Mass Effect: Better Late Than Never....

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(I suppose it would have been more witty to title this Mass Effect: SEXIMULATOR OR ROLE PLAYING PORNOGRAPHY, but that joke has been done to death at this point. :))

A couple weeks ago, the lovely Deidei bought Mass Effect for me as a gift; I'd been wanting to get this for a while, but I'd held off.  Over the last week and a half I've put a lot of time into the game and so far I've been very pleased with what I've seen.  I've beaten the game once in a quick playthrough, much like I did with Fallout 3, and now I'm going back to play through it again.

Similar to what I've done before, this is going to be a two part review; the spoiler-free version will be here and I'll include spoilers behind the cut.

Overall, Mass Effect is an evolution of the previous Bioware RPG, the much-loved Knights of the Old Republic, despite claims that it's some radical new way of storytelling.  It's much more action-oriented than KotOR as well, which I suppose is not surprising since it was very console-oriented in design, even more so than KotOR was.  However, as is usual with Bioware games, it's well-constructed and the storyline is pretty compelling; while I think Fallout 3 did a much better job with it's open-ended, exploration-style gameplay, Mass Effect feels much more like a space action movie where you're the hero.

That being said, it does fall into a lot of the usual traps I've seen in computer RPGs; I think I'll be writing another entry soon on this particular subject, but I'll touch on what I found annoying and unsatisfying with Mass Effect specifically here.  So, similar to my Fallout review, I'm going to highlight the good and bad of the game.

The Good:

  • The writing in Mass Effect is excellent.  They've changed the conversation system from KotOR to where you pick the gist of what you want to say rather than the dialogue verbatim.  This allows them to show a bit more interplay between the characters rather than having it sound like a stilted one-way conversation, and I think it keeps you in the game a bit more.  While this does lead to some places where your character could say the same thing even from two (or more) different dialogue choices, but often the intent actually makes a difference.  This kind of subtlety is nice to see actually.  The story, as I'll go into in the spoiler review, is not particularly original, but it is very well-crafted.
  • There's a fair amount of variation in missions and dialogue based on how you create your character.  Part of the character creation process (which is functionally similar to Fallout 3's, but without the integration into the story that was so interesting in that game) is deciding a few facts about your character's background.  For instance, my first playthrough, my character was someone who had lived in space all her life and had been the sole survivor of an attack on a colony early in her career.  My second playthrough has my character being an Earth native who led a suicide mission in enemy space.  During the course of the game, you will learn various facts about what you did before and talk to people who were involved with it.  You seem to get unique missions based on your background and new solutions for others based on that.  It's nice to see your backstory actually making a difference to the gameplay, and it adds some replay value.
  • Most of the combat sequences are a lot of fun.  The while the combat system itself is a little clunky and I had some problems getting the hang of it, there's very few places where you feel like you're just fighting some guys because the game decided it was time for it.  It doesn't become too tedious except in a few places, and certainly nothing on the level of the last part of KotOR2.  The cover system, which lets you duck around corners or behind the (many) crates and other pieces of cover, then stick your head out, shoot, and pull back, works pretty well most of the time.  While I haven't really gotten the hang of the many biotic and tech powers available, they do provide a lot of variation in how to tackle combat objectives.
  • Background material for the game is very deep and provided in an interesting way; examining certain objects or having certain conversations with various characters add information to your Codex (basically an in-game encyclopedia -- much like the UFOpedia in X-Com).  It's easy to see a lot of work went into developing the backstory for the game, which I always appreciate.  While some of it has some impact on things in the game, sadly a lot of it is just there for flavor; I hope this is built on in later expansions and sequels.
  • The music in the game and the cinematics are, for the most part, very cool and definitely in line with the space opera genre.  None of the cinematics are too jarring and they don't pull you out of the game for very long, which is good -- I want to play a game, not watch a movie, after all.  The music is ambient in the right parts and epic in others, which really helps to pull you in.  It's very obviously influenced by space action movies, like Aliens or Star Wars, though the heart of the music is Vangelis' Blade Runner score.
  • The achievement system in Mass Effect is another boost for replayability.  While some achievements don't really do much other than give you bragging rights, most give you some other kind of bonus.  Making 150 kills with the assault rifle, for instance, lets you take the Assault Rifle skill as a bonus next time you create a character, even if the class you choose does not normally get it.  Beating the game taking more shield damage than actual health damage gets you an achievement that rewards you with 10% more shields every time you play.  These can definitely give you an impetus to replay the game with these new abilities.
The Bad:

