Video Game Review: Mass Effect (or When Hard Drives Stop Dead)

Let me set the scene for you: It’s the last Friday of January. My 2010 HP Pavilion laptop is my third consecutive laptop which starts to experience major issues. It still ran but it was slower than my nearly 30-year-old Macintosh SE. I tried starting it up when I get home from work but it’s dead. It won’t go past the splash screen. The hard drive has seized up and won’t go any more. Apart from some photos and some old radio show clips, I’ve lost nearly everything from the last two years of my life.

Why do I bring that up at the start of a Mass Effect review? I’m one of the many who played the Mass Effect series on PC. My three Shepards and two games worth of story were lost. When I got my computer back two weeks later (with a new hard drive), it was back to Eden Prime to stop the Reapers. And since I had to do everything over from scratch, I thought it would be fun to re-review Mass Effect some four years after coming out for PC (five years after XBox 360) to see how hindsight affects how we perceive the game and how it influenced games since.

Story

It couldn’t be a BioWare game without talking about the story and the associated elements. The fact that this is a new IP means that it’s either got to excel at story or gameplay (which is why Halo is so popular [At least, that’s my theory because I didn’t find the story in the first game to be particularly memorable… Or any part of Halo 1 to be memorable.]) in order to make a splash. This being BioWare, you can bank on them putting effort into knocking the story out of the park.

You play the role of Commander Shepard, a human soldier for the Human Systems Alliance Navy. Shepard can be a man or woman, depending on your preference with an adjustable skill set (I’ll get into character classes later) and back story (which adds a side quest based on your Shepard’s background). He’s a candidate for a spot on the galactic government’s special ops force, Spectre. What’s supposed to be a simple evaluation mission involving the recovery of an ancient artifact at a human colony ends up being a complete disaster thanks to an alien sneak attack and an unexpected betrayal. The game starts as a simple case of finding out what the rogue Spectre Saren Arterius is after and trying to stop him. This being a BioWare game (I almost wrote movie there. Fitting given the developer), things are not as they seem because, well, plot twists and spoilers.

Along the way, you meet new people and ally them to your cause. You also chase Saren down from one end of the galaxy to the other in a race against time to stop him. Of course, how this plays out during the game depends on your choices during the game. Unlike BioWare’s KOTOR which had two distinct endings to the game, ME has one proper ending but a number of things could be different by game’s end that could be different based on your choices. To say that no two people will have the exact same Mass Effect experience isn’t a complete overstatement. Various characters throughout the game can live or die depending on what you do or how you do things.

Also playing into how the game sorts itself out is the morality system. You can play through this game either taking the morally correct or “good” stance, called Paragon, or the more evil “renegade” path. Playing through the game as a Paragon or Renegade won’t necessarily affect the final outcome of the game but playing one path over the other will change various dialogue options available as well as how your perceived by other characters. Various Paragon or Renegade choices will also influence the story as it goes forward in Mass Effect and the other games in the trilogy. The effect of following one path over another, however, doesn’t seem as pronounced here as it is in the two subsequent games in the trilogy.

The story is what drives this game forward. Immersing yourself in the story of the game is what makes it worthwhile in the end. The stakes get higher as the plot unfolds and you get to know the other characters who are on your ship as your crew/mission party. And as you get deeper into the game, which really doesn’t pick up until after you depart from the Citadel, the hub of the galaxy and home to the galactic government council, the more addicting the game gets and the more you push through to get to the end. Rushing through makes you miss out on a whole great big galaxy around you so maybe that’s not entirely a good thing. Regardless, BioWare knocks out a story so big and so original and so good, it’s not a surprise that Hollywood hasn’t tried compressing 40 or so hours of Mass Effect into a two-hour movie.

Gameplay

The gameplay tends toward being like an RPG in the sort of traditional BioWare way. Action is a bit more free-flowing than you would’ve seen with Knights of the Old Republic. KOTOR had a quasi-turn-based combat system. In ME, you run and gun with your weapons. I won’t call this shooter combat, however. You can aim dead centre on an enemy and still miss. That’s because your accuracy with a weapon is a function of the weapon’s accuracy rating, your skill with the selected weapon, if you’re firing your weapon quickly/continuously and if you’re actually aiming at your target. That’s a very RPG way of doing a shooter.

