Mass Effect (Xbox 360) review
"Mass Effect wants to make you feel like a genuine space hero in vast, complicated and interesting galaxy."
Iíve invested 33 hours and 42 minutes into Mass Effect.
Iíve completed every sub-quest in every solar system across the Milky Way, even the monotonous collection tasks. Iíve beaten the adventure at LVL 50 and mastered the unforgiving sniper-rifle with lethal precision (Geth Destroyers beware!). Iíve also spent far too much time customising Commander Shepherdís face. Does it matter how pronounced his cheek bones are? Probably not. But Mass Effect provides so many cosmetic choices that you almost feel you have to get these decisions right for the sake of the galaxy. Shepherdís supposed to be a heroic, inter-galactic crusader who serves as the arbiter of justice in a Milky Way teaming with corruption and violence. If heís going to encounter hostile alien species then itís imperative that heís able to stare them down with a righteous, resolute glance!
Iíve done all of this -- and yet I still feel underwhelmed.
Previous BioWare adventures have demanded a certain suspension of disbelief. Youíre required to immerse yourself in the suggestion that youíre an inter-galactic explorer, even though you can only visit a handful of planets. So much care and attention is devoted to the day-to-day life of these planets that you forget thereís an invisible wall between you and genuine freedom. The worlds become expansive, intoxicating and real by virtue of your imagination.
Mass Effect tries to make this imaginative involvement easier by pushing back the invisible walls and setting you free to explore the entire galaxy. Only it hasnít been successful. Outside of the Citadel there are no fully-realised worlds, such Tatooine or Manaan or any other planet from Knights of the Old Republic -- only a few plot specific locations and around thirty uncharted, explorable planets. In the vast, lonely wilderness of the galaxy the tedium of journeying across these barren planets is broken only by chance encounters that usually result in violence. Is the cosmos really this mundane, this predictable? Character development, varied dialogue options and extensive, thought-provoking sub-quests are sacrificed for this vacant illusion of freedom. You donít need to talk to anyone when youíre traversing bland wastelands in the MAKO, a vehicle reminiscent of Haloís Warthog. Steering this monstrosity is a frustrating experience in itself, because the loose handling often causes the MAKO to become stuck in the dreary, mountainous terrain.
The enormous scale of the Milky Way is ambitious, but the planets themselves are just so empty, soulless and repetitive that itís hard to be impressed. None of the worlds are unique because they all share the exact same features: mineral deposits or ancient artefacts for the redundant collection tasks and a small enemy base. These bases are the subject of assignments that are relayed to you via the communications system of Shepherdís spaceship, the SS Normandy. These orders typically involve executing rogue aliens, exploring suspicious installations or delivering dubious packages. (SPOILER: the last two missions often conclude with the execution of rogue aliens.) There are a few dilemmas that involve greater complexity, but most boil down to search-and-destroy tasks for your anonymous superiors. Itís almost as if youíre repeating the same quest forty times. To add to the repetition, there are only four unique base layouts split across the thirty worlds. The inter-galactic Yellow Pages must be a bit thin when it comes to architects.
Given their lack of variation you would assume that these arenas have been crafted to suit Mass Effectís third-person combat. This is not the case. The cover system is only effective when youíre separated from enemies by a fair distance. Moving between cover is such a sluggish process, especially when you have to crouch down against a crate first, that it becomes a burden in any other situation. It doesnít help that your allies persistently steal your cover (if only they would obey my damn commands!). My preferred technique is to stand in the open, abuse Shield Boost and Immunity, and rack up one-hit-kills with the mighty sniper-rifle. Such displays of bravado arenít possible on tougher difficulties, but this only exposes the inability of the cover system to provide, well, cover. The best strategy is to retreat down the long entrance corridors for cover and engage the enemies from there. Your opponents are tough, but theyíre so unintelligent that they fall straight into the trap. The rest of the base might as well not exist. This reduces combat to a shallow duck-shoot, but the only other option is to suffer crippling health-loss as you stumble awkwardly between cover.
