Mass Effect (PC) review
"I don't think I've played a game with this much all-round polish since Half-Life 2. Mass Effect simply sparkles, overflowing with cinematic sci-fi design, brimming with utter, undebatable confidence in its approach. It's about as close to an interactive movie as the medium has come, but it's absolutely a videogame, and makes no bones about it. Itís full of cut-scenes, boss battles and, at heart, complete linearity, but it's so much more than that. Mass Effect, despite on the surface being an impressive rehash of Star Wars, is one of the most atmospheric and involving games I've ever played..."
The first time I played Mass Effect, I ended up being late for work.
If Shepard did that, humanity would have collapsed by now, destroyed in the midst of a frenzied race for universal control. But then, Shepard has more guts than me. No time to play videogames - there's a universe to save.
Mass Effect starts disappointingly, with some linear drudgery across an environment spoiled by blocked-off areas and invisibly-walled nonsense, but once the opening hour is out of the way, it starts to come into its own. It's a shame that BioWare decided to construct its tutorial levels in this way, because it's wholly unrepresentative of the package as a whole. Back aboard the Normandy ship after a routine mission goes awry, the first glimmers of what makes Mass Effect so special start to find their way to the surface.
And trust me, this is special. So here goes:
I don't think I've played a game with this much all-round polish since Half-Life 2. Mass Effect simply sparkles, overflowing with cinematic sci-fi design, brimming with utter, undebatable confidence in its approach. It's about as close to an interactive movie as the medium has come, but it's absolutely a videogame, and makes no bones about it. Itís full of cut-scenes, boss battles and, at heart, complete linearity, but it's so much more than that. Mass Effect, despite on the surface being an impressive rehash of Star Wars, is one of the most atmospheric and involving games I've ever played, with only the most minimal of blips detracting from this immersion from time to time. It's fantastic. It's one of the most purely enjoyable games in the world.
Already lauded on the X-Box 360, the PC version makes a handful of minor yet welcome adjustments. All are wonderful, making for a glorious and relieving reminder that some developers still take the time to make carefully balanced conversions instead of hastily porting for a quick fix of cash. And all, instead of being mere tweaks to provide for better compatibility with the new machine, are actual improvements to the game, based on criticisms received in the original set of reviews. For example, the tactical side of combat is refined dramatically, with the ability to issue orders to individual members as well as to the group as a whole. Hacking now incorporates a degree of skill instead of relying on reaction time, with the interface entirely recreated to involve a nice little against-the-clock mini-game, in which you avoid 'security programmes' to bypass each layer of a system and gain access to its core. Again, brilliant. Completely unfeasible, of course, but this is a videogame. Who wants to sit and enter streams of code into a videogame?
Props to BioWare for making the Unreal 3 engine operate quite so fabulously. Mass Effect runs more smoothly than I've ever seen this technology run before, with only the slightest frame-rate niggles even on the highest of settings - and my home PC isn't exactly cutting-edge any more. It's at very little cost to the visual quality, too: texture pop-ups remain from the 360 version, but even these add to the lovely depth of field effect the engine incorporates. The artistic visionary of Citadel Space is nigh-on unsurpassed. It looks wonderful. My first attempt at the gripping, fucked-up-gravity finale left me hopelessly dead after I spent more time staring in amazement at my surroundings than actually playing the thing.
My gut instinct is that some PC fanatics will find an excuse to scream criticisms at Mass Effect. It does feel like a console game, certainly, but maybe this outstanding RPG will go some way to silencing this snobbery. When compared to some of the classic computer role-playing games, Mass Effect can feel a bit lightweight, but it's important to address this as an observation rather than a complaint. Remember when everyone inexplicably kicked off about Invisible War's lack of resource management? It's a similar situation here. There's no ammunition system to speak of, and there's an almost endless slot-based inventory on offer. So you won't spend half your time deciding what you can afford to collect or which gun you can use in the next battle; you can just do whatever works in this particular case. And, compared to BioWare's previous offerings, there's practically no in-game text to read through. Instead, scanning items delivers the information to your codex, but there's rarely any need to trawl through this either, as Mass Effectís fabulously crafted game world does most of the talking anyway. You can actively delve as deep into this universe as you like, but it's to BioWare's credit that there's rarely any need to do so. Despite the overwhelming depth to this narrative, everything remains crystal-clear throughout.
