Mass Effect Review

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Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: BioWare

Platform: Xbox 360
Reviewed on Xbox 360

Humanity is only a junior tenant of the galaxy. Among a few scattered ruins from an ancient, alien civilization, we discovered a new element that makes interstellar space travel possible. That led us to the ancient and spectacular network of mass relays that connect stars across the galaxy. And as we explored that network, we met other starfaring civilizations &nash; aliens also travelling and settling the galaxy. Some races were younger, but most were older... more sophisticated... and more than a little concerned with the brash and energetic primates crawling from the gravity well of the Sol system.

We have moved past our initial, violent, first alien contact to make peace with galactic society. We now have colonies, trade agreements and a presence on the citadel, an ancient alien relic and station that serves as the hub for galactic government and commerce. As we contribute to the galactic community and strive for a role in galactic governance, a human is participating for the first time in the Citadel's elite cadre of unsupervised peacekeepers: the Spectres.

Only a Spectre as brash as the human can stop the cycle of extinction that revisits the galaxy every 50,000 years, and save all of galactic civilization.

Kyle Ackerman

Mass Effect is a spectacular role-playing game. It's the best I've played this year. Just be aware that "RPG" means different things to different people.

To me, a role-playing game is, fundamentally, an interactive story – a tale in which I get to play a role and, by doing so, participate in telling the tale. I don't feel that an RPG is simply about having a character that gets more powerful over time, managing hundreds of mysterious statistics and juggling a complex inventory. Nor is something only an RPG if it features turn-based battles, complete with spectacularly rendered (and often bizarrely named) special attacks. Of course Mass Effect has tons of items, myriad characters and level-based advancement, but the real crux of the game is the story of the cyclical mass extermination of all life in the galaxy, and how my character helps (or fails) to end it.

Keeping the Science in Science Fiction

Equally satisfying on a personal level is the fact that Mass Effect is solid, hard science fiction. It's not namby-pamby fantasy masquerading as science fiction, in which science is just another word for magic and the aliens might as well be elves or orcs. Everything in Mass Effect has a carefully thought-out explanation. Yes, there's faster than light travel, but it comes with a thorough explanation.

The world is full of careful details ranging from the realities of fleet maneuvers in space to the politics of alien societies. Appropriately, most of that information is accessible through optional dialogs and codex entries, but it's there. Just read the codex and you'll learn why no one worries about running out of ammunition and you'll understand why the Mako armored personnel transport maneuvers as it does. There are biotic powers, offering a few "magical spells" (so maybe there are wizards, if not elves), but even the background of biotics is thoroughly described.

Personally, I spent a tremendous amount of time just reading the basic planetary descriptions, available when new worlds are scanned. Marvelous tidbits of information, inside jokes, and even points that develop the plot are hidden on these worlds. It was tremendously satisfying to run across the "Forbidden Planet." It's hardly perfect science – footfalls are just as heavy, no matter what the gravity – but the details alone were enough to draw me through days of play. Mass Effect filled that void in my soul created by the recent dearth of good hard science fiction in any entertainment genre.

A More Thoughtful Type of Action

No matter the quality of the science in the fiction, it still has to be a good story, and Mass Effect is a rippin' good yarn. There are strong characters that make you like or hate them through their actions and dialog. The game is littered with clever sub-plots that let you flesh out your own character and that of the world. The main story kept me lashed to my console as I fought to stave off the execution of every sentient organic in the galaxy, but the side plots offered moral dilemmas and a scathing look at corporate life on the edges of colonized space.

This is a game that boasts a carefully crafted world. It's not a game for fans of action. Despite the fact that combat is presented as a third-person shooter (complete with the ability to take cover and smack down enemies with the butt of your rifle), it's not much of an action title. Powerful equipment and sensible tactical decisions will win any combat. Powerful twitch gaming skills won't. That makes this game great for RPG fans eager to hunt down the best assault rifle mod or most resilient armor. But without the right equipment and timing of special abilities, those twitch skills don't matter. RPG fans and even tabletop hobby gamers will be right at home with the most difficult boss battles. That guy you know who's reached Colonel-rank through online play of Halo 3 will be pissed off. Especially if he doesn't like dialog.

In a similar spirit, combat in the Mako vehicle is pretty dismal. There's still plenty of great stuff to do in the Mako, but there are times you're forced to fight that are a minor irritation. As long as you keep moving (even if it's only a few feet back and forth), you won't get hit and can easily slaughter all foes, but it doesn't have the right feel to compare to an action game. Fortunately, that's OK – it's an RPG. It would have been nice if BioWare had embraced the RPG aspect of vehicular combat, allowing players to upgrade the Mako with better equipment that would make later encounters go faster, but it's so tangential to the core, story-driven play that it's forgivable – unless you foolishly signed onto Mass Effect for the hard-hitting action.