It wouldn’t be BioWare if you didn’t have a little sci-fi fun to go along with the shooting. Each character can shoot specific weapons based on their character class (there are six classes for you to choose for your Shepard and one of each of the six classes are on your crew). Each class also has certain powers. Soldiers can unleash powers to improve the destruction unleashed by their weapons. There are tech powers which involve overloading shields, scrambling circuits and improving your team’s ability to hack various objects. The coolest sci-fi powers in Mass Effect, by a wide margin, are biotics, which are ME’s version of the force. You can disrupt enemy shields, lift them in the air, throw them against walls, slam them into the ground and, if you’re defensively minded, improve your own shields with a biotic barrier. Each class either uses solely soldier, tech or biotic powers or a combination of two. The game breaks up classes like this to encourage you to balance your team among the three power types and tailor your squad to each mission. I found that I was mostly bringing people I liked along with me or those who I thought would have the most interesting things to say. That’s not to say things wouldn’t have been easier if I brought the right people along…

Gameplay is broken up into about eight main story missions with a number of side quests. Each tend to follow a similar formula with the missions including the majority being on foot (and almost always involving shooting at some point) and a section in your six-wheel armored transport, called the Mako (if it had eight wheels, I would’ve accused it of being a Final Fantasy VII reference because of the eight Mako reactors in Midgar). In the main story missions, the pattern tends to be: arrive, dialogue, shoot, drive, shoot while driving, get out of the Mako, shoot some more and talk to end it. The different locations, enemies and NPCs that fill out the galaxy make the missions feel different enough that you don’t actually notice how similar the missions are until you put it into words.

The galactic side quests tend to be less forgiving in covering up the patterns in their construction. There are certain non-story worlds (usually there’s one landable planet in a solar system) where you can land in your Mako and explore. The layout of the planets are similar with a square plot of land which is explorable which is covered with mountains, valleys and plains. The map will have three or four points of interest a couple more for you to stumble upon. There will always be a base of some sort (there are three different layouts frequently used) where you shoot people to achieve your end goal.

The side quests on main worlds (such as The Citadel and other story mission worlds) often involve missions requiring dialogue and searching for items. These are interspersed frequently enough that they break up the rest of the game well. Aiding local law enforcement or helping out a diplomat gives you something to do other than going from Point A to Point B while shooting things en route to and at your destination.

I know that it sounds like I don’t like the gameplay (and, admittedly, I’m not a big fan of shooters), but the gameplay seemed to work for me. If you stick to the main set of missions, I think your perspective on the gameplay changes. The gameplay, while arguably very repetitive, is augmented so well by the story that it doesn’t feel like a chore to walk in, shoot Geth and leave. In fact, you want to go in, shoot things and leave because that’s how you’re going to save the galaxy. (That and unleashing biotic hell on enemies never seems to get old.) Maybe that was my problem with Halo. Shooting the aliens didn’t carry any weight until near the end of the game when there was a set end goal other than shoot aliens to reach the end of the level.

The biggest failing of the gameplay of ME1, by a wide margin, is the inventory system. It is nothing but a total annoyance. Sometimes enemies drop items picked up into your inventory. You can carry up to 150 items in your inventory at any time between weapons, ammo, weapon mods, tech-based omni-tools, biotic amps, armor and armor mods for all of your characters. There’s no storage on your ship for it all either so if you pick up inventory item 151, you drop it (called converting to omni-gel). There’s no option for actually going into your inventory to drop an item for the new one and you don’t have a chance to grab that item again because you’ve converted it to omni-gel. I felt as though I did as much forward thinking and work on managing my inventory as I did actually on the Normandy.

The gameplay isn’t revolutionary. It’s more or less an evolution of what we already expect from BioWare. The combination of different character classes. The essential story missions peppered with side quests to gather items/money/experience points. The force/biotics. The addition of real-time shooter combat (with the ability to pause action, mind you) does give it quite a different feel from KOTOR. And it’s gets tweaked farther from KOTOR from here.