The combat system will probably receive a bashing as well. Anyone who complains about it has clearly not played much of the game. To begin with, it feels odd and old-fashioned, a little arcadey even. I initially found myself deterred by the third-person, over-the-shoulder, sort-of-auto-aiming, and assumed it would grate quickly. The next time I considered it was around ten hours later, when I realised I'd forgotten all about it. As is the case with a variety of design choices in Mass Effect, it just works. The auto-aiming situation is balanced by the less-than-perfect accuracy, which improves as your character levels up. It's complemented by a wonderful cover system, encouraging the player to press their back to walls and shoot around the angle, or crouch behind barriers and take pot-shots against tougher enemies from a distance. The effect is a purely positive one: combat is functional, and never takes away from the fabulous immersion value of this title. Gunplay becomes exciting and tense, but rarely frustrating, and never punishes the player for trying new tactics. Whether you play as a character tailored for weaponry, melee combat or biotic powers (freezing enemies to allow team mates to get a better shot, disabling defence shields, telekinetically picking them up and hurling them across the map, whatever), there's always a way around each battle, and always a sense of reward for doing so.
Each fight feels very much like one more in the big scheme of things, and the concept of 'a greater cause' is one that Mass Effect excels in delivering. By allowing for a variety of relationships between characters and a selection of main goals to fight for, BioWare have created something with an enchanting importance running through it. Whether you're protecting a friend, an object or a planet, it's always because you want to, rather than because the game demands it. With its well-written script, highly adept voice work and incredible facial animation, Mass Effect does in-game friendships better than anything I've ever seen, and there were a couple of points late in the game that left me absolutely crushed as a result. Many modern games have no problem with killing off main characters. Few have even attempted what Mass Effect has the audacity to throw at you twice in quick succession.
This, then, is the ace up Mass Effect's sleeve: a complete emotional investment in its narrative. Each twist means something, each character feels something, and you respond subconsciously and effortlessly to each big plot movement. There were two occasions where I questioned something the narrative threw at me, and I chose to ignore these holes in an otherwise wonderful game. Turns out they weren't holes. They were lies.
Criticisms, then. Trust me to complain about a game this good.
Maybe a third of the way into the game, you first gain access to the MAKO, a big tank with huge guns that allows you to travel long distances outdoors in relative safety. On open land, it's great, but more often than not Mass Effect forces it through endless tunnels, bridges and other closed pathways - and it handles abominably. Its bouncy, Halo-style physics are fun, but it has the tendency of spinning round or flipping upside down through the air when hit by oncoming fire or crashing into an immobile object. Despite knowing I only had a couple of hours left of the game, I almost packed it all in while attempting to drive the thing around a load of hammerhead corners. It's wildly oversensitive, and the level design occasionally seems hugely counter-intuitive in the driving sections.
Close-quarters battles are almost always fun in Mass Effect, but there was one horrendous difficulty spike around half-way through: a battle against one of the game's stronger enemy types in a medium-sized elevator shaft. The Krogans are well-armed for ranged combat, but they're also lightning-quick and absolutely deadly at close-quarters (think BioShock's Big Daddies). This fight seems to encourage running away and taking pot-shots from behind cover, only thereís little cover to take, and the Kroganís recharging shield means a stream of fire is the only real way to proceed. It took me around ten attempts, and the game saves before the lengthy cut-scene preceding the fight, rather than before the battle itself. Irksome.
I'm glad BioWare went for a basic slot-based inventory, but didn't particularly like having to trawl through the endless list and activate, drop or convert each individual item. Mass Effect's security systems can be bypassed by using 'omni-gel', which is created by reducing solid items to the technical currency. But each item is only worth 4, and there's a plot-essential machine late on that requires 100 omni-gel points to activate. A drag-and-drop system would have been far preferable to spending ten minutes reducing each inventory item individually.
And, while the game's linearity isn't necessarily a bad thing, the fact that it hides it beneath a series of open-plan hub areas is a little disappointing. These hubs are great, but the missions themselves follow a very strict, pre-defined path, blocked by locked doors, high walls and cliffs. Tactical decisions during battles are the only real gameplay options on offer, and while the story can be manipulated through dialogue choices and hefty morality-based decisions, levels can only really be completed in one way. This isn't even really a proper criticism, but imagine this universe and this narrative played out through Deus Ex-style multiple paths... well, I can't imagine it without my brain exploding with joy. It'd have been nice if the game itself had made that happen.
But bloody hell, it comes close.
Despite all this nitpicking, Mass Effect is an absolutely essential experience, all the better for its transition to the PC. Absolutely improving on everything from the genre's previous benchmark, it forges a high-sci-fi universe into something magical at every turn. Not in years has a game captivated me so much from start to finish, instilled me with such a sheer need to play on and on until completion. That it achieves this in such an effortlessly emotive way is testament to BioWare's immense talent as both developer and storyteller. This is one of those rare titles that has had me enthusing about its quality to anyone who would listen: my friends, my girlfriend, my parents, even newfound acquaintances. It's the absolute statement of the current-generation RPG, and it would be a crime not to play. Don't be stupid, Commander. The universe depends on it.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (September 29, 2008)
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