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Avatar ImageGamer Limit Review: Mass Effect
By: | February 26th, 2009 | Xbox 360
Review |X360

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Rating Category
8.0 Presentation
Beautiful graphics, let down by some blatant bugs and glitches but saved by excellent visual design.
How does our scoring system work?
7.0 Gameplay
A mixed bag: unintuitive inventory system, an excellent conversation system, some unrewarding character classes and a difficult (but ultimately effective) combat system.
8.0 Sound
Space opera 101 but with some interesting electro-beats for character.
8.0 Longevity
An abundance of side-quests and planets to explore, but lacking in real depth. Enough main storyline to sustain a few playthroughs.
7.8 Overall
A rough diamond, its charm is difficult to quantify in categorical terms. A worthwhile experience.

  1. I’m sorry, but I have to flat our disagree with this review. You do bring up some good points in terms of barren landscapes, dialog options, and the occasional glitch; however, combat is NOT nearly as bad as you describe. In fact, I think the combat was probably one of the highlights of the game, right from the get-go.

    You talk about barren landscapes, but the sheer amount of planets you can go to seems to not phase you. If BioWare were to detail each in every planet to the same scale as the more developed planets, we would be talking about Mass Effect being game of the year 2008, not ’07, and wouldn’t se ME2 until probably 2011.

    You’re thoughts about choice are understandable, but you’re asking for too much. ME has always been thought as a trilogy, and obviously BioWare has a story they want to tell. The idea of “choice” does not necessarily need to revolve around where the plot goes; it’s a matter of moral choice.

  2. avatar Carlo

    @ Timmy

    Your “moral” choices point is a fair one, but to me, once I began seeing its seams, any notion of morality in this game lost any significance.

  3. avatar Sanzee

    I say this with absolute respect for the opinion of others (considering this review is more like an opinion, than a critics review), but man you are so far off in la-la land, I don’t even know where to begin. You can’t just slam a game because you don’t enjoy it. The points you attempt to make in this review stem from your opinion towards it. I played Mass Effect and somewhat enjoyed it. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t really my thing. But God knows it was still a fantastic game. If I were like you and rated it based on my opinion, I’d give it an 8. But based on the common critics judgement, on all levels such as visuals, gameplay, audio, tech, ect… this game deserves a far better score. I’m with the guy above. And I’m still debating whether or not you even played through the whole thing.

    Gamer Limit Reputation: -1

  4. Aww man! Not our reputation!

    I loooooved me some Mass Effect. I spent so much time in that universe, because it was made for people like me. The atmosphere, the characters, the universe was all made for me. So much so that I was able to overlook the glaring design and technical flaws that game had.

    I do love the game, but I can understand the polarization of it amongst the gaming community. It could totally be a 10 to one group of people and a 6 to another.

    It’s strange that way.

  5. avatar Carlo

    @Sanzee

    Are you suggesting game reviews aren’t supposed to be based on opinion?

    I don’t quite get that.

  6. @Sanzee

    Sorry you felt that way, but it is an opinion. The rest of us on staff don’t necessarily share the same one (everyone loves it), so I hope you still enjoy all other content on the site.

  7. Well its your opinion I guess, but I believe this game deserves at least a 9 in my book, its really awesome and re-playable.

    Only thing is that I feel like I got ripped off buying the Bring Down the Sky DLC, because I beat it in like an hour…lol

  8. avatar Rodrigo

    Ridiculous

  9. avatar Mike

    Why would you let someone with such a biased opinion review this game?

  10. avatar person

    +1 angry comment about this terrible review

  11. @Mike @person

    Reviews are the opinion of that particular member of staff. We provide the game, they give us their take on it. If you don’t agree, thats more then fine :)

  12. avatar Tashi

    Great review. Spot on.

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