"I am the Vanguard of your
(social life's) destruction."
Mass Effect... so much has been said about this game. Some of it hype, and most of it the honest gospel of hardcore sci-fi fans. The story, what haven't you heard? It's a solid script backed by solid voice work from some of the very best out there. Ditto for gameplay and presentation. We've also heard about the same issues everyone seems to have. The chugging engine, the pop-in textures that we thought were abolished with the last generation, and of course, the dastardly auto-save system.
This is a hard game to review. It's not because it's hard to pigeon hole into a genre or grade, or even because anything I could say about this game has been said a hundred times already. It's hard to review because it is, pardon the pun, massive.
It's a truly huge game that would easily rival (yet somehow lose to) Oblivion's scope. The story is classic space opera that I have likened to the classic works like Babylon 5. The reasons are pure and simple, really. The writers at BioWare know just what to take from other, classic sources, and know how to reinvent old themes and present them in new, interesting ways. Almost every faucet of this game has been lifted from one source or another, but unless you dig under the surface, you likely won't care. The fact is, this game has done so many things right, that it's hard to judge it for its faults.
The side-missions are good. They all serve a purpose; whether that purpose is to help provide back story or closure for events that happened in your past, an old nemesis seeking revenge, an old member of the gang you ran with back on Earth, or even another survivor from Akuze you thought long dead, there are so many options, so much reason behind everything, that the scope is almost mind-boggling. BioWare has developed a true, living, breathing galaxy from lines of code and a few fancy textures that most would only dream about.
The pacing of Mass Effect is great as well. The game's transition from action to story, to exploration and back again runs with a cinematic fluidity. The few cut scenes there are (where you actually do nothing), are so massive in scope that you will likely sit back in awe over it all.
Traditionally, developers have used cut scenes to help move a story forward. While this is a tried and true mechanic, it mostly leaves the player with little to do other than sit fiddling his thumbs and waiting for the action to begin again. Mass Effect has done something that most "cinematic games" have been trying to accomplish for years; it keeps the player involved through the story. The mechanic that BioWare employed seems simple at first, but like everything else in this game, once you peel away the first layer, you really begin to see the inner workings of this monolithic beast.
The conversation mechanic is the best I've ever seen in a video game. Most games allow you to give text responses, and the NPC will either follow with a text response or (rarely) a voice over response. In most RPGs, Voice Over is only reserved for important characters, and almost never your own. Mass Effect goes the extra mile and delivers voice over work for every single NPC in the game... at least, all of the ones you can talk to.
And that, in itself, is a blast. Just... talking. It's hard to believe that a game as big as Mass Effect would hinge on such a small thing as conversation, but choosing your tone and what to say is actually a game in and of itself. There are many times where you will be forced to negotiate your way through a verbal minefield. Offend a dictator and all hell breaks loose. Push a little too hard with an unstable cult leader, and you've just started a Biotic/Human war. The subtlety in your response (or not so subtle) is truly groundbreaking in a way that's never been seen before.
There are absolutely no issues with Mass Effect's chosen direction to tell story. The conversations are great. The only gripe I may have, if I have it, is with Commander Shepard's own V.O. work. If you're a nice guy, expect to sound a lot like John Sheridan or Commander Sinclair. While this is not a bad thing, it can be misconstrued to allow the player to believe he is a push over. However, choose the renegade path and you will undoubtedly become the biggest prick in the universe. There are, thankfully, neutral approaches to any given topic... and just because your history may dictate your good (or bad) standing with the Systems Alliance, the Citadel Council, and your crew, it does not mean that you have to play the good cop or the bad cop in every situation.
There is no black and white in Mass Effect. Traditionally evil characters prove themselves necessary. Executing a mad doctor who harvest organs is the best thing you can do... but that's not where the shades of gray end. Sometimes, there is no good ending for you and your crew. That is the grim fact of reality. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, no matter which tactic you use, you're going to lose... and that is something I'm very happy that BioWare has translated (to perfection) with their game.
The astounding amount of character background for every member of your crew is incredible as well. Most parties in RPGs consist of archetype characters, whom you either grow to love or hate, directly depends on their effectiveness or their clever writing. This is not so in Mass Effect. Mass Effect takes the time to carve out a niche for every member of your team. If you're wry enough to prod and poke them into giving out information, you may learn something that you never may have found out if you didn't take the time to ask. That piece of information may prove critical. It may lead you to hate the character, or embrace them based on your empathy for their situation. Characters like Wrex (Mercenary bad-ass) and Garrus (Confused, stubborn rookie) may seem like cookie cutter stereotypes, but just talking to them with reveal their motives, their hopes, their dreams, and their failures. And if you choose, you can take on a role of guidance for them.
