Mass Effect (Xbox 360) review
"Man has always wondered whether there is intelligent life beyond the sea of stars in the sky. In BioWareís latest blockbuster, Mass Effect, mankind is late to the intergalactic party. Alien races have established a council that encompasses the best part of the Milky Way, and humanity is the new kid on the block. After discovering ancient technology on planet Mars, humans got a jump start that allowed them to travel time and space. The majority of the alien races are sceptical and envious of maní..."
Man has always wondered whether there is intelligent life beyond the sea of stars in the sky. In BioWareís latest blockbuster, Mass Effect, mankind is late to the intergalactic party. Alien races have established a council that encompasses the best part of the Milky Way, and humanity is the new kid on the block. After discovering ancient technology on planet Mars, humans got a jump start that allowed them to travel time and space. The majority of the alien races are sceptical and envious of manís rapid progress in the intergalactic community; itís up to you, Commander Sheppard, to show them what mankind is made of (and save the universe along the way).
The most beautiful thing about Mass Effect is the way it melds together a strong story without making your character feel like a mindless drone. Commander Sheppard is an integral part of the story, but youíre free to shape his (or her) personality and appearance as you see fit. Along with defining physical features, the creation process tasks you with picking out a history and psychological profile which will later influence how you interact with NPCs. Your Sheppard may be an Earth-born war hero who made his name in a famous battle, or she might be a colonist with a ruthless reputation of getting the job done at any cost. You can get lost in the epic story without feeling consigned to being a member of the audience; the decisions you make carry weight throughout the game.
Sheppardís skills and abilities influence the way you play the game, making class selection very important. You can specialise in combat proficiency, technical skills, or biotic abilities which provide differing gameplay experiences. The soldier will rely primarily on firepower and endurance, whereas the sentinel uses the omni-tool, a multi-purpose hacking device, to wreak havoc on your enemyís equipment. Biotics unleash the power of dark matter to bend physics to their will, comparable to the traditional ďmageĒ archetype in role-playing games. A further three hybrid classes are available that merge the principles of these three core elements. Although taking a technical character through the game can be fun, focusing more on combat or biotics is generally more enjoyable and rewarding.
During the introductory stages of the game, youíll spend most of your time on the Citadel, a thriving space station packed full of different people for you to interact with. Soon after the initial quests, Sheppard will have access to his or her own ship to commence the planet hopping quest. The galaxy map aboard the Normandy, your trusty vessel, is your key to the world of Mass Effect. You can visit a multitude of different star systems and planets, but after examining the map more closely, the universe isnít quite as expansive as it looks. You canít actually land on and explore every planet; some are there solely to add to the impressive lore of the Mass Effect world, whilst others can be surveyed to discover natural resources like fuel and materials as part of a side-quest. You can land on a large number of planets, but most of them feel similar. Besides the ones that have a large influence on the story, a lot of the worlds are barren, repetitive, and undeveloped. It fits with the context of exploring uncharted territory, but once youíve touched down on a few of them, you wonít be too surprised by future excursions.
Your trusty space buggy, the Mako, is deployed when visiting hostile or unexplored environments. When you hit the surface, you can drive the Mako around and even use its turrets and cannons to engage enemies in combat. These sequences are fun, but have some issues. Aiming your fire can be tricky because the turret doesnít allow a lot of scope for vertical aiming. You can move the targeting reticule, but unless youíre on level ground, hitting your target can be troublesome. Considering the frequency of rocky terrain, itís a bit of an annoyance that could easily have been fixed.
Although uncharted environments are visually repetitive, Mass Effect looks fantastic wherever you might be. Whether youíre on the Citadelís futuristic architecture, Noveriaís snow-capped mountain peaks, or the engine room of the Normandy, youíre in for a treat. The attention to detail is incredible, although the frequent frame-rate stuttering is a problem. The constant stop-start nature of this problem is quite jarring, and although it isnít severe enough to deter you from playing, itís undeniably a blemish on an otherwise fantastic technical achievement. Fantastic environments would be nothing without a high quality soundtrack to back it up, so itís a good thing that Mass Effect meets this criterion. Dramatic compositions and epic themes play when theyíre needed, and nothing feels out of place. Even the absence of music is used well whilst traversing uncharted planets.
These frame-rate inconsistencies arenít a problem during conversation sequences, so youíll be able to enjoy the fantastic character interactions in a smooth and flowing manner. In so many games, characters are static and lifeless. In Mass Effect, every part of the face is used to create convincing expressions and convey emotion. NPCs pace around if they are nervous and, where relevant, use hand gestures to reinforce their points. Itís as close a game has come to imitating human interaction, and the voice acting contributes a lot to this. The script is very well written, and the actors bring their characters to life in a way most other games can only dream of.
When I say you interact with NPCs, you really do feel as though youíre interacting thanks to the conversation wheel. As you listen to what the other has to say, a wheel of responses allows you to react as you see fit. Itís a clever and intuitive way to conduct conversations, but it isnít quite the revolution it was hyped up to be. It was intimated that the conversation wheel would allow you to alter conversations dynamically, such as interrupting someone mid-sentence and demanding information. While there are occasions such as this, it isnít as widespread as it was suggested.
The manner in which you conduct yourself in conversation will contribute to either your paragon or renegade meter. Itís a breath of fresh air when compared to the morality systems of previous BioWare games Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire; itís based more on the methods you use, instead of the black-and-white measure of good-and-evil. Becoming a revered paragon or a feared renegade will open further options on the conversation wheel, allowing you to charm or intimidate depending on the path towards you are more inclined to. It will allow you to avoid unnecessary bloodshed or blackmail someone for a greater reward; it all depends on the situation.
You can even use your charm to woe a member of your squad, which will set off a romance sub-plot. Whether youíre looking to find a lover aboard the Normandy or not, each squad member has his or her own skills and back-story. A lot of work has gone into the history and personality of your six companions, and itís paid off. Youíll get to know how they tick from speaking with them, and in many cases, embark upon a quest directly related to said character. As compelling as they are, these side-stories feel very isolated and mechanical compared to the rest of the game. The main quest is flowing and organic, progressing at a natural pace. The squad-mate side quests very much remind you that this is only a game; talk to squad member, advance the sub-plot, complete a major quest, rinse & repeat.
Character development, story progression, and audiovisual marvel may be the centrepiece of the game, but there is a fairly deep combat system tucked away here. It splices the elements of third-person shooting, RPG statistics, and light strategy. At first glance it looks like a third-person shooter, but there are plenty of things for RPG veterans to micro-manage; your assault rifleís accuracy decreases as you continuously fire, but the more you train with it, the slower your accuracy drops. Itís a good mix that will satisfy fans of both genres. The strategy comes into play with the way you control your two AI squad mates. Activating their skills and changing their weapons is as easy as holding a bumper button. The action freezes, allowing you to make your tactical decisions and get straight back into the action when youíre finished planning. You can also cover behind objects and send your cohorts to a specific location via a marker, but neither of these is particularly well implemented. Covering feels quite clunky and itís easier to strafe behind cover manually, and the squad commands just donít feel as though they make a difference; the AI generally does a good job of organising itself in combat.
Besides some technical shortcomings and the odd game mechanic that needs fleshing out, this adventure is a must-play for anyone with an Xbox 360. Forty hours of epic storytelling, intense combat, and exotic locations await the average gamer; factor in different playing speeds and side-quests and you have a game that can potentially last for double that. Mass Effect promised a lot, and on the whole, it has delivered.
Community review by PAJ89 (December 03, 2007)
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