Mass Effect

I've got some down time now, and I don't have a computer capable of running Minecraft in a satisfactory manner handy, so I guess I might as well finally write the Mass Effect review I promised. Like I said before, I will try to avoid comparisons to the sequel in this review, since that warrants its own post. Since Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 are quite similar in some respects, that means there will be a bit of copy-and-paste. Deal with it.

Here's the short version: Mass Effect is one of my favorite games of all time.

Mass Effect is a shooter-RPG that follows the rise of Commander Shepard, a human soldier who lives just a few decades after humanity makes first contact with aliens. At the beginning of the game, Shepard is fairly well-known within the human Systems Alliance (exactly what he is known for is chosen by the player). After talking to a few characters right at the beginning of the game, it is soon revealed that Shepard is being put forth as a candidate for the first human SPECTRE. SPECTREs are basically elite operatives who answer directly to the Council, a small group of people who basically run the galaxy. In the process of becoming a SPECTRE, Shepard uncovers a thoroughly dastardly plot, and most of the game revolves around foiling it.

Like ME2, this is a Bioware game. Like most Bioware games, its story and dialog are superbly written. The characters behave in a fairly consistent manner, and they usually say sensible things in a sensible way, although there is one part where Shepard starts making wild assertions based (at that point in the story) largely on hearsay and speculation. The build-up to the game's climax is very well-done, and it makes the end feel like a truly great achievement.

The characters in the player's party have well-defined personalities and well-written dialog. Their outfits are fairly subdued, but they all wear armor while out on missions, and that leaves lots of room for differentiation: Mass Effect has a staggering array of weapons, armor, and upgrades that can be purchased or looted from fallen enemies (or from locked safes and crates, if your decryption skill is high enough). Usually, each character will end up wearing unique armor. Characters wear helmets when ordered to do so or when in hostile environments.

Combat is fairly standard cover-based shooting. Biotic (aka space magic) and tech powers are not particularly flashy but have fairly large areas of effect, making them useful for managing large numbers of enemies. Weapons have unlimited ammunition, but rate of fire is limited by their ability to dissipate heat. This adds an interesting tactical dimension to combat: you can fire slowly and deliberately to avoid overheating your weapon, or you can charge into the fray, firing until your weapon overheats, and then duck behind cover (or switch to a different weapon) until it cools off.

Interacting with NPCs is more evolved than standard RPG fare. You still have a standard dialog tree, but the options are arranged on a wheel, with three on the left and three on the right. Generally speaking, the options on top are the "nice guy" options, the options on the bottom are the "jerk" options, the middle option on the left is for more information, and the middle option on the right is a neutral response. The options on the top left and bottom left typically require Shepard to have a certain level of skill in Charm or Intimidate. Paragon or renegade points (obtained by choosing the "nice guy" or "jerk" options in certain scenarios) determine how far Shepard can advance in these skills. Paragon and renegade points form a sort of morality system, but not quite like what you find in, say, Knights of the Old Republic. It's a given that Commander Shepard will save the galaxy; it's just a question of what the price will be. As the inimitable Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw put it, the paragon vs renegade choice determines whether Shepard takes after Captain Picard or Dirty Harry. That said, going pure renegade results in a Shepard who is an utterly heartless asshole.

Environments in this game are fairly varied, although most environments outside of plot-related missions are just variations on one of a few themes. Usually, non-plot-related missions happen on the surfaces of planets or on spaceships. The spaceships, unfortunately, are all more or less identical, with only the arrangement of crates in the main area to differentiate them. Planet surfaces vary from planet to planet, with some having more extreme terrain than others. Exploration of a planet is done by driving around in the Mako, which is basically a light tank with wheels. This gives the game universe a sense of grand scale, although the vehicle physics are...lacking. Yahtzee was spot-on when he compared the Mako on a planet to a shopping cart in a bouncy castle. In the grand scheme of things, though, it's not that bad, and I think it's a completely acceptable price to pay for the sense of scale. The things found on planets tend to be mines, surface buildings, and bunkers. These are also all largely the same, but there is a bit more room for customization inside them, so the sameness isn't quite as annoying as with the spaceships.

In terms of choosing locations to visit, most of the galaxy is available right off the bat, and the star systems that aren't available are unlocked with considerable regularity. You don't have to worry about fuel or anything like that, so you can go wherever you want, more or less whenever you want. This also contributes to the sense of bigness and freedom.

The minigame used for opening locked containers, bypassing doors, and other such things requires a decent amount of skill and quick reflexes, which makes it feel like a real accomplishment to open a secure crate. Helpfully, the difficulty of the minigame decreases according to the party's skill, not just Shepard's skill. Unhelpfully, it seems (at least on my computer) to be inexplicably laggy. It's just some circular arcs rotating in a few concentric circles; it's not like it uses cutting-edge graphics. Maybe it's better on the XBox. In some situations, such as marking a mineral deposit or retrieving an artifact, the minigame can be attempted as many times as the player would like. In other situations, such as unlocking a door, you only get one try, but the lock can be immediately opened with omni-gel, which the player sometimes finds in the field, sometimes receives as a reward, and can produce from unwanted weapons, armor, and upgrades.

Gaining a level does not provide a whole lot of benefit on its own, but it happens quite frequently (at least once per mission, even on the little side-missions). This provides a rather nice sense of progress over the course of the game, and while entering the endgame just one point away from maxing out a skill (or reaching a point where a new (or improved) ability is granted) is a bit disappointing, it doesn't make enough of a difference on its own to be really aggravating.

Gathering resources is quite easy, since there are only two: money and omni-gel. Omni-gel is sometimes found in the field, but money is found almost everywhere, and selling unwanted weapons and armor is fairly profitable. With the perks available after completing the game once, I have not found it particularly difficult to max out my money by the end of the game in subsequent playthroughs. Omni-gel's rarity is compensated for by the ability to produce it from unwanted weapons, armor, and upgrades. I often find myself with some weapons that are worth so little in cash that it is more economical to turn them into omni-gel. The end result is that you earn resources simply by killing enemies and looting their bases, which makes it fun.

Mass Effect has an annoying crasher bug, which mostly seems to be triggered by interrupting a character's dialog animation, but that's the only bug I have encountered. There is also a bug in which one character's face always has a low-resolution texture, which is annoying but not as bad as a crash. What really bothers me about the low-res-face bug is that the developers claim that fixing it would necessitate a multi-gigabyte patch. I shudder to think what sort of programming horror causes that.

As in ME2, the graphics are good but not spectacular. Pretty pictures are not the point of Mass Effect.

Overall, it's a great game, and well worth buying. Of course, buying it now means that you are giving money to EA, but it's still a great game, and I heartily recommend it, especially if you liked Knights of the Old Republic.