First, the Penultimate Frontier...

The Mako brings up an important point: Mass Effect is more than a story-driven RPG – it's a haven for explorers. There are dozens of star systems that you can visit, scattered around the galaxy, and each has planets and asteroid belts you can survey. Nearly every system has a planet or moon on which you can land. And once your interstellar ship, the Normandy, drops the Mako onto the planet's surface, you can freely explore sections of the world. Hidden around these many satellites are ancient artifacts, mineral deposits, abandoned camps and even corporate or military installations.

Many worlds have their own side-stories, and while these facilities might be similar in appearance, these worlds can provide days of exploration themselves. Many developers would make a game itself out of this activity, but in Mass Effect, it's just something to supplement the main story. For me, it brought back the memory of the first game like that I ever played, Starflight. It was exciting to cruise around the planet surfaces, uncovering the remains of ancient wars and fossils of long-extinct monsters. This exploration also leads to great visuals, like climbing up the steep side of a Lunar crater to see the sparkling jewel of Earth drop into view, providing a stark contrast to the moon's grey landscape.

How About "Conversation Donut"?

In Mass Effect, BioWare tried something novel – the "conversation wheel." The idea is that during dialog, you point the analog stick to a response on the wheel, and the conversation keeps going. Options on the top of the wheel generally develop a different kind of player character than options on the bottom. Options on the left typically expand a conversation, while options on the right tend to move the conversation along. Locations on the wheel will have a few key words to further clarify your options. By pointing the stick in a particular direction and pressing the button to choose that option, conversation continues.

The conversation wheel is pretty much the same thing as conventional "conversation trees," but it is a nicer way of presenting the options. Most importantly, instead of waiting for a line of dialog to finish, reading the options and then choosing one, it's easy to keep conversations going. If the wheel is used quickly and properly, it does keep the pace and flow of conversation going, making for a more engaging and cinematic overall experience.

I Think I'll Take the Stairs

Certainly, Mass Effect has its flaws, but they are minor. As previously mentioned, it's not an action game, so action fans will be disappointed. Personally, I disliked that found equipment scaled so that it was always level appropriate. That meant it was easier to get better equipment by completing quests that revolved around conversations rather than venturing out into the harsh fringes of the universe. Furthermore, inventory management could become ungainly if you didn't keep constant tabs on the state of your equipment.

Also, it's a little odd that nearly everything in the universe can be solved using a Simon Says style mini-game with four of the controller buttons. More sophisticated and different mini-games for different activities would have been welcome (for example, the hacking interface in BioShock). Lastly, the elevator rides really do suck.

Mass Effect is, ultimately, a series of smaller spaces filled with quests and linked by loading screens. But the elevator rides seem much longer than even the loading times require. They are sometimes vehicles for conversation or announcements that further the plot, but it can take a long time just to move from one level of the starship to another. If I were the captain of the Normandy, and couldn't convince my engineers to overhaul the lift, I'd at least install a damned ladder (or maybe even a fireman's pole, to make deployment speedy and fun!).

A Treat of Sights and Sounds

It's not enough that the story and background of the Mass Effect universe are brilliant, the visuals of the game are gorgeous, and just as detailed in their own way. Citadel Station is not only spectacular, it's a monument to alien technology – and even more of a monument to the artists who worked on the game. Alien races are uniquely different from humans, but given enough detail that individual members are visually distinguishable. Both the architecture and technology of myriad worlds bear markings and details that enhance their believability. Yes, some spaces and objects are reused, but in a game of this size, that's an excusable necessity.

Beyond the art, the sound scheme in Mass Effect had a less obvious, but more profound, effect than even the impressive art. The soundtrack perfectly captures the mood of individual segments, but it's the little details that really create an emotional impact. Even the menu sounds are in tune with the orchestral score, creating a soundscape that engenders a feeling of vast space and mysterious danger entwined with hope. Completing this is the voice acting, which universally adds to the impact of the game. It takes longer, but I'd recommend keeping the subtitles turned off and enjoying the dialog.

A five-star rating may be the top score on this site, but it doesn't necessitate a perfect game. FI's review criteria emphasize value, and Mass Effect brings a tremendous amount of play to the table. When you combine that with superior story-telling, there are so many great experiences that the game's few flaws are inconsequential when held against the magnum opus that is Mass Effect.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on December 9, 2007 7:05 PM.

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