Graphics

The hardest part of going back essentially five years to do a video game review is to talk about the graphics. Part of me wonders what the comparables would be for a five-year-old game would be. The first one to come to mind is Uncharted which was probably had the best graphics in a game in 2007. The game, as one would expect from a BioWare, has sufficiently good graphics all things considered. They aren’t mindblowingly good but they are at least good enough to serve the purpose of immersing you in the Mass Effect galaxy.

The most noticeable flaw with the graphics are definitely the armor and ship textures. Regardless of how high I turned up the texture details while maxing out my screen’s resolution, they always seemed a little blurry and painted on. While you seldom notice the issues on either the armor or Normandy, they’re definitely there. Most of the cutscenes are fully rendered in the game’s engine so the appearance of the letters “NORMANDY” on the side of your ship depend on what your texture settings are. The same goes for armor, though noticeable issues with armor textures are lessened with less visible patterns on armor.

While that is a long paragraph on a limited issue with the graphics may seem like a large hangup, I wouldn’t say that those texture issues are game-breaking problems. As I said above, the graphics are good enough that you aren’t taken out of the world but not revolutionarily great either. Mind you, the optional film grain effect helps a bunch as it takes the shine out of the world and gives it a lived-in feel as though the world actually exists. That last sentence is something most filmmakers should note for CGI in their movies. Most movies (and even video games) have CGI with such vibrant colours and shiny textures that they don’t seem to belong in the world but look fake. Everything in Mass Effect looks like it belongs to a living universe.

Audio

I’ll save the voice acting for the end. While the game definitely includes Star Trek and Star Wars as influences, the sweeping orchestral scores that are typical of those movies are not present in Mass Effect. It’s a very synthetic and electronic based soundtrack for this game which has Blade Runner and Dune as influences. The sound effects in the game are also unique to the Mass Effect world. The weapons have a more gun sound than lazer sound while powers also have their own unique sounds different from sounds we typically hear for Force powers in Star Wars games or magic in other RPGs.

The voice acting is definitely where this game excels. Every character line, including your own Commander Shepard, is spoken. Even picking a male or female Shepard give you a unique voice actor (Fem Shep’s voice actress, Jennifer Hale, is widely considered the superior Shepard) with unique lines and dialogue possibilities for certain characters. Outside of the seven main characters (Shepard and the rest of your party), there aren’t a lot of unique dialogue options. That’s not surprising given the hundreds of characters who you can talk to. Still, BioWare should be commended for putting so much effort into the whole of the galaxy so there are so many people worth talking to.

I also think it’s worth noting that every aliens species even has its own distinct way of speaking. Salarians are highlighted with high-pitched, rapid speech. Asari sound almost human but speak with an almost regal tone. The Krogan and Turians typically have deep voices but the Turians have a certain reverb to their voices that the gravelly Krogan voices don’t have. Quarian voices have a slightly Eastern European accent. Volus voices are muffled inside their breather suits. And Elcor speak with a slow pace in a monotone fashion. I love how everyone sounds different even if they’re all speaking the same language (which doesn’t make sense given that it’s a great big galaxy with one adopted language which we humans happened to speak before joining the greater galaxy but I’ll say “universal translator” and move on).

Overall

Mass Effect isn’t a perfect game. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a game that we’ll call perfect with four (or five, if you played ME on 360) years’ hindsight. At the time, this game had to be considered as close to perfection as possible. A familiar plot in an original universe with well-written and well-acted characters filling out the galaxy definitely plays well in 2012 compared to many of the games that have come since. It was known upon release that BioWare wanted to make a trilogy. Any movie trilogy should be able to be watched consecutively. If you don’t want to play the Mass Effect games in succession, the game fails as a trilogy. After playing Mass Effect, there was never a doubt that the story had to keep going.

Ratings
Story: 9.5/10
Gameplay: 8.5/10
Graphics: 8/10
Audio: 9/10

Overall: 9/10

Mass Effect was reviewed on PC but is available for the XBox 360. Don’t expect to see too many new copies of either version of the game because it was released in 2007 on the 360 and 2008 on PC. Most reviews note that the gameplay experience is different depending on the console played on. Your graphics will also change depending on your PC specs.

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