Not too long ago, I was presented with an opportunity to be massively disappointed. I had seen some of the early previews and interviews surrounding the game Mass Effect, and frankly my expectations, in spite of my best efforts to contain them, had grown to the point that I could not possibly be satisfied. A story-driven game with heavy role-playing elements set in a fully-realized science fiction world? It sounded more or less like just plugging wires directly into the pleasure centers of my brain, as far as I could tell.
Mass Effect was created by Bioware, the same company that created Bioshock, which I reviewed earlier here on the Buffet, and for which Dana published a review from the perspective of a non-gamer. This is also the same company that created the game Knights of the Old Republic (and its sequel, KotOR II) for the original X-Box console (the games were both also ported to the PC). This second game is much more important for understanding Mass Effect, because the two share a number of similarities in terms of the type of game and the manner in which the player is expected to interact with the world.
I have been very pleased in the past with Bioware’s work, and once again, they do not disappoint. I enjoyed the game immensely, in spite of my stratospheric expectations. I have a few quibbles, of course, because nothing is ever perfect, but in Mass Effect, they have delivered a solid, highly entertaining game that leaves me both satisfied with what I got for my money and eager for more.
Unlike with KotOR, which is set in the Star Wars universe, Mass Effect is set in a world created from scratch by Bioware. They’ve done a good job with a difficult task. The setting for the game feels rich. There is an obvious sense that there is an awful lot going on in this universe and that, in spite of the broad reach of the story it presents, the game barely scratches the surface. I greatly enjoy it when a game can have this effect. There are plenty of perfectly serviceable video games in existence where the world feels like a sort of two-dimensional Hollywood set propped up as backdrop just beyond the character, but they are not nearly as satisfying as a game like Mass Effect that makes the player feel like a part of something much larger.
The writers have done a great job of really creating a fully realized world. Even if you take the time to extract every possible scrap of information the game is willing to give you, it’s obvious that you are picking up only loose threads of a much larger tapestry. This is encouraging, because it means that when the company releases more games in this universe, which they’ve already announced that they are working on, there is more of the story to tell, and aspects of their creation not touched upon in Mass Effect.
This is not to say that the game limits the information available to the player. On the contrary, the game will inundate the player with information. If anything, the information you are provided with is limited only by a respect for the extent to which a reasonable player might be expected to tolerate having more foisted upon them. It is also worth noting that the majority of the information in the game is entirely optional. New topics are constantly being added to your journal. There is no requirement that you read any of it. I personally found it highly rewarding to read every scrap of information that the game was willing to give me, but if you’re looking for a more action-oriented experience of the game with less story to “get in the way,” you have that option as well.
It is a legitimate complaint that I’ve read from several reviewers that some of the characters you meet in the game are willing to tell you their life story at the drop of a hat. While this might not be entirely realistic, it does do wonders to remain very story-driven. I eventually decided that my main character simply had a very trustworthy face, and people seemed inclined to confide their secrets to me. It might seem a little unexpected at times to have people open up to you so quickly, but the game isn’t unreasonably ham-fisted about it, and I generally found that it was well worth it to listen to what people had to say. Of course, you might disagree, and in that case, it is trivially easy and not terribly detrimental to your ability to complete the game to blow people off after the first sentence and run off to find something to shoot at.
I also enjoyed that there are a number of very distinct ways to play the game, and they are all perfectly valid. You can develop your character’s ability to either charm or intimidate your way out of difficult situtations , or you can decide to simply use the basic conversational options to try to reason your way through the galaxy. There are certainly a lot of your problems that can only really be solved by violence, but there are a remarkable number of situations you can resolve peacefully if you’re willing to leverage your conversational options to that end.
Beyond that, there are three main areas in which your character can specialize. You can play a character purely geared towards combat (guns), tech (disabling your enemy’s shields, turning robotic enemies against each other, etc.), or biotics (psychic powers along the lines of telekinesis, more or less). You can also play a character who is a blend of any two of those choices. Each path grants you access to different things. Combat specialists can use any weapon they find, and wear the heaviest armor. Specialists in either of the other two branches have access to a wide range of abilities related to their specialty.
As the character develops, you can strengthen their abilities in specific skills. Even characters at the highest possible level will not be able to max out all of their skills. This gives the player the opportunity to tune their character’s abilities to their particular style of play. Because you also have the option of controlling the skill development of the other characters in your party, you can take this as an opportunity to use your companions to help fill in the gaps, complementing your abilities with their own. Even here, you have further options for customization, as you must choose only two of the six available other party members to accompany you whenever you leave your spaceship.