This, I think, is where Mass Effect truly shines. Through each playthrough, you will likely stick to the same two members for your squad not because they're effective, but because you feel a kinship with them. There's something to be said about a videogame that gives this kind of emotional pull. You grow attached, and when it comes time to make the hard choice, you may find yourself wondering how you're going to choose.
Make no mistake about it, Mass Effect gives you hard choices. There are some choices in this game that make it virtually impossible... but just like real life, you need to take a leap of faith and hope to God it all comes out okay.
The action in this game is not unlike your standard third person shooter... depending on your class. The game will cater itself to your play style based on the choices you make during your character creation. Will you play as a soldier, engineer, or adept? Perhaps a mix of two? The gameplay is completely different based on which class you choose. Are you more interested in healing, or getting down and dirty with a shotgun full of Sledgehammer rounds? It completely depends on you as a player.
And that's the hard part of the gameplay. The experience is personal because it's almost guaranteed no two playthroughs will be the same. Sure, you may make the same choices along with other players, but the road to get there and the reasons for the decisions you make are almost completely your own. Accountability is a big theme running throughout Mass Effect, and I'm glad it's carried over to the action.
With that said though. I believe the action could have been improved in some areas. This is not like Oblivion where you can learn anything, you just need to apply yourself. You gain experience by logging codex entries, talking to people (or aliens), and doing all sorts of things. Shooting things. Mining things. Discovering artifacts... whatever. The more XP you gain, the higher your level. You can also, when the time comes, choose a subclass that will allow you to specialize in something. For the soldier class, it's a choice between Commando training or Shock Trooper. The game is highly customizable both in terms of play, and in terms of presentation.
However, I think one of the faults Mass Effect is most criminally responsible for is the lack of customization in the character creation. Yes, you can virtually customize your Shepard in most facial manners, but it feels like there is so much missing. I could create virtually anybody I wanted to with games like Oblivion; fine-tuning every detail until I created my own grim, evil bastard. I am not saying that the character creation is poor, it's fine, but more options in scarring, presets, hair styles, and bigger overall freedom with facial structure would have been greatly appreciated. I tried my best to create Lo Pan from Big Trouble in Little China in preparation for this review, and I was great disappointed. My Commander Shepard is older, and he has the scars and weather-beaten face to prove it, but the only acceptable, non-freakish hairstyle makes him look generic. More hair styles, more scars, more ability to fine-tune my Shepard would have been great here.
Other problems, I feel, stem from technical aspects. The loading is chuggy. Probably worse than Oblivion was... and while some of this is forgivable, some of it is not. The frequent pop-in textures are more than annoying, and bring the game down in my opinion. It's hard to really stay involved when starting the game because there seems to be pop-in everywhere. It's not like a quick flash and the textures are there either, sometimes it has taken up to ten-to-fifteen seconds for the entire texture of a lobby or a character to load. This distinct lack of polish, in my eyes, is unacceptable for this generation of gaming.
With that said, it's understandable. BioWare has tried to cram thirty gigabytes of gaming into a nine gigabyte disc. Their task was monumental, and for the most part they succeeded... but it's still annoying to see the pop-in, the chuggy loading, and in some of the most crucial, pulse-pounding moments, being slowed right down by elevators.
Elevators are slow, but not annoyingly so. To tell the truth, they are just slow enough to be noticeable, but in the more high-octane, big action moments, catching a lift is more of a pain in the ass simply because you want to get back into the action quickly.
The music in Mass Effect is also incredible. It is so full of gritty, 80's sci-fi synth that it almost makes me nostalgic for the epic space operas of that time. The theme music, the spine-tingling introduction to Commander Shepard, right down to the almost Blade-Runner, mysterious jingle of synth while exploring an abandoned compound just screams homage to the great scores of past sci-fi films. The music is truly fantastic, and MP4 Part II by Edmonton existentialists The Faunts is the perfect closing tune for this video game. There's nothing else better out there... and yes, I'm including "Still Alive" in that statement.Closing Comments
Mass Effect is by far the best sci-fi adventure to ever hit consoles. It's longevity will only be comparable to how interested you are in trying out the different classes, backgrounds, and different ways to resolve impossible situations. I'm on my third playthrough currently, and I'm still finding new things to do. It's a truly great adventure that will keep you coming back more and more, if not for the story, then to see the incredibly well executed finale. In all honesty, a game like Mass Effect is rare nowadays. It delivers punch-for-punch on everything it promised and, while it may stumble, it's excellence and innovation will no doubt be felt throughout the gaming community for years to come. I'm just hoping it doesn't take too long for the second installment of Commander Shepard's epic adventure.