Mass Effect (Xbox 360) review
"Mass Effect is a challenging game to decipher. Hours in you will have engaged in countless conversations over the most trivial of minutiae, you will have killed (and been killed) by an endless army of Geth droids and you will have flown to and explored numerous uncharted, but disappointingly empty, planets. Even after this, you may not even know what a ‘mass effect’ is, let alone decided whether BioWare’s latest sci-fi opera has been a success in combining intensive role-playing with squad-based..."
Mass Effect is a challenging game to decipher. Hours in you will have engaged in countless conversations over the most trivial of minutiae, you will have killed (and been killed) by an endless army of Geth droids and you will have flown to and explored numerous uncharted, but disappointingly empty, planets. Even after this, you may not even know what a ‘mass effect’ is, let alone decided whether BioWare’s latest sci-fi opera has been a success in combining intensive role-playing with squad-based shooting. This uncertainty is neither a failure on BioWare’s part but rather an intelligent, challenging and genre-bending take on interactive story-telling whose lofty goals are worthy of further exploration.
These ‘lofty goals’ are never quite clear at the outset. Video-games, in general, glean much of their story, aesthetics and visual design from a small cadre of source material particularly movie franchises such as Aliens or Star Wars. It is clear, from the moment you guide Commander Sheppard through the spaceship Normandy and learn of a mysterious and powerful group of galactic enforcers called ‘Spectres,’ that BioWare have unsurprisingly chosen the latter as inspiration. As you dig deeper, however, you will realize that Mass Effect aspirations are far less mundane.
The overarching storyline involves a rogue Spectre named Saren, an army of droids called the Geth and the return of an ancient race of synthetic beings called the Reapers who obviously have some unseemly plans for all non-synthetic life in the galaxy. In this sense, Mass Effect’s story is predictable and clichéd science fiction no matter how well-conceived it may be. However, the thematic core of Mass Effect is more about the value of humanity embodied through the experience of the player as he or she crafts the character of Commander Sheppard, the first human Spectre, amidst a complex web of political turmoil and in a world (or, more appropriately, galaxy) that has been envisioned with almost Tolkien-esque detail.
With this in mind, Mass Effect’s value as a video game depends primarily on the degree of player immersion it attains as opposed to solely its narrative elements. The heralded conversation system offers a healthy number of choices for the player available through a simple toggle of the left stick. When interacting with Mass Effect's cast of thousands he or she may act aggressively, passively or indifferently; he or she may choose to intimidate or to charm; and, in some instances, he or she may choose to kill or to save.
However, this freedom is sometimes illusionary. After repeated play-throughs it becomes apparent that some choices have little consequence to the overarching story and some will guide you to identical results. But illusion can be a powerful artistic tool, and the wealth of conversational choices at the player’s disposal, along with the quality of the writing, creates a sense of involvement and encourages a range of emotional reactions that could never be achieved in long-winded cut-scenes and dialogue. So long as this illusion is not broken, Mass Effect provides a unique and sometimes profound interactive experience that engages and challenges the player's moral perspective and how they conduct their relationships with other characters.
Combat, in Mass Effect, is the second piece of the gameplay puzzle. Taking cover, you will find, is the most important mechanic along with using the bionic and tech powers available to your chosen class. Death will come easy and often as you come across battles where the outcome is dependent on lucky positioning or the actions of your erratic A.I. controlled squad-mates. The value of upgrading your fire-power will become apparent as you start learning the rules of the combat system and understanding the weaknesses of your enemies.
Players will also have to contend with a serious cognitive disconnect between what the combat system looks like (an over-the-shoulder shooter) and what the game actually is (a role playing experience). Though disconcerting, Mass Effect’s genre-bending is necessary. The character leveling mechanic would have no consequence if combat was dependent on twitch skills and strafing. But it is difficult to accept, particularly for seasoned players of shooting games, that a head shot will not immediately down an enemy and that projectile damage is determined through an invisible process of stat-crunching. As you learn the rules of combat and how to use your powers to escape from enemy fire and heal squad-mates, the subtle elegance of the combat system becomes more apparent. Until then, a sense of discomfort pervades every encounter.
On the whole, it is hard not to appreciate the design and visuals of the world of Mass Effect. The characters and locales are intricately designed and animated, all bound to a classic Star Wars-esque style. The soundtrack is appropriately dramatic, punctuated by electronic rhythms and beats. The voice-work is strong throughout, and the bizarre alien characters, diplomats and soldiers are well realized though at times you will be yearning for more distinctive and memorable characters.
But some other design choices also fall alarmingly short. Long-winded conversations can be grating as they suffer from a lack of camera movement or action. Moreover, Mass Effect’s technical limitations are well documented and texture pop-in and slow-down is abundant throughout the entire game while loading times unnecessarily extend already tedious elevator rides. These flaws betray Mass Effect’s cinematic sensibilities and foster a plodding monotony that is only overcome as the narrative ramps up towards the climax.
These problems are glaring but are a result of an ambitious attempt to craft an experience that would resonate stronger than other sci-fi franchises that have preceded it. But, even with these flaws, Mass Effect offers a unique immersive experience that is not available through any other medium. In traditional role playing games, we play a character. In Mass Effect, we are given a voice. If only to experience this, the galaxy of Mass Effect is worth exploring.
Featured community review by Carlo84 (December 09, 2007)
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