Sunday, February 3, 2008

Mass Effect

Game: Mass Effect
System: Xbox 360
Release: November 2007

Very few companies produce high quality RPGs that make gamers tingle with anticipation. With my flame suit handy, I would like to unofficially pronounce Square Enix, Blizzard, and Bioware as the all time champions of epic RPG experiences. Don’t get me wrong. Lionsgate can rock socks with Fable, and Nintendo does have the original hit with Zelda. The top three, however, have a special place in my heart that cannot be ignored.

Tonight I will take a look at Bioware’s latest monster entitled Mass Effect. From the company that brought us the reward winning Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) and Jade Empire, this latest installment takes us to a galaxy far far away. Oh wait…this isn’t a Star Wars game!? That’s right there are no Jedi’s. Let that sink in…Space…Smugglers…Galactic Alien Governments…no Jedi’s.

Mass Effect places you in the shoes of Commander (insert name here) Shepard. With amazing customization abilities, players not only pick their gender and class, but personalize a back story and manipulate facial structures. The facial customizer allows you to choose premade characters, and manipulate their appearance in sometimes disturbing ways. Eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and more can be widened, shortened, stretched, and shrunk. There are two genders—for those of you who flunked Sex Ed.—six classes, three choices for your point of origin, and three choices for your infamous historic deed.

The last two options mentioned above really add a layer of personal depth to this game. You get to choose rather you are a Spacer with a military family, Colonist who lost their parents to a horrible attack, or an Earthborn raised on the rough city streets of Earth’s metropolis. Afterwards you decide if you want to be a Sole Survivor, War Hero, or Ruthless son of a bitch. These choices affect your gaming experience, and provide interesting reads for the avid RPGers. If you pick Ruthless, for example, than someone will recall your reputation for getting the job done no matter what the costs. Similarly, your birth place will unlock or determine certain events in the game. As a Spacer, I ran into an old friend of the family. He was down on his luck, and needed some help, but none of this was available as an Earthborn. Just like the Spacer is never contacted by a member of an old Earth gang they used to belong to. These options, along with the facial customizer, increase the replay value significantly, and ensure that players will make a personal connection with their character.

Classes are divided into hybrids and mains. Mains are Soldier (combat), Engineer (tech), and Adept (biotics). Hybrids are a combination of two main classes: Infiltrator (tech and soldier), Sentinel (biotic and soldier), and Vanguard (biotic and tech). In my humble opinion, the hybrid classes are a joke, but I’m sure someone somewhere enjoys them. I personally picked the Soldier and Engineer class for my two careers. Nothing beats the superb combat skills of the Soldier, and blowing stuff up with Tech abilities is a ton of fun. Tech talents also improve your ability to recover electronic debris, and will allow you to hack into crates, lockers, and doors with ease. Biotics are at first confusing, and may leave you thinking that you’re a gimped Jedi. At higher levels, however, these abilities really shine and can turn the tide of many encounters. Overall, there is enough variation to suit the taste of most RPG fans.

All of the classes and many other aspects of the game have a steep learning curve. You will die and not understand why until you figure out the combat system. All combat is live action, but players freeze the chaos to use their abilities. This takes a bit of practice to master, but once you do things go smoothly. It also seems that once you hit level 30 only full-on frontal assaults will kill you. That’s right no frontal assaults—unless you like death. Cover, shields, and guns dominate the play style. As I put my back up to a crate and returned enemy fire I found myself thinking of the N64 hit Winback a lot. The standard four guns—pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, and sniper—are available, but only the Soldier class can use all weapons effectively. The other classes tend to use the pistol and one other weapon that they can level up with talent points. Like any good RPG, increasing your skill with a particular gun will grant unique abilities. The shotgun, for example, has a rocket launcher attack that is unlocked to those who invest the points. Guns, along with other equipment, are upgradable, but unfortunately players will be able to pick up the best equipment rather early on in the game. This leaves oodles of pickups that end up being sold or reduced to Omni-gel—aka futuristic tech goodness. It would have been nice to have some infamous or ancient item that really stands out from the rest.