  • Well, first off, it's a console port.  That means that it is going to have some limitations which are a bit annoying.  The biggest one for me right now is that there's a bug that keeps crashing the game every once in a while that seems related to the fact that the game wasn't built to handle higher-end video cards.  Thankfully, a patch for this appears to be in the pipeline, but it is quite frustrating.  Another annoyance is the way to pick conversations is to pick a dialogue option from ring -- excellent if you're using an analogue joystick, but not so good for a mouse, where I often spin past the option I want.
  • While the backstory (and the main storyline) are very well done, the world building here falls a little flat, especially compared to Fallout 3.  Like KotOR, the main planets you can visit are represented by 3-4 connected zones no larger than the size of a decent-sized building for the most part.  Planets with thousands or millions of inhabitants in their descriptions only seem to have a few dozen at most.  I realize that creating a fully realized giant colony is probably not a logical demand, but I really wish this was developed more.
  • The "other" planets, where you get missions to, have maybe one or two very tiny settlements and some scattered items of interest; if you're lucky, they might have one or two indigenous forms of life.  The rest of the planet is a bare expanse of fractal terrain (some of it extremely annoying to maneuver, especially in the Mako).  It would be nice if someone could figure out how to replicate the Starflight planet exploration experience, if only on a smaller scale.  The missions that take you to these planets are relatively straightforward -- usually you end up shooting up a bunch of guys, though to be fair on a lot of them there is a nonviolent solution.  Mass Effect is an action RPG though, so it's hard to complain that characters are generally all-combat based.
  • Speaking of the Mako, as many other people have talked about, it really is a pain in the butt to drive around, especially on the jagged terrain most of the random planets seem to have in abundance.  It bounces around crazily, even when rolling over what looks like a relatively small obstruction; for an IFV, it feels like it is a somewhat heavy Superball at times.  Once you get the hang of it, it's not too horrible, but it can be really annoying trying to get to some of the more inaccessible points of interest.
  • Many of the locations in the game feel very similar; there's not a lot of variation in art style.  Most areas are pretty much the same (especially on the random planets) and filled with ubiquitous crates.  Compared to Fallout 3's lovingly crafted locations, it was pretty disappointing.  I hope that in the sequels, we'll get to visit some more exotic locations, with more varied art schemes -- planets populated by the major alien races would be really neat to see.  Probably the most satisfying "planet," the Citadel, is that way partly because it seems to be much more full of people and you get some magnificent vistas that really show how "big" it is supposed to be, even if it's really about the same size as the other major planets.
  • One of my biggest complaints with Mass Effect is that there are simply too many items to deal with, and most of them are unnecessary.  For each item of equipment (pistol, assault rifle, light/medium/heavy armor, etc), there's basically a dozen or so different "brands," each with seven or eight different "models."  So, an item in the game is usually named something like "Kessler III."  With the model numbers, the higher a model number is the better that item is in comparison; a Kessler III pistol, for instance, is always better than a Kessler II.  However, the Kessler pistol is generally the crappiest thing you can get -- so a Kessler III pistol might be worse than a Raikou II pistol.  

    This is where the confusion creeps in.  Finding out which weapons are the best to use and which to toss out takes practice, and in the mean time you end up cluttering you inventory with a lot of crap that ends up being useless (and going through your inventory to weed stuff out is a pain).  While for some items, there's a real trade off -- one brand might have better accuracy but worse damage, for instance -- that seems to be the exception more than the rule.  I hope for Mass Effect 2 they realize that having a ton of items in and of itself does not make a game better.  This is a trap a lot of games fall into, but Mass Effect seems to do it worse than most.
  • The combat system is clunky, or at least a little hard to get the hang of.  My first playthrough was as a soldier, which is probably the most straightforward class -- you don't get many powers that do anything other than make you tougher or able to do more damage with your guns.  My second playthrough has been as the dual tech/soldier class, and it's been a lot tougher.  Not only am I weaker physically, but it can be hard to get the hang of the tech powers; feedback for them is a lot more subtle.  Tech and biotics seem to be targeted like grenades too, rather than powers in KotOR; this means that unlike in KotOR, ducking behind cover can actually protect you from a biotic or tech attack.  Considering that the attacks also take time to reach their target, against fast moving enemies this can be a little frustrating.  Companions seem to run into this problem too; I haven't really done much with directing their attacks myself (most of the time they seem to do a decent job), but I see some of their effects getting stuck on pieces of cover.
That's a long list of things I am disappointed by, but don't get me wrong.  I do think Mass Effect, overall, is a very good game, and for $20 bucks from Steam it's well worth picking up.  I just hope Bioware goes back to the drawing board and works on some of these niggling issues for Mass Effect 2.

