Mass Effect (Xbox 360) review
"The moment that made me realize Mass Effect was a great game came about thirty minutes in. "
The moment that made me realize Mass Effect was a great game came about thirty minutes in.
My ship touched down on a world under attack, Eden Prime. I’m making my way to the target area, when a soldier - probably the last surviving soldier in the area - comes running by. Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams.
Now, when I play a game that let’s me pick what I say, I play the jerk for the first go-round. It’s fun to be a bastard. So, for no reason, I called Ashley a coward for abandoning her squad.
Ashley furrowed her brow, got a little edge in her voice, and told me straight out how her entire crew was slaughtered before her eyes. She was passionate. Pissed. Probably didn’t say what she felt like saying since my character outranked her, but I could tell she had some four and five letter words in mind.
For one fleeting moment, I felt bad about something I’d said to an imaginary person. That’s the strength of Mass Effect. I didn’t cