I cower behind a metal pillar in some unknown alien city, clinging to my last bit of health as an army of killer alien droids encircle my position, waiting nervously as my healing ability recharges, my slain squad-mates being of little use alive or dead . I’m wondering why I’m choosing to push forward in a game that is so unwieldy to control, at least during the battle sequences, that death seems so frustratingly routine.
Is it the Star Wars-inspired (or, for some, derivative) story, or the depth of role-playing, even with the inclusion of some useless character-classes? Read on to find out what I mean.
Mass Effect, a science-fiction action role-playing adventure developed by BioWare for the Xbox 360 and PC, is a complex and difficult game. Difficult, not necessarily in the “save early, save often” vein (though there definitely is a lot of that due to some game-stopping glitches and difficult battles), but difficult because it is hard to pin down. Yes, it is a role-playing game: you can tailor Commander Shephard, commander of the SSV Normandy and the game’s hero, into a number of different character classes from soldiers (weapons specialists) to adepts (biotics specialist whose lack of firepower ultimately makes progression difficult).
But it is also a wannabe action game complete with a Gears of War-like cover mechanic, squad commands and vehicular combat but lacking pinpoint aiming or shooting mechanics since damage is still subtly based on hit and skill points. Snipe someone between the eyes, for example, the role-playing dice rolls, and the result
is not necessarily an instant kill.
Mass Effect’s story is more focused and fairly straightforward. You, as Commander Shephard, are tasked to uncover the reasons why a rogue Spectre, Mass Effect’s Jedi-equivalent, Saren Arterius has allied with the robotic Geth alien-race and the significance of the Reavers, another synthetic alien-race who like to harvest organic life-forms once every millenia. It is hardly original but, taking some inspiration from 70s pulp science-fiction, the overall presentation of the narrative as well as the consistent, almost 2001: A Space Odyssey-like art design gives the game its own distinctiveness.
Ignoring the science-fiction accoutrements, Mass Effect is ostensibly a game about choices. Do you choose to save your squad-mate from certain death? Do you invite them to join your crew? Do you pat them on the back or scold them because they look like 3D wax mannequins (aliens excluded)? A Movie-like presentation, which includes the camera shifting between talking characters, and a simple conversation system, the game’s core mechanic which only requires a simple toggle of an analog stick, allows these choices to be intuitive and entertaining rather than laborious.
As most of the game’s narrative is delivered via conversations (a comprehensive in-game codec providing the backstory), the ability to choose where that conversation will branch seems, for most of the time, more empowering in this game than in some of Bioware’s previous efforts.
Disappointingly, this sense of empowerment is an illusion. Replaying scenes again, often after you fail to get pass a particularly difficult battle, will uncover that many “branching” dialogue paths meet at the same end and so the promise of freedom rings false. As well written as the conversations are, they will lack complexity for those inclined to find where the boundaries of the system lie.
There remains depth in character-development, especially if you choose to explore your squad-mates’ back stories and follow the threads of conversation that have no real consequence to the main story – the “tell me about yourself” dialogue thread. Many of the game’s memorable plot events, including the often-mentioned love scene, will only be memorable if you have taken the time to interact with and have gotten to “know” Mass Effect’s multitude of characters among them the irritable Krogan battle master Wrex, the blue Asari scientist Liara T’Soni and the space marine Ashley Williams.
There are also an abundance of side-quests and planets to explore, some of which, unfortunately, contribute little to the main storyline or are bland and repetitive. Again, there is the hint of choice, but this time the side-quest and planet “choices” are uninteresting rather than illusory. They are impressive in size, at first glance, but most of the planets are barren save for the occasional alien fortress or giant sand worm. The side-quests, meanwhile, are mostly simplistic, some able to reduced down to the “find that, talk to that, kill that” quest pattern.
It is also disappointing that when you encounter the difficult battle sequences it is as though the game is trying to wrest control from you. Enemy encounters, mostly against packs of killer alien droids, are characterized by constant struggles with an unintuitive inventory and weapons system, which fails to communicate what upgrades are available or sort them in any comprehensible order, and squad-mates whose path-finding troubles may leave you stranded in a middle of a tense fire fight.
Thankfully, as the game progresses and you become at ease with managing your telekinetic powers, with taking cover efficiently and when aiming your guns feels less like trying to wrestle a baby crocodile, the versatility of combat glimmers underneath the surface. Use your biotics specialist, Liara T’Soni to lift a helpless Geth droid into the air as Ashley Williams takes it out with her guns. Unsurprisingly, once more options (or, in other words, more choices) become available, combat becomes less a frustrating toil and more a dynamic balancing act of attack, defense and team-management.
Strangely, while its flaws are glaring, Mass Effect manages to retain most of its charm. A consistent visual design, strong writing, a well-paced story, and, most of all, the chance to some degree shape that story, are enough incentives to push forward. It is a shame that, if you look hard enough, what was an adventure full of possibilities is really one of full of limitations. However, should you choose to hang on, with your laser blaster and crew in tow, you will be rewarded with a satisfying conclusion to the first part of what promises to be a proficient space-opera saga.
Beautiful graphics, let down by some blatant bugs and glitches but saved by excellent visual design.
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A mixed bag: unintuitive inventory system, an excellent conversation system, some unrewarding character classes and a difficult (but ultimately effective) combat system.
Space opera 101 but with some interesting electro-beats for character.
An abundance of side-quests and planets to explore, but lacking in real depth. Enough main storyline to sustain a few playthroughs.
A rough diamond, its charm is difficult to quantify in categorical terms. A worthwhile experience.