The cover system may be inefficient, but it doesn't diminish the ruthless satisfaction felt when you assassinate an unsuspecting Geth Destroyer from afar. These synthetic juggernauts have a nasty habit of charging at you while Geth Troopers bombard you with rockets. Miss and youíll have to resort to Plan B: summon the tech power of Overload to annihilate their shields before circle-strafing to evade them. Now unload poisonous Polonium Rounds from your pistol until they disintegrate in a pile of radioactive waste. If youíre wondering whether Mass Effectís combat is any good, the answer is yes... yes it is. Itís not without imperfections -- the cover system is poor, your enemies are stupid, and inventory management is virtually non-existent -- but in terms of balance and versatility, the third-person action is a revelation. Your character class determines which of the four weapon types you can specialise in (sniper rifle, assault rifle, pistol and shotgun) or whether you can use biotic powers to pretend youíre a Jedi Knight. The simplicity of these powers enables you to combine some of them with conventional weapons without impeding the fast-paced action. This customisation extends to the weapons themselves, which improve as you earn more EXP and discover upgrades. Itís a system that rewards persistence and progress Ė at first the sniper rifle is cumbersome, but master the talent and the recoil is dampened, your aim is steadied, and one-hit-kills become a regular occurence.
Itís easy to forget how good this third-person combat is when youíre forced into cramped bases that succeed only in exposing the inadequacies of the cover system. The strength of combat only becomes apparent when you pursue the main narrative and are made to explore remote, sinister installations (with long narrow corridors!). Itís almost survival horror in disguise as you creep through eerie science labs and biological facilities, fending off Geth patrols and other more disturbing monsters. Mass Effectís problems are redeemed slightly by this storyline, which exudes sci-fi grandeur and revels in lavish visual spectacles that would make George Lucas proud. Itís derivative, of course, dealing with inter-galactic politics, mysterious extinct races and the Geth, rogue AIs who are the scourge of the galaxy. These are topics that reference Star Trek, Star Wars, Starship Troopers, HaloÖ Its inspirations are very transparent, but this doesnít mean that it isnít compelling. The role of humanity, an emergent ďproblemĒ in the inter-galactic order, is a particularly pertinent strand that develops throughout the adventure. You may not have much free-will outside the main plot, but in the big cut-scenes youíre given the responsibility of affecting how the rest of the very sceptical galaxy perceives Earth.
Even within the main adventure there are several very obvious weakness, however. Feros, Noveria and Virimire may provide the setting for plenty of manic, gun-tooting action, but they also feature countless narrow, linear paths that must be navigated in the MAKO. All you have to do is squash some enemies and appreciate the view. Mass Effectís story also delivers several climactic situations that force you to make a moral decision that has a lasting affect on your allies. But itís hard to care about these mercenaries when their personalities are developed only in brief conversation sequences aboard the Normandy. Knights interwove the history of its allies with the ongoing adventure, giving them relevance and depth that even resulted in a visit to one of their homeworlds (Kashyyyk). As a consequence I found a role for every character, but in Mass Effect I stuck with the same two allies for the duration of the quest. This is partly because the adventure is driven by a very focused narrative that doesnít allow for a lot of deviation from critical plot events. Once its central revelation becomes clear Mass Effect accelerates towards a conclusion that screams ďfirst in a trilogy!Ē
I could go on. I could criticise the morality system, which replaces the Jedi or Sith career paths with Paragon and Renegade. This is supposed to allow for greater subtly in your actions, as opposed to explicit good and bad choices. But your morality is unimportant outside of a few major plot incidents Ė Renegade dialogue options often lead to the same consequences as Paragon, only your responses are a bit grumpier. I could also criticise this revamped dialogue system. Instead of selecting your exact response you choose a keyword that indicates the tone you wish to achieve. But not knowing exactly what Shepherd is going to say, or do, can have unintended consequences. Negotiations can be cut short when you select what should be a neutral response only for Shepherd to pull out his gun and shoot someone in the head. I could even moan about how bloody long you spend in elevators (surely the game isnít loading?).
Mass Effect has so many flaws and blemishes that gradually wear you down as you tick off the 30+ hours it takes to go everywhere and do everything. You almost lose sight of the things it does right, namely the short yet dramatic plot and the terrific third-person action, because even these strengths are riddled with imperfections (such as the lack of character development and weak cover system). I applaud BioWareís ambition. Their desire to blur the boundaries between cinema and RPG is inherent in the high production values and streamlined dialogue. Mass Effect wants to make you feel like a genuine space hero in vast, complicated and interesting galaxy. Sadly, this dream has been undermined by poor execution. In their effort to reach for the stars BioWare have neglected the small, often mundane details that made Knights of the Old Republic feel so epic. This is apparent when you consider just how uninspired some of Mass Effectís sub-quests are. On the Citadel you encounter a journalist named Emily Wong. She wants you to help her expose the working conditions of traffic controllers. So you stroll into the Traffic Control Tower, which doesnít seem all that horrible, and press A to plant a bug before returning to Emily for a meagre reward.
Youíll need more than imagination to feel like a heroic space crusader during missions like this.
Community review by JANUS2 (January 28, 2009)
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