A bit of a postscript on the Mass Effect DLC, Bring Down The Sky: basically, BDtS is just an extra planet to explore, and not a heavily developed one; better developed than one of the generic sidequest planets of the original game, but not as fleshed out as any of the main planets.  For free, it's not a bad addition; if I had to pay for it, I wouldn't spend more than a few bucks on it.  It's a nice bonus for people who bought the game, but it's really nothing special.  It's not even really integrated into the game very well -- it's just tacked on.  You never hear about the problem at all unless you go to the new planet.  It would have been nice to have the DLC add a new NPC in the Citadel, or a distress call sent to the Normandy, or a news story to hear on the Citadel elevators, to point you to it.  It also feels a bit unresolved, so I hope there's some more DLC coming to show you what happens later.

If companies really want to extend the life of properties through DLC or episodic content, I think they really need to come up with a better model than most games seem to be doing it currently.  If I could be assured of getting a new DLC level like BDtS every three months, I'd gladly plunk down 10 or 15 bucks a year for a DLC subscription.  If it was longer -- if I basically bought a new planet to the level of the storyline planets -- I would have been willing to pay 5 or 10 bucks for it.  If you want to drive sales of your original title with DLC, you need to make it a bit more regular than once every year and a half and/or you need to make it free (Valve's attitude towards DLC -- especially for Team Fortress 2 and the upcoming Left 4 Dead DLC -- seems to be the way to do that).

Okay now -- on to the spoilerific section.

Mass Effect starts with you dropping down to an Earth colony in support of one of the Citadel Council's Spectres, in order to secure a dig site where an alien artifact has been recovered.  The Citadel Council is basically an interstellar United Nations, only it has teeth and is totally controlled by the three major alien races in the game, the Grey-esque Salarians, the draconid Turians, and the all-female blue-skinned humanoid Asari.  Humans, relatively recent on the galactic scene, are second-tier members with no actual say in how things are conducted.

Spectres remind me a lot of the League of Nations Plenipotentiary Teams in Gear Krieg; basically special agents or (as Alex Albrecht called them on TRS) Special Forces of the Council, they can go anywhere and do anything, as long as it gets the job done.  They act where normal forces of the Council cannot, though they don't really seem to be too secretive, mostly following the kick-down-the-door-and-shoot-everyone school of solving problems.

Anyway, something has gone horribly wrong, of course, and it turns out one of the Council's Spectres has gone rogue, enlisted the help of a robotic alien race called the Geth, and has already done something with the alien artifact and killed off the Spectre you were accompanying.  In the process of trying to fight off the Geth and get the artifact, you get a horrific vision of aliens being wiped out.

You go back to the Council and eventually convince them that their agent has gone rogue and that someone needs to stop him -- and that someone is you.  Refreshingly, however, it takes a considerable amount more convincing than "I had a vision of bad stuff" to convince them, which was nice to see in a more grounded sci-fi setting.  You become the first human Spectre and then go out to find the rogue Spectre, Saren, figure out what he's doing, and stop him.

The main storyline planets are all pretty linear in and of themselves; there are a few side quests here and there, but you'll stay on the rails for the most part.  They can be done in pretty much any order, however.  On the one you probably want to go to first, Therum, the daughter of one of Saren's lieutenants is doing research on the Protheans, the ancient race that built the artifact in your first mission.  You can rescue her and have her join your crew; Saren seems to want her dead, since she doesn't seem to be a huge fan of his.  I have not explored whether or not you can simply cut her loose, though.  It's probably the shortest of the main planets, but getting Liara and her biotics is a good plan if you are not a full biotic yourself.  She is also one of the potential love interests for both male and female characters (I'll talk more about the romance subplot later).

On the next one I went to, Feros, you have to thwart a Geth invasion and also stop an ancient, Cthulhu-esque mind-controlling plant, and its zombirific minions.  I had a lot of fun with this one, and it has some good twists; trying to save the colonists without killing them requires some pretty careful grenade usage, and definitely adds a new twist to the shoot-em-up style gameplay you may have gotten used to.  Of course, if you want, you can just gun them all down; I'm a goody-two-shoes though, and I don't know if I can really bring myself to do that.  Still, I suspect the end of the mission here is considerably different if you do.

After Feros I went to Noveria. (Virmire should really be saved for last, as it is the Vault 87 of Mass Effect; once you go there, the end game kicks into high gear, and doing the side quests after that either becomes impossible or just really weird.)  Noveria is a corporate run world, where the galactic megacorporations do secret research they don't want to get out.  In order to get out of the first area, you need to expose some corporate corruption and use it for your own ends, so that you can go on a Mako sequence and get to the secret lab where Liara's mother and Saren's lieutenant, Matriarch Benezia, is taking care of business.

