FROM ANDREW’S WAR-TORN MIND — Let me first preface this by saying that this review will be different than the myriad of reviews out there (mostly from proprietary journalists). Instead of assigning a score in some arbitrary scale, which seems to be 7-10 these days, I will be discussing both the merits and faults of the programming and design, how the game affects the gaming world on both a macro-level and on an individual basis with the gamer, and why this game might appeal to or repel consumers on a whole.
Ok, now that we got that out of the way. Mass Effect (Xbox 360) is a classic literary space opera placed within an expansive and luscious world. Part classic RPG, part third-person shooter, Bioware’s new installment in the gaming world again raises the bar for games across the board. With previous titles such as Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur’s Gate, and Jade Empire, this development studio has certainly built up its reputation in the gaming world and Mass Effect only reinforces this reputation.
Taking place 50-100 years in the future, the human race has only recently discovered alien ruins on Mars, allowing them to construct massive interstellar slingshots to throw ships across massive distances. When first introduced, humans are the new kids on the block, known for their impulsive behavior and “manifest destiny”-ish drive. The Alliance, Earth’s united military branch, is where we find our protagonist, Commander Sheppard (male or female), as second in command of the Normandy. As one progresses through the game, Mass Effect lifts up the hood of the gorgeous graphics to show a complex galactic political drama in which humans struggle to gain respect with the established universal government known as The Citadel.
The strong story is one of the most appealing points of Mass Effect. The game contains a massive amount of back story and one could spend hours pouring over all of the optional entries in your codex reading everything from history of the individual species, how the unique technology works, or just history of recent events. The developers literally take you and shove your head into an ocean of living creatures, drowning you with the culture of an alternate universe that is near the level of Tolkien.
This presents us with one of the first real setbacks for Mass Effect. This massive universe is thrown at you with little to no help. When you first start wandering around the galaxy, it’s easy to be daunted by the sheer size. There are, in fact, over 300 separate places you can visit, albeit you can only land on a handful of planets and derelict spaceships. Most of the time visiting planets just chalks up to a couple of paragraphs on the planets geography and history (again, showing the depth that the developers put into the game). Traversing these worlds is very intuitive with a tree-like structure. Starting at the galaxy level, one can visit approximately twenty clusters which lead to approximately one to five systems holding full solar systems. However, what will become a prime example of the games flaws, the galaxy map function and structure of the universe is never explained to the user, I suppose that the developers expected me to use some sort of clairvoyance to automatically understand what they were thinking.
The world is not the only aspect of Mass Effect which shows of this high level of complexity. The character interaction and dialog systems are top notch. Mass Effect utilizes a new system where instead of reading through every dialog choice and picking the best one, you only have to choose a simple two to five word response. The characters then fleshed out the conversation with their own dialog, bringing a new level of immersion not seen in a video game before.
Mass Effect’s amazing dialog in action.
This coupled with the amazing talent they acquired for the voice acting is one of the brightest points of the game. The characters feel alive in a manner which no game has reached until now, and truly represents the intentions of the developers; to create a game which played more like a major motion picture than a video game.
Once one lands on a planet, we get our experience with the non-role playing aspect of the game. Unlike KOTOR and other Bioware RPG’s, Mass Effect makes combat real time using an excellent third person shooter style. Taking heavy influence from games like Gears of War, the combat system comes across as solid. If need be, Mass Effect could hold it’s own as a shooter, but it is not without it’s faults. There were plenty of times the controls felt sticky, taking and getting out of cover was difficult and sometimes cost me my life. Squad members also had trouble taking cover as well and often got in my way so much that I would just order them away from battle so I could fight without interruption. However, the enemy AI is very smart and battles play out in a very dynamic fashion; I almost never fought the “same” battle twice. The combat system also allows you to temporarily “pause” the action by accessing the either your biotic (magic) or weapons radial menus. From there you can order your squad mates to target specific units and use any special abilities they might have acquired via leveling up.
The interface on the other hand, leaves plenty to be desired. The majority of the issues stem from the inventory interface and item management. While the layout isn’t unwieldy per say, there were plenty of small tweaks which would have vastly improved my experience. First off, every item has it’s own entry in your inventory so if you had N number of ammo types or assault rifles, it is listed N times individually. Once you start reaching your maximum carrying amount (150 items), it can take quite a lot of time to find a specific item. What would have been better is if similar items could be grouped together in a single entry and have a number which shows how many versions you have of that particular item. The other problem is with managing the amount of items you get in the game. Pretty much every enemy drops loot, which is automatically added to your inventory. During any specific mission, one could grab up to fifty items without even knowing it. The bad part is that your maximum, 150 items, is way to small relative to the amount of loot you grab during the game. There were plenty of times where I had to spend about ten to fifteen minutes just managing my loot so I wouldn’t max out my inventory, and be forced to turn my newly acquired items into goo because I couldn’t carry them. That’s the other issue. I have no place to keep any access gear. You would think that I would be able to store my loot some place on my ship instead of having to always carry it with me, but alas, this is not the case.
The menus were not the only issues. While the game looks beautiful, there are several technical errors that really should have been addressed before release. The biggest is the texture popping that plagues the game tremendously. This is by far the biggest issue I had with the game. Texture popping caused plenty of textures, most noticeably the characters’ armor and skins to load slowly, if at all. While the dialogs were extremely engaging, I was often distracted from the conversation when it looked like Sheppard was wearing a dark blue tunic instead of the incredibly detail armor that showed up after ten seconds of loading. It just astounds me that a game with this amount of polish in every single other area of game play would allow such a blatant fault to get past their quality assurance teams.
In all, Mass Effect is a great game with an engaging story and dynamic combat system. While several implementation issues such as UI design and faults with the graphics engine effected the game, they do not detract from the level of effort the designers clearly put into this game. I would strong recommend that you purchase this game.