M (Mature)Release Date:
November 20, 2007 Screenshots: LinkAmazon: Buy Now!Written By:
As a platform, the Xbox never had a strong base in the RPG genre. Long-time PCRPG veteran BioWare gained attention on the console with the release of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Their follow-up to KOTOR was the original IP Jade Em-pire, released as an evolution of the KOTOR design. Jade Empire was released to mixed reactions from fans and critics alike. Since announcing the title, expectations for Mass Effect have been high, and rightly so. Forget about Jade Empire; Mass Effect is the true evolution of KOTOR, in every way.
Indeed, the similarities between Mass Effect and KOTOR are almost immediately apparent. The player controls a three-person squad, pausing combat to issue individual commands. Shepherd and company will zip around the galaxy, from one planet to the next, advancing the plot and completing side quests along the way. Almost just as quickly, however, it becomes apparent just how much of a leap forward from KOTOR Mss Effect really is, evolving the design of KOTOR in just about every way.
The first major difference that you’ll notice is the combat. Gone are the back-ground modified D10 rules, determining the success of your actions with invisible dice rolls and penalty checks. Combat is strictly real-time, squad-based, third-person shoo-ter action, not unlike some hybrid between Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War. Action can be paused at any time to change weapons, use abilities, and issue commands to your squad mates, keeping the action fast, but tactical. The major flaws in the combat come across through the sometime inconsistent AI. NPCs are usually smart. Your squad mates have good pathfinding when following orders and know when and where to take cover. Likewise, enemies are also good at taking cover and flanking, and typically will not pop out of cover for no reason when it quite obviously means their death to do so. Sometimes, however, things are not so great. Frequently my squad-mates would force themselves in on my own cover, leaving me high and dry. Enemies would sometimes fall into a tactic of simply gang-rushing my position, which inevitably resulted either in their death as they ran towards me, or in causing the entire fire-fight to devolve into a disorganized rumble and, consequently, an exercise in frustration. Thankfully, the ability to pause combat does provide some reprieve, and the good times outweighed the bad by a fairly wide margin.
The story of the game is actually fairly basic. As Commander Shepherd, the first human Spectre--a special agent given sovereignty over his/her own actions in protect-ing the galaxy--you’ll gather allies and fight to save the galaxy from a rogue Spectre out to conquer it. There are few surprises as far as the plot and story go, but it gets the job done. Where the game stands out in regards to story-telling are in characterization, role-playing, and the extensive universe.
The game’s universe is expansive, to say the absolute least. The amount of in-formation that you can find over the course of the game is staggering, but conveniently collected, bit-by-bit, in the in-game Galactic Codex, which functions as a sort of encyc-lopedia for the game. Alien cultures and history, technology, every single planet you encounter; everything is explained to excruciating detail, for those who are interested, and made all the more immersive thanks to the believable science behind everything. Aside from the usual science-fiction trope pitfall of lumping entire alien species into single cultures (as opposed to the thousands of cultures that make up humanity), the universe features a surprising amount of specificity, and that makes it feel real.
The first thing that you will do in Mass Effect is design your own Commander Shepherd. Yes, you’ll go through and sculpt his or her face to your own specifications, and we all know how that goes by now. What you’ll also do in creating your persona is choose gender, background, and a psychological profile. Sure, it all seems like typical role-playing fun during character creation, but as soon as the game starts is when Mass Effect sets itself apart in terms of actual role-playing. These decisions all affect dialogue and even how some other characters treat you during the game. Throughout my game, other characters would constantly reference my past as a young delinquent on the mean streets of Earth, or the fact that I once lost my entire platoon to a swarm of alien monsters early in my military career. The same goes for Shepherd as a character regardless of what background options you choose. A commander in the Alliance mili-tary, the first human Spectre; Commander Shepherd is an accomplished soldier and this is reflected in the way other characters treat you. No longer a scrappy no-name hero, Shepherd is recognized just about everywhere he/she goes. Peers treat him/her with a professional respect and subordinates treat him/her like the boss.
Surprisingly, one of the most confining aspects of Mass Effect’s story is one that provides the best opportunities for role-playing. Eschewing the typical good/evil or lightside/darkside mechanic that they themselves made famous with KOTOR, BioWare has adapted the paragon/renegade mechanic for Mass Effect. In practice it’s the exact same system; “good” options gain paragon points and “bad” options gain renegade points. It is of note in Mass Effect, however, that there is no “evil” path. Shepherd is always on the “good” side of the typical Dungeons and Dragons spectrum. He/she is always on a mission to protect and save the galaxy. The only question is: what kind of person is Shepherd? And that is up to you. Most RPGs that use a similar alignment system for the player essentially try (and usually fail) to write two storylines. They es-tablish the game on the same path with two different goals--good and evil--and the goal that the player achieves is determined by some last-minute, drastic, good or evil decision. Mass Effect favors the idea of the one goal, with multiple paths to get there. Shepherd can be the boy-scout; out to save everybody, protect everything, and serve at the pleasure of the Galactic Council. Shepherd can be the loose cannon; on a mission to save the galaxy his own way, breaking the rules, and following a Machiavellian pursuit of justice. Shepherd can also fall anywhere in-between; the good soldier, loyal to humanity; the good agent, loyal the Council; anti-alien reactionary; moonlighting mercenary; any combination of the above. Never before have I seen a console RPG with this level of roleplay-ability, and Mass Effect embraces it so completely.