Overall the combat system for Mass Effect is average. It is engaging enough to keep the story moving—the best part of any Bioware game—but fails to capture the huge fun factor of other third person shooters and RPGs. Luckily the games plot is thick and delicious. Lead writer Drew Karpyshyn and his team have done it again. From the start Mass Effect’s universe is vividly brought to life, and by the end of the game it stands out amongst the great Sci-Fi series out there. It is amazing to me that a video game can present something as compelling as Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon Five, Dune, and more. I would go into some of the details about the plot, the alien species, planets, and other nerdy stuff, but that is best left for a post with a lovely spoil alert. I will, however, talk about how this plot was delivered.

First and foremost, this is one of the first RPGs that I have seen using 98% audio dialogue. That is right lazy non-readers of the world. You can sit back and listen in throughout the entire story. There are a few things that are not spoken, but this is limited to vendor actions and certain quest details. Delivering the dialogue is a host of top notch actors that have seen plenty of time behind a mic for the video game and/or movie industry. Jennifer Hale (Metal Gear, Metroid Prime), Mark Meer (Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire), Keith David (John Carpenter’s: The Thing, Requiem for a Dream, Disney’s Gargoyles), Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Geneartion), Lance Henriksen (Bishop in Aliens, The Terminator), and Seth Green (Austin Powers, Robot Chicken, Family Guy) are just some of the names dropped in this epic adventure.

Almost every line is delivered well, and certain performances will tug at your emotions one way or the other. The dialogue wheel allows you to select numerous responses to any given situation. Keep in mind that certain people react better to charm than intimidation and vice versa. The typical black and white choices exist, but the writers also do an excellent job of including the grey. The fact that there are multiple outcomes for each encounter will ensure that you play the game at least twice. Players can even go through the game again using a character from a previously completed game. This allows you to see the other side of the tracks while keeping your perfectly created Shepard. The level cap is raised from 50 to 60, and you pick up right where you left off allowing you to kick major ass from the start. Raising the difficultly level is recommended, but I’ll understand if you just want to pwn face.

Now begins the other part of the review. I have to stop praising the game for now, and focus on some of the things that fall short of greatness. In combat the AI often charges out into open making them easy targets. If you can’t kill them, than your team surely will. Of course you will have to hope and pray that your squad doesn’t bug out after you give them an order. Thankfully, as mentioned above, this isn’t an issue once you reach level 30 and become the unstoppable killing machine that is Commander Shepard.

Technical issues aplenty exist in Mass Effect. I often found myself stuck after running into side railing on various maps. There is also the constant graphics upgrade about thirty seconds after each load screen. Things start off soft and fuzzy as details pop in slowly achieving the games full potential. Finally there is significant slow down during many events that a higher frame rate would have fixed. It seems like another round of QA testing would have smoothed out these issues, but thankfully they barely affect the overall game experience.

The last thing that prevents Mass Effect from becoming the perfect RPG for the Xbox 360 is its cut and paste planets. This game was suppose to be one of the biggest RPGs ever created for a console system. When you finally take control of a ship, and reach the Galaxy Map your jaw will drop. There are over a dozen nebulas with at least two star systems each. Each system as at least four planets, and many of them have asteroids and ships to investigate. This all seems great until you actually start exploring. Many planets are simply surveyed from space, and the few that you land on look remarkably similar. The orange desert planet with mountains. The red desert planet with mountains. The blue desert planet with mountains. The grey desert plant—aka Earth’s Moon—with mountains. Each one has an anomaly or two, fallen space debris, and a strong hold that is often related to a side quest. To be fair, there are a few planets that have unique features—one grassy world has a six legged cow. The replicated feel, however, made the side missions a bit tedious. It would have been nice to visit an alien capital city, or to see how Earth has changed over the years. Hopefully planet designs will be improved in future patches from Xbox Live.

Mass Effect is defiantly one of the best RPGs that I have ever played. The story has a deeper plot than hundreds of movies, and the overall presentation is simply fantastic. By the end of this epic adventure you will be screaming for more, and internet sites are sure to talk about this universe for years to come. The games audio holds up nicely with lovely instrumentals, great voice acting, and decent combat sound effects. Unfortunately, the gameplay could be better, and many environments are simply to similar in appearance. Uninspiring planet design, combined with predictable AI and a mediocre combat system will frustrate some and bore others. Many, however, will not let these minor inconveniences get in the way of this games awesome story telling abilities.

My personal score for Mass Effect is 4.5 out of 5.

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