It has been interesting to me to read other people’s impressions of the game, because it drives home the extent to which different players find very different things to work best for them. My main character was a soldier, and I found that the assault rifle skill was, for me, obviously better than the other weapon types I could choose. As it turns out though, I’ve come across other people who recommend, in the strongest possible terms, each and every one of the other weapon choices. This even includes the pistol, which everyone agrees does less damage than the alternatives, but when combined with the special abilities of certain character specializations that have very limited access to other weapon skills, can still be just as highly effective.
The equipment you buy and salvage throughout the game is almost all customizable to some extent, which provides players with further opportunities to adjust their character and their gear to fit their playing style. Even the same weapon or piece of armor can behave very differently when it has a different set of modifications applied to it. I enjoyed the flexibility that this system gave me, though some other reviewers have complained that they found managing their inventory of equipment and the modifications for it to be tedious.
The difficulty of the game scales well, in my experience. The game gets noticeably harder on more difficult settings, but not excessively so. The challenge was ratcheted up without feeling overwhelming. This is a trait in a game that is often overlooked, but worthy of congratulations when I find a place it’s been handled well. Some experienced gamers might find it frustrating that in order to unlock the most difficult settings, they must first beat the game on the more regular settings. The game offers easy, normal and hard to begin with. Beating the game on any of those settings will unlock the “hardcore” setting. Beating the game on hardcore will unlock “insanity,” which is as difficult as it gets. I enjoyed working my way up to insanity, but if you’re looking to just jump in at the deep end because you are confident you will be good at it, this limitation can be a little frustrating, because it means you have to beat the game at least twice before you can really play for all the marbles.
I mentioned early on that I did have some quibbles about the game, and one of them is related to the difficulty settings, however. The problem is not one of game design, but rather a bug. As the difficulty increases, your opponents will become more and more resilient. At the same time, as your character becomes higher and higher level, you will have access to increasingly powerful weapons. The problem is that the very highest level characters will be using weapons that have considerable force, often blowing opponents backwards when you hit them. At very high difficulty settings, those opponents will have enough hit points and good enough armor to survive several such attacks. The trouble comes when they are blown back, for example, through a locked door.
I more than once found myself in situations where an enemy I had to kill in order to advance the plot to the next stage had been blown through a wall or a door into an area the game wouldn’t allow me to enter until after I’d killed all of the enemies (one of which was now locked safely inside). Although not a show-stopper, as bugs go, I found this to be massively frustrating, as it required me to exit the game and re-load it, often replaying some or all of the fight that led up to my enemy being blasted into quarantine, in order to resolve the issue.
I also found that dialog options were not always what I wanted or expected them to be. These are really two seperate issues. The first is that sometimes I wanted to respond in a conversation in a certain way, and that particular response was not one of the ones that the game made available to me. Now, don’t get me wrong, the dialog in the game is easily the best I’ve ever seen. Every single line of dialog is actually voice-acted, meaning you’re never just reading a sub-title in silence. The cast of voice actors is quite good, including a number of famous names like Seth Green. Given the tremendous quantity of dialog in the game, this is a remarkable accomplishment. However, there were times when it seemed to me that, for example, a polite refusal was in order, and my only options were to either agree to what I was asked or to rudely decline.
The second issue, that of dialog not being what I expected, is a different animal. In an effort to keep dialog flowing smoothly, the game allows you to select your response to what you are being told before the person you are talking to is done saying it (either by anticipating or by reading ahead in the sub-titles). In order to allow you to choose quickly, you are given a small set of options presented as very brief three or four word phrases. These don’t give you the full text of your response, but rather serve to give you an idea of the tone and general content of each possible response and then choose between them. Unfortunately, there were times when what my character actually said based on my choices was not what the short phrase had led me to expect. This was frustrating because it meant that my careful choice of a response that fit with the personality I imagined my character to have was ruined, and my character turned into a different person than I wanted.
Is this just me being too picky? Perhaps. On the other hand, the game did such a consistently excellent job of letting me carry on a conversation exactly the way that I’d wanted that those few instances in which the illusion was broken were particularly jarring to me as a player.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed the experience of Mass Effect. It has joined the very exclusive collection of my most favorite games. I eagerly anticipate the sequel we’ve already been promised. It’s true that Mass Effect is not the game for everyone. If the thought of extensive story elements, engaging dialog, and customizable equipment seems to just drag down a shooting game, you would do well to look elsewhere. If, on the other hand, you want a story-driven game in a richly realized environment, coupled with flexible character creation and development, with strong overtones of a tactical shooter, Mass Effect is the best thing I’ve seen yet.
-posted by Mark