Of course, none of this great role-playing would be possible with Mass Effect’s much-touted dialogue system. Now, I’ll be blunt here: Mass Effect’s dialogue system is not all that it was made-out to be. You won’t be interrupting other character or punching somebody in the face mid-sentence and having them react to you in real time. Instead, the dialogue system more of an extreme streamlining of the typical BioWare dialogue system. Instead of choosing exactly what Shepherd will say, word-for-word, the player chooses brief summaries that determine the overall mood of the conversation. What makes this system so effective is how consistently it is mapped to analog stick. Up and to the right will always be the “paragon” dialogue option, directly to the right will always be neutral, and down and to the right will always be “renegade,” and so on. Over time, guiding conversations becomes almost instinctual. As long as you know how you want Shepherd to react to something, you know exactly which direction to press the analog stick. The best part of this is that, thanks to the excellent writing, you will likely never be disappointed with what Shepherd has to say -- he/she has such a way with words. In turn, NPCs react to your attitude realistically and remember it. Be too much of a jerk to somebody, and they won’t like you very much, but keep a firm hand, and they’ll probably, at least, respect you.
For all of my gushing, however, Mass Effect is not without its flaws. Most side-quests feel like menial chores. A man of Shepherd's stature shouldn’t need to waste time settling petty domestic disputes or ferrying goods to small-time arms dealers. The few side-quests that do feel significant have very little pay-off, and most of the plots as-sociated with them never go anywhere and seem to just end without resolution. It’s possible that this is symptomatic of the fact that Mass Effect is a planned trilogy, and these plots will be resolved in sequels, but as a stand-alone product, the side-quests of Mass Effect are disappointing.
Exploring alien worlds is another optional gameplay element of Mass Effect, and is just as problematic. The first time I explored a new world, it felt great; driving the Mako ATV around, following anomalies on my map and discovering rubble, ruins, or resources. As this continues, however, it becomes clear that all of these explorable worlds are just about identical, with different skins. A volcano world here, a snow world there; every single one of them is just a barren landscape of hills and frustrating-to-navigate mountains. There are no rivers, lakes, vistas, fertile plains, etc. There are only hills, big rocks, and admittedly pretty weather effects.
Nevertheless, these problems are at least in optional content. Two of Mass Ef-fect’s biggest issues, however, are unavoidable. The loot-based gameplay is severely lacking. Guns, armor, and gun and armor accessories are the only items in the game. Those are about all that you’ll find in stores, crates, or anywhere. It’s extremely disap-pointing to find the wrecked remains of an ancient probe while exploring a planet, only to open it up and find a dime-a-dozen sniper rifle. And that’s another problem: for what little variety there is in loot, it’s compounded by its extremely linear progression. Certain models of weapons and armor are just better than others, plain and simple, and all equipment gets better in a linear numbered progression. Over the course of the game, your inventory becomes filled with Kessler Vs, Punisher IXs, etc. Compounding this issue is the unabashedly broken inventory system. It seems as though BioWare was aiming for a minimalist approach to inventory and just fell n their faces. Items are automatically looted and thrown into a messy inventory list for the player to sort through and delete whatever they don’t need one-by-one. Items are organized only according to name and number, cannot be stacked, and must be deleted one-by-one. And you’ll be deleting a lot of items; with the inventory max capped at 150, the amount of items you get is staggering. You’ll find yourself spending way more time managing you inventory than you should, and for no good reason. Another consequence of this problem is money, which is nigh-useless. Aside from some personal character upgrades, there’s just no reason to ever buy anything. And yet, your reward for completing most quests, is money. All of this is a fundamental problem with the game that will hopefully be fixed in the sequels, but for now you’ll just have to make do. These issues are an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise glowing product.
And the product is glowing. Mass Effect’s presentation is sublime, pushing the 360 well to its limits. It makes me glad that I waited to see the game on an HD set be-fore writing this review, because the level of detail--the shine off of the armor, the skin complexion of characters, the detail in alien features--is, to be blunt, stunning. The sound design is no slouch, either, as Mass Effect features one of the most beautiful videogame musical scores that I’ve heard in a long while. And with the talents of veteran voice actors like Keith David and Seth Green, amongst many others, the voice acting does not disappoint in the slightest (which it had better not considering the epic amount of spoken dialogue in the game).
In spite of its biggest flaws, Mass Effect maintains a truly epic, cinematic, expe-rience. The world of console RPGs rarely ever sees anything this ambitious, and even more rarely sees anything that comes as close to its ambitions as Mass Effect does. The inventory system is broken, the AI has some minor issues, and the optional content is sometimes bland, and often disappointing, but the core experience lives up to the hype and then some. Unfortunately, the narrative suffers from the usual RPG pitfalls towards its finale. The villain’s motives become less interesting and many of the plot’s better mysterious are answered through exposition for exposition’s sake. Nevertheless, Mass Effect manages to pull through for an ending that is satisfying while at the same time setting up for a promising sequel. Due to the fact that the game saves your completed game progress, the possibilities for a sequel become all-the-more enticing, considering the prospect that your decisions in Mass Effect could have potentially profound impacts in Mass Effect 2. Still, speculation aside, Mass Effect stands tall on its own. It isn’t a long game, but it doesn’t need to be. With such a strong first effort, and such a promising future, this franchise is almost guaranteed to become the next big thing in the years to come. BioWare should be proud for creating an original IP strong enough to rival and exceed what they did with Star Wars; for the Force is strong with them, and their future bright.9/
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