The secret lab was where I first started getting the idea that reading the Codex entries would give me a much better understanding of what was going on.  The first time through, I was a bit annoyed that I'd never heard of the alien menace that Saren was breeding there, but on my second playthrough I've been paying at lot more attention to the Codex entries.  If you do, you'll notice that what's going on in the lab is tied tightly to the background of one of the other companions you can get, Wrex, and his race of giant lizard people.  Bringing Wrex and/or Liara with you on this mission is a good idea, since they get a considerable amount of extra dialogue.

After Noveria, you should have a good idea that Saren is not actually the real enemy of the game, but that he is the pawn of a more sinister enemy, the mysterious Reapers.  Similar to the Shivans of Freespace, or the Berserkers, they are an ancient race of machines that cleanse the galaxy of advanced sentient life every 50,000 years or so.  They wiped out the Protheans and now they want to come back and do the same to humanity and everyone else.  The big problem with this is that you never really get to make this revelation.  You get the general idea right after your first mission, and by the time you get through the first planet, it's pretty much laid right out there.

This was kind of disappointing for me.  I wanted that "oh, shit" moment.  Maybe Bioware has gotten a little afraid of "twists" with the way people kind of poo-pooed the revelation in KotOR, but for me personally, I wish it hadn't been telegraphed so much.  I liked the moment of revelation in KotOR, even if I saw it coming before it was revealed.  I would like this to have been teased out too.  I think the most satisfying thing for me in any storyline -- be it a book, a movie, or a game -- is to see something happen I wasn't totally expecting (maybe it's what I expected, with a slight twist) and then see how everything leading up to that was reflected in the plot.  A little of this creeps in later, when you get face to face with a Reaper and you realize things are a lot worse than you thought, but it feels like opportunity was wasted earlier in the game.

That face-to-face with a Reaper moment comes on Virmire, which has probably the best set-piece of the game.  Going to rescue a team of Salarian infiltrators, you find out that Saren is breeding a new army to supplement the Geth, and that you're stuck here now until you can take it and its defenses out.  This planet starts out very run-of-the-mill, with a railroaded Mako sequence, and ends with some of the most emotionally gripping parts of any RPG I've played.  Even before the raid begins, you have a long talk with the Salarian commander, where he basically lays out a suicide mission, and you also have a poignant conflict with one of your party members over what you're about to do (I don't want to spoil TOO much here).

Then, throughout the raid, you're hearing updates from the Salarian diversion -- as I said, a suicide mission.  You get a number of chances to try and help them (which stymies your own efforts) and you get several confrontations with NPCs inside where you have to make a moral choice (though some are pretty cop-outy, I admit).  At the very end, you need to make a choice between two team members, one of whom could be your love interest.  And, to top it off, during that you get that confrontation with the Reaper, which is very well done.

The problem becomes that Virmire is so much more interesting than what comes after that the final stage of the game, on Ilos and the Citadel, becomes a bit of a let-down.  Ilos is mostly a run-of-the-mill shoot-em-up level, with a short spell interlude of story put in the middle (which I loved).  And the climax in the Citadel is just a bunch of battles (challenging ones, to be fair).  I really wished that they had done a better job with the final two areas, made them more interesting and emotionally involving, than they did, especially after what they did with Virmire.  There are a few spooky moments (the final confrontation with Saren has some creepiness to it) but for the most part it's not really that interesting and there are only a couple of places where you are faced with a moral dilemma.

The romance subplot in Mass Effect is there, but it's possible to play through the game and completely miss it -- I did in my first playthrough, because I wasn't going around and talking to my crewmembers after each of the major storyline missions (something I should have learned from the KotORs).  If you want the romance subplot, you'll need to talk to at least the opposite-gendered human crewmember and/or Liara after every major mission.  As an aside, I'd recommend talking to all your crewmembers on a regular basis (and not just after major storyline missions); many of the subplots in the game will give them new dialogue, some of which can give you new missions.

Anyway, the romance subplot is nicely done; it's subtle, it ties into the main storyline, and it isn't too mushy or hamhanded.  And the sex scene that rustled all those feathers is, as most people seem to agree, pretty damn tame (and quite tastefully done).  It's really the first one I've seen that doesn't seem too bolted on, and has some sort of emotional resonance with the rest of the game.

Overall, I really liked the plot of the game -- it's generally well-written, the voice acting is very good, and the main storyline planets are pretty well-designed for the most part.  I just think that they cut corners in a lot of places, or weren't as bold as they could have been.  I can see why Bioware is trying to call it a "whole new way of storytelling," with its heavier emphasis on emotional connection, but it isn't really much more than a slightly evolved version of KotOR -- which shouldn't be taken as a slight.  I'm eagerly looking forward to more Mass Effect in the future.

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This page contains a single entry by Chas Blackwell published on February 23, 2009 1:32 PM.

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