Game Review: Mass Effect

So my first post is a review of a three-year-old game. Why? Because Mass Effect is the kind of game I would like to work on: it has lots of story and background information, unique characters with plausible motivations, and plenty of stuff to explore and interact with.

Plus I can’t afford new games.

So here we go.

Review – Mass Effect

BioWare/EA, released November 20, 2007, XBox 360 & PC

WRITING

The writing team really shows their work with the enormous, comprehensive Galactic Codex. Each alien race has its own culture, society, and military structure. All the technology is described and sounds technically viable. I was able to understand the technobabble within the context of the game.

I think the characterization is pretty tight. Everyone has a distinctive personality and motivations. I can see that the antagonists are not “card-carrying” villains, but have realistic (if deluded, in some cases) motives for opposing Commander Shepard and his crew.

Speaking of Shepard’s crew, talking to them makes it easy to see that everyone has significant personal issues, even Shepard (depending on your choice of background), and those issues have contributed to who they are. Garrus, Tali, and Wrex have personal missions that open up when you get far enough into their dialogue for them to trust you with their pasts.

It’s probably just me, but I don’t understand how the romance subplots work. I know the underlying mechanics, but it doesn’t feel like there’s enough on-screen interaction between Shepard and his partner to logically grow into an intimate relationship. I suppose that the game assumes that the interaction goes on off-screen.

I have to applaud the moral ambiguity injected into the writing. In virtually every conflict, there are no clear-cut heroes or villains, but the writing not-so-subtly casts several corporations in a negative light and is sharply critical of biological warfare. ExoGeni uses its colony on Feros to conduct tests on the mind-controlling biology of the Thorian. Binary Helix is attempting to weaponize the rachni (an obvious allusion to the Weyland-Yutani Corporation from the Alien franchise). Can you justify killing the last specimen of a species (once thought extinct) for what a long-dead generation did centuries ago? The salarians created the genophage as a deterrent to krogan expansion, but the turians used it anyway, ascribing tightly to the concept of “massive retaliation.” The quarians created the geth as servitors, but panicked when they started to display sentience and tried to wipe them out; the geth retaliated and now the quarians wander the galaxy in a fleet of second-hand starships. The political party Terra Firma is described as pro-human, and its leader, Charles Saracino, does not exhibit any sort of xenophobia and repudiates his anti-alien party members.

Lesser writers could have easily written clearly black-and-white conflict, painting one side as nothing but virtuous, decent people and the other as heartless corporate raiders who wouldn’t bat an eye at committing genocide in the name of money or power. This team has written the conflicts so that most of them can be resolved with diplomacy. Two tense situations, with weapons drawn, can be defused with words (provided you have enough ranks in Charm/Intimidate): in the first situation, you can convince Wrex that the genophage-free krogan serving Saren are nothing more than his slaves; in the second, you can convince Saren that Sovereign is indoctrinating him and that his justification for turning on the galaxy (that organic life can make itself useful to the Reapers to avoid obliteration) is empty.

After playing through the Eden Prime mission and the Citadel missions to become a Spectre, the game opens up almost too much. You’re allowed to take Noveria, Feros, and Therum in any order, and Virmire becomes available after completing two. There are variances in the outcome of Noveria and Therum, depending on when you take them: taking Liara to Noveria allows her to interact with Benezia, while doing Therum last prompts a bizarre tangent from Liara, who believes that you are a hallucination from being trapped underground for so long. Each character has unique dialogue that occurs on each planet. Those are very good ways to create replay value.

You don’t have to find the quest-giver for most of the side missions to actually start them. If you land on a planet, explore, and wipe out some slavers, the NPC who gives the quest will thank Shepard for taking the initiative when she gives the reward. This is a good use of verisimilitude, creating the vision that the world does not revolve around Shepard.

The missions and assignments aren’t just space opera cliché or fetch quests: one assignment aboard the Citadel where a woman and her brother-in-law are arguing about whether to submit her child to gene therapy with potential side effects to correct a potentially fatal genetic heart disease that killed the father. There is no objectively right way to resolve this, and you can even tell the two to sort it out themselves if you’re that kind of person. Other missions, usually ones the involve geth and husks, are rooted in the trappings of the horror genre.

There are so many points in both the main quest and the side quests where your choice can affect the outcome. The only choices that I can find that have a major effect on your experience are the interactions with your human crewmembers and Liara, which will affect the romance subplot; some critical decisions on Virmire, which will cost you at least one crewmember; and your choice of pre-service history and psychological profile, which both affect side missions. I can tell that the team was writing Mass Effect with the intention of revisiting these choices in Mass Effect 2 and 3.

