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Mass Effect Review

Review; Jan. 21, 2011; Channels: Video Games; By Kyle James Hovanec
This maiden voyage to the stars isn't entirely stellar, but it's still a great sci-fi RPG

Not many reviews exist for games which have already come out, ridden the wave of hype and had time for people to really analyze their opinion of the game. Upon its release, Mass Effect was already receiving critical hype and acclaim but not only because it was an exclusive title for the Xbox 360 as well as PC, but because it was billed as a true interactive trilogy. It considered the actions taken by you and your crew and carried them on into future installments. Each experience was unique, and each player more or less shaped the galaxy in their own way. For its time, it was ambitious, and even now it’s still some ambitious game play design. Does Mass Effect still stand the test of time today, with the release of its sequel and other ambitious RPGs coming out this year? To put it bluntly, yes and no.

Mass Effect Screenshots
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Mass Effect’s claim to fame was its interactive dialog system in which your choices made a difference in how certain situations turned out with NPCs. For example, by acting like a good Samaritan, listening to your crewmates’ problems, and being an all around nice person, people respected you more. They’d be willing to help you and give you discounts in shops along with revealing a little more about themselves than before. Act like a complete and total asshat, and your team didn't trust you that much, people feared your name, and you were left generally feeling bad about yourself. What Mass Effect does well even to this day is make the player feel for the decisions he makes. Much like its previous titles, Bioware has proven itself the master of character interaction and narrative, and by doing this it allows the player to engage with video game characters, both major and minor, like never before. Here entire back stories are fleshed out, lore is established and built upon, and a universe is created and evolves before your very eyes. The fact that a few dialog choices can make the difference between life and death, success or failure, makes the decisions really have an impact. There will be a time when some people will have to die, some will attempt to do bad things to you and your crew, and some will simply be there to provide some comedic relief. You will be in control over all of their fates, and the fact that the dead stay dead, the unjust are judged accordingly, and the humorous are still laughing or not in the end really weighs heavy on your motives -- it really makes the choices matter. Suddenly these people aren’t just there to make the game feel larger; they’re part of a living, breathing universe in which you ultimately choose their fate.

These interesting characters would mean little if there wasn’t some compelling world to put them in, and luckily, the world of Mass Effect is rich and vast. Each alien race you’ll encounter has an entire history to their species and their interactions with one another. Everything from an ancient mechanical race to a simple pistol has a detailed description of where it came from and how it affects everyone and everything. One could spend hours exploring the game’s encyclopedia. This kind of attention to detail has been pulled off by few games up to this point.

As for the actual story itself, it’s a compelling tale of an ancient threat to the galaxy and humanity’s role in fighting it off. What begins as a mission for humanity to prove its worth among the stars ends up becoming a tale of unity and how all species need to cooperate in order to survive -- or if you choose to go renegade, it's a story of humanity carving its niche into the galactic community by any means necessary. Again, it’s your story. While the plot itself may seem relatively simple, well, it is -- but the beauty is what it takes from other science fiction lore. Hints of Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Star Wars, The Matrix, Blade Runner, Aliens, Starship Troopers, and the novels of Greg Bear all are referenced here. If it sounds like outright plagiarism, it’s not; rather, it takes the most successful elements of these icons in the genre and fits them into its own lore. It works, and five years after its release, it’s still a great story with convincing characters.

As for the game play itself, this is where my issues come in. Mass Effect plays much like a standard third-person shooter: identify your enemies, take cover, and fire back. This would be fine if the combat and movement of your character didn’t feel so stiff. Taking cover from your enemies can sometimes be a problem because your character doesn’t always snap to cover as efficiently as in other shooters. I understand that it’s NOT a third-person shooter, but it’s always frustrating that death can come from not lack of skill but the inability to get behind a wall and avoid a rocket to the face. You teammates are just as stupid. They usually do a good job taking cover and firing back at the enemy, but anything beyond simple pop-out-and-shoot tactics usually ends with them dead and you picking up the slack. Sure, they can also use their biotics abilities, but to effectively micro-manage your team to the point of perfection requires way too much work and worrying -- at least on the Xbox version. That console's control scheme doesn’t allow for precise squad commands, unlike the PC version in which you can pause fights and direct your teammates as you want. If the Xbox allowed for controlling each teammate it would work much better; however, everything is done in real time and done pretty sloppily at that.

Finally, the inventory screen must be acknowledged, as it is without a doubt the most cumbersome inventory screen I have ever had the displeasure of utilizing in a game. There is an item limit much like any other RPG, but the overall organization scheme is horrendous. The game gives you little to no help, either. It doesn't tell you what the items do, nor does it organize them in a way that lets you easily pick and choose what you want. Soon enough, you end up with a ton of loot and instead of discarding your older items, you must go through your most recent acquisitions based only on the names of each item with no description and throw out what you don’t need. Sorry, but I don’t know the difference between the Maverick sniper rifle and my default one like the back of my hand. It’s a disorganized mess plain and simple.

Mass Effect Screenshots
Click the image to view screenshots

Planet exploration deserves mention. It consists of wandering the galaxy scanning planets -- if something interesting is detected, you're dropped onto the planet's surface in the Mako, the game's main land vehicle. You then drive around, looking for lost signals, loot, or enemies. It’s cool at first, but it soon gets old as most of the planets are impossible to differentiate and the combat and scavengers hunts get repetitive as well. A little variety would have been nice, especially because most of the game is spent shooting enemies. The controls for the vehicle itself are pretty wonky, and while I wish it controlled more like the vehicles in Halo, it doesn’t take long before you get used to it.

Mass Effect is a game that seems to take the one step forward, one step back approach. For everything it does right, it does something equally wrong. I don’t hate it by any means, and for its time and what it did for console RPGs, it still stands as a great game. However, time and hindsight have not been entirely kind, and the slight problems have become glaring ones. Can I still recommend it for those who have not played it? Yes, simply for the fact that this is the first act in a three-act series, and while jumping straight into the sequel is entirely possible, the player would be doing him or herself a great disservice and missing out on a lot of a custom-created storyline. At the end of the day, Mass Effect is a story-driven game, and missing out on any part of the story isn’t doing you any favors.

Despite the flaws, Mass Effect is still a great game with a compelling universe filled with great characters, stories, and places to explore. Check it out, but keep a realistic expectation in mind. Now, there’s a whole galaxy out there to explore -- better get started.

Comments

rfludwick

rfludwick - Mar. 28, 2011 at 2:31:59pm

Finally finished this one last week. This game had me hooked, and hooked hard. I'm already in ME2 because the first one was so good. I can't believe it took me over 4 years to play the original. I'd have given it a higher score, but I'd have complained about inventory as well.

JCXanirus

JCXanirus - Jan. 22, 2011 at 12:59:10am

Also my favorite thing presentation wise with the series (I don't know if I'm the only one who thinks this design is pure genius for immersion) is that because the dialogue choices are condensed to a single sentence, and are shown to you a few seconds before the current character is finished speaking, you can pick your dialogue choice ahead of time and Shepard will respond in time to a real conversation. After that, it's hard to go back to any game where the characters suddenly pause and look around the room while you as the player has to read all the responses available.

JCXanirus

JCXanirus - Jan. 21, 2011 at 9:19:27pm

Theres A MUCH better cover system in ME2, and your teammates actually go where you tell them to. Would you believe the inventory system was updated for the PC version? And it was still clunky.

Review Score
8.9

Mature

Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.

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