etc. You’re responsible for targeting exactly where you want to fire, throw a grenade, or aim a biotic power, so it’s much more reflex-based. On the other hand, if you’re controlling your own character so completely there’s no way you’ll also be able to do so for your two ever-present squad mates. They act on their own based on both simple scripts (which you partially control in that you designate how much they use their special powers) and individual commands. You can’t tell them exactly when to fire, but you can let them know when to hold, when to follow, what enemy to attack, and what powers to use. I’ve heard varying player opinions on how well this works, but for the most part (the weaker characters seem to have an alarming lack of appreciation for cover), it worked for me.
But Mass Effect isn’t without its problems. As I mentioned before, a number of reviews and forum-postings I’ve seen have declared it a revolutionary new RPG experience, tossing about hyperbole the way only the Internet (and marketing) can and calling it the RPG’s answer to the Halo series. While I believe that’s true, I also don’t consider it the high praise that it’s intended to be.
The problem with space, as Douglas Adams observed, is that it’s BIG. Give your players a spaceship that allows them to travel to a bunch of different planets as part of a sandbox and you’ve given yourself a problem. There are lots of planets in ME that you can visit that have little or nothing to do with the main quest. These planets look great when you first arrive. Sweeping rocky landscapes, anomalies to investigate, crash sites, ruins…except after a few planets, you realize that they’re all pretty much the same, differing only in the color of the rocks, the placement of the ruins (check!), anomalies (check!) and crash sites (check!). Oh, and if there’s a big flat open plain, you WILL run into a thresher maw (…check!). It’s all so cookie-cutter that it loses its wonder…though in fairness I will admit that the first thresher maw I saw had me springing out of my chair.
This problem bleeds over into the items available as well. Part of the fun of a game like this is exploring and finding some interesting little doo-dad that helps you in some way, enhances your character or just opens up an interesting story branch. In ME, you’ll either be finding a pistol, an assault rifle, a shotgun, a sniper rifle, armor, or various exciting plug-ins like “anti-personnel ammo III,” which is just like anti-personnel ammo II, but a little better. The weapons work that way, too, as does the armor. (And why the heck are crashed space probes stuffed full of armor and weapons?)
The game tries to give you a sense of exploration by letting you find insignia of lost members of alien intelligence communities or writings of an Asari matriarch. When I first stumbled on one of these I was expecting that there was some sort of story involved, that a bigger picture of what was going on with them would form as I found more, or at least that something neat would happen when I found them all. Nope! All it gets you is a little check box in your character history saying you found them all, with no real payoff. It’s like playing Doom and running around to collect the red, blue, and yellow keys not to open doors that get you to anywhere new or interesting, but just to be able to say you’ve got them. I understand these sorts of things are called Achievements in the X-Box community, but frankly I’m the sort of gamer who cares less about a score and a LOT more about having, you know, actual fun in gameplay.
It’s like they wrote the main plot, then figured they’d better puff up the universe a bit and at least provide the illusion that there’s interesting stuff out there. (Sort of like in the last scene of Star Wars when they put a few real people lining the aisle of the award ceremony, then got cardboard cut-outs for the rest?)
Getting back to the idea that Mass Effect is the RPG answer to Halo, it is. The problem seems to be that what’s new and innovative in certain genres to console gamers is old hat to PC folk. Halo was at best a mediocre first person shooter. Fun? Yes! Engaging? Yes, but awfully repetitive in places, and nothing particularly new compared to PC titles. It just had great marketing and the benefit of (I think, correct me if I’m wrong) being new to console gamers. Likewise with Mass Effect. KOTOR/KOTOR2, Baldur’s Gate 2, Deus Ex, Oblivion…all equal or better RPGs which came before. Don’t get me wrong, Mass Effect is fun, worth picking up, and well-written. It does some things in new and refreshing ways, but much of what I’ve seen touted as “revolutionary” isn’t all that different from what’s come before.
It’s a good game. I’m looking forward to Mass Effect 2. Just don’t get lost in the hype.
Wow, this was a long one, wasn’t it? All done now…
Michael G. Munz