The story ends with a sequel hook, but gives enough closure that the game could stand alone: the Big Bad has been defeated and the galaxy is safe from a horde of genocidal primordial machines. That’s certainly massive in scope, and the only way I can think of to top that is for the Reaper fleet to invade the galaxy in force. Unfortunately, it took a significant portion of both the Citadel defence fleet and the Alliance Fifth Fleet to destroy one Reaper and its attendant geth flotilla; the galaxy is certainly not equipped to fend off an invasion of the entire Reaper armada.

AUDIO

I have to say that there is certainly room for improvement here. There are only a few lines of enemy chatter, which you will hear a lot; one male and one female voice provide “Enemies everywhere!” “Go, go, go!” and “I will destroy you!” I would have recorded at least five more variants of the enemy chatter and set the engine to choose randomly when it called for one.

The voice actors do an excellent job. Steven Barr captures the nihilistic attitude of Urdnot Wrex perfectly. Jennifer Hale’s female Shepard sounds disinterested most of the time, as if she were a jaded war veteran.

The “Weapon Overheat” audio clip is annoying, but that’s good; you don’t want to hear it anyway.

ART

Each world has its own colour palette and architecture. The Citadel style is aesthetically pleasing, while Noveria feels appropriately cold and sterile. I didn’t care for the use of bright, saturated red in Chora’s Den; red bleeds into adjacent pixels when photographed. The televisions I’ve played on have exhibited pixel burn when a patch of bright red is left on the screen for any length of time.

Unfortunately, the side worlds suffer from repetitive environment design. The in-world justification for this repetition is that these are pre-fabricated structures, which softens the blow a little bit, but once you’ve seen one two-story or underground habitat, you’ve seen them all. There are a few mines that also feature identical layouts, which break the suspension of disbelief when you think that the mining crews deliberately cut the rock in the same way that three other crews did on three other plants. The only difference between these places is the placement of crates and other furniture to provide cover in the inevitable firefight.

The animation is stock. Interacting with only a few NPCs will run through nearly the entire set of animations. Facial expressions are virtually non-existent, consisting of a few characters giving awkward-looking grins. For the times when NPCs would react appropriately, they cover their faces and the camera cuts away too quickly.

LEVEL DESIGN

The levels are largely linear, with a single path of progress given to the player. The areas where you will fight have plenty of cover, which geth and drone enemies rarely use (perhaps owing to their limited programming not incorporating self-preservation). The “boss” areas are either flat, open spaces with no cover (thresher maw territories, the krogan/geth fight on Therum, and Sovereign’s final boss form) or are tight, confined spaces (the Rachni Queen’s containment room on Noveria, and the Thorian’s chamber on Feros).

There is lots of empty exploration. The side quest worlds are enormous and barren. You can spend several minutes tooling around a rugged landscape in the Mako without encountering anything good. I like being rewarded with experience for finding Codex entries and the objects of the fetch quests, but the reward feels inadequate for the time and effort I put into it. The Mako has a tendency to oversteer and its ability to climb sheer cliffs prompts you to think you can take a straighter route to a destination than you can handle.

MECHANICS

The basic third-person shooter mechanic does its job. Each character carries four guns, but Kaidan, Liara, Tali, and a non-Soldier Shepard are only proficient with the pistol (and shotgun for Tali and Vanguard Shepard, and sniper rifle for Infiltrator Shepard), so they can’t aim down the sights with other weapons. Fortunately, they make up for their weapon deficiency with tech or biotic powers, and they are clearly not suitable for open firefights. The cover and squad command systems allow for limited tactical warfare.

I really liked the weapon overheat mechanic. It appeals to my use of short, controlled bursts, allowing me to maintain a consistent rate of fire throughout an encounter without having to stop and reload. This mechanic also prevents the designers from adding attrition-based difficulty (artificially increasing the difficulty of an area by throwing large numbers of enemies at the player solely to deplete his resources).

The class and skill systems allow for some customization of the party. The other characters are fixed in their roles, while Shepard can be focused in combat, tech, or biotic powers, or some combination of the three. Your choice will affect the difficulty by restricting your options: only soldiers can use all the weapons and armour, only vanguards get access to Warp, and only engineers can hack robotic enemies. When choosing a landing party, the interface provides a chart of your selected party’s strengths in combat, tech, and biotics, to let you know if you’re focusing too much in one area or, if you’re playing through again and know that you won’t be fighting organic enemies on Therum, if you have unsuitable specialists.

I want to point out a deficiency of the dialogue system. The “Skip dialogue” function shares a button with the “Choose response” function; this means that hastily skipping dialogues can cause you to pick the default “Neutral Get On With It” response, and I cannot remap those functions. I would have mapped those functions to different buttons so the player wouldn’t accidentally choose an undesired response.

The Morality system at first seems like a superior system than the Light/Dark system from BioWare’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but there is a flaw in its implementation: Shepard’s Paragon/Renegade scores do not affect anything in-game except to give you bonus points in Charm/Intimidate (which is what the game checks to allow those dialogue options) and a side mission given at 75% of either track. The changes made in Mass Effect 2 are exactly what I would have done: make Charm/Intimidate dialogue options key directly from your Paragon/Renegade scores instead of a separate skill.

The Ally achievements are a good attempt at replay value, requiring specific party members to be in the party for most of the game. Rather than forcing you to grind another playthrough, this tactic requires you to change your roster and see the ways the characters interact.

I wasn’t impressed with the puzzles. The single puzzle used for the majority of the game is a simple “Press the button flashed on screen” system that slowly rises from three to seven buttons, and the trademark Towers of Hanoi puzzle makes an appearance on Noveria. Fortunately, you can use omni-gel to bypass the Towers puzzle. The buttons puzzle is used to represent defeating electronic security, which can also be bypassed with omni-gel. If the party does not have a character with sufficient points in the Electronics skill, then high-difficulty locks are simply impossible to pick.

I can’t stand the inventory system in this game. Items drop too frequently, there isn’t enough variation in items, and drops from defeated enemies are automatically collected. The inventory screens are linearly organized, forcing you to scroll through the list to find what you’re looking for and jumping back to the top after you’ve picked something. Items are grouped together by level, and randomly (as far as I can tell) organized inside there, with no accommodation for identical items. Selling or reducing items is tedious, and I’ve maxed out both omni-gel and credits long before the endgame.

I can’t blame BioWare for the texture popping; it’s a flaw in the Unreal engine. I can say that I would have liked to see something done to hide the popping.

Everybody and their pet hates the load times. Yes, the elevators were a neat way to hide those load times, but I would have liked to hear more conversations and Citadel announcements during those trips; without them, the elevators are just fancy loading screens. The cargo elevator on the Normandy has to be the slowest one in the galaxy; I have to wait some thirty seconds for an elevator to move three metres.

I only encountered one noticeable bug during my play: the one that kills a party member’s pathfinding and leaves him standing in one spot. Fortunately, the pathfinding resets when the game is saved and loaded.

DLC

I had played through the main game several times before I bought Bring Down the Sky. That’s probably why I found BDtS so refreshing; the environments looked so different and new, with different lighting as well as new cover configurations, and the final area (which I understand was repurposed from content cut from the main game) is an excellent design for the big showdown, providing lots of cover and Z-axis movement. It also brings the batarians into the foreground after only being mentioned in the Codex. The choice it presents is tough: are innocent lives worth taking down one slave lord? You are allowed to attack Balak (prompting him to blow up his hostages) or let him escape to rescue them, promising that he will eventually be brought to justice.

I find Pinnacle Station uninspired. It’s merely a set of combat scenarios with unimpressive rewards. The station tech repeats the exact same dialogue every time you talk to him, and you have to complete twelve scenarios. The final reward is disappointing: I can now order random weapons, armor, or upgrades, but I have to go to a specific place in the galaxy that serves no other function. How is this better than giving the player the ability to order the items directly from the Normandy?

What I Liked

  • Different ways to overcome challenges.
  • The game acknowledges the way you’ve created your Shepard by presenting different missions.
  • Different outcomes based on the presence of specific characters during specific missions.
  • Each character has distinctive attitudes and combat focus.
  • The mood feels like a combination of hard sci-fi and space opera.
  • Distinctive areas for each story mission.

What I Didn’t Like

  • Possible to accidentally choose a response when skipping dialogue.
  • Excessive loading times.
  • Inventory management.
  • Charm/Intimidate dialogue options don’t key off Paragon/Renegade score.
  • Lack of variety in:
    • Enemy chatter.
    • Character animations.
    • Exploration missions.
    • Item drops.
  • Pinnacle Station DLC.
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