Review: Mass Effect

PC – Keyboard / Mouse – 2008 (2007 for Xbox 360)
Developer: BioWare (Demiurge for PC port)
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios (EA for PC)
Playtime: 15 hours
Paid: $38AU from Harvey Norman (Australian retailer)

Metacritic: 91 (Xbox 360), 89 (PC).
Sales: Several million. At least 1.6 million on 360.

I’ve been putting off reviewing Mass Effect for a couple of weeks now, for a couple of reasons: firstly, I wanted to let it percolate in my mind for a while; secondly, because I know I’m a little raw here, and in my opinion this game deserves better verbalization than I’ve been pushing so far. For the lazy, six words can save you from reading through the following paragraphs: This is a really good game.

Mass Effect is the successful sci-fi action role-playing-game from BioWare, which combines third-person combat with classic RPG dynamics (dialogue trees, skills, leveling) in an epic galaxy full of quests and stories.  An informal summary be to say that you get experience points for shooting aliens, and it is great. You play as Commander Shepard, a human soldier on a mission which soon evolves into a manhunt. Both combat and diplomacy are necessary for the completion of this major mission and the many optional side-quests. Set in 2183, the Human Alliance is just one of a number of memorable races in the Milky Way, which is governed by the Citadel Council.  The game looks extremely good, particularly the characters. The level of visual customization options for the main character is impressive.

Before the game itself begins, the player selects the name, appearance, gender, class, and back-story of their Shepard. These decisions (well, besides the name and looks) all have some effect on the game eventually. It took me at least 15 minutes to make my character, mainly because it took me ages to choose a good name. (Playing as a woman, it didn’t quite seem right to just use Andrew. Natalie, since you asked.) Three basic factors separate the classes – skill with weapons, technology, and biotics, which are loosely comparable to Force powers from Star Wars. Each class has access to a set of Talents, which are upgraded upon leveling up. Most classes can only use certain weapon types, of which there are four; pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles, and assault rifles. A morality system tracks Shepard’s decisions throughout the game, awarding Paragon points for “good” actions, and Renegade points for “evil” options. As opposed to previous BioWare games, you don’t LOSE points at any time, meaning you could feasibly end up being extremely good AND extremely bad. Characters react differently to Shepard depending on their past choices, and high points on either side unlock new options in conversations.

The major storyline itself is actually quite short for an RPG, but is absolutely top-notch. Shepard and your party will visit and explore multiple worlds, often requiring politics and diplomacy with the inhabitants. One of Mass Effect’s most famous innovations is the conversation system, where a wheel appears from which players select the general feel of their response. It feels perfectly natural and efficient. Dialogue is fully voiced with A-grade voice acting; a result of hiring many talented and experienced voice actors. Different alien races have different accents and eccentricities of speech. Conversations include both humour and emotional depth. A codex of non-essential information is maintained and updated as you explore the galaxy, and is immense in scope. There is a great deal of canon here which will no doubt be expanded on and used in sequels and spin-offs. The first time you see the galaxy map reveals the number of systems and planets to explore; while not every planet can actually be visited, they all have fairly elaborate descriptions. There’s a lot of value here which not every player is going to experience – I know I missed out on a lot, unfortunately. I spent an entire half-hour session just talking to my crew, and found it thoroughly enjoyable. (And I got XP!) Another good two and a half hours went to exploring the Citadel – the enormous center of the government as well as a social hub – and performing some side quests for people. These side quests are just as well-done as the main missions, with equally good dialogue, and enough variety to keep the player interested. There are some tough decisions to be made later in the game, and it seems as though every play-through would be unique to the player.

Combat feels pretty good, a combination of ranged firearm use, hacking of synthetic enemies, and use of biotic skills. Skills and the use of medi-gel to heal your party members regenerate after a while, allowing you to use them again. (A limited supply of medi-gel keeps combat challenging.) Weapons have infinite ammunition, but fire is limited by repeated shots causing the weapon to overheat. I actually tried to reload my guns (it’s an automatic reflex) a few times by hitting R, which resulted in me wasting a grenade – which, by the way, takes ages to detonate. If a party member takes too much damage and ‘dies’, they will either come back to life after the combat situation finishes or Shepard uses a particular skill to revive them. Fighting biotic enemies makes things interesting, as they can, for example, lift characters into the air, rendering them helpless.

I mentioned exploration of planets earlier – the Normandy, your spaceship, can warp from star system to system with just a few clicks of the map. A moon-buggy-esque vehicle named the Mako is used to traverse and explore select planets and for combat. I found this to be a lot of fun, particularly since thrusters allow the Mako to jump incoming projectiles. One quest involved me going to our Moon and driving around. Look into space, and there’s Earth. Fantastic.

The inventory system takes some getting used to, as you have to manage the equipment of all party members. An inventory limit of 150 items is manageable easily enough, as any item can be converted into something called omni-gel. One frustration stemmed from the fact that items dropped by fallen opponents don’t enter the inventory until you choose to view the inventory – meaning that if you’re at 149 items, and have picked up 10 more from enemies, you have to drop 9, and the messages warning you about this cover up part of the menu which lets you deal with it. It took me quite a while to learn to equip my items with upgrades, which are totally worthwhile. These upgrades include different ammunition types and add-ons for weapons, which help characters pack a real punch in combat.

I did experience some technical issues initially, and came across a couple of bugs. In the beginning, I found that the background audio on the Normandy was absolutely deafening and drowned out the dialogue, as well as sounds popping in. Turning off hardware audio fixed this, although it caused other sound glitches (guns not always sounding off, etc) which were fixed with a quick Google.  A more widespread issue is the “Feros elevator glitch”, caused by saving near a particular elevator and resulting in my save loading at a point from which I couldn’t continue due to infinite loading. Thankfully, I only lost 50 minutes of progress. If the game wasn’t so good, perhaps I would have been more upset about having to repeat that section; in any case, replaying only took about half the time thanks to being able to skip through dialogue. I discovered a more amusing bug where using a particular monkey (such a strange phrase) repeatedly could result in infinite Paragon points being granted. A frequent complaint about the game involves the “masking” of load times through extremely long elevators. Warp travel exists, yet elevators are still ever so slow.

There’s a lot of replay value here, with both the ability to start a New Game+ (play again with your character’s stats as they were at the end of the previous run) and the ability to play as another class, or spend time with side-quests, or make different decisions. I found the results of my game to be satisfying, and came out of it thinking about little other than how good it was for a few days. The Mass Effect universe is solid and has a great deal of potential. The controversy about the possibility of sex scenes that surrounded (and unfortunately still seems to surround) the game is absolutely ridiculous. A message to parents: if you are worried that your child is going to be corrupted by a brief, tasteful sex scene reached after establishing an optional relationship with a character, perhaps you could watch them play and ask why they are making the decisions they made. If you haven’t played Mass Effect yet, go buy it – you’ll be able to find it cheap somewhere, and it is an excellent experience.


1 comment so far

  1. […] is $10 this weekend. This is all you need to know, really. Buy it, and buy it now, because it is absolutely worth it. Meanwhile, Telltale Games‘ series are available for $20 for the weekend, and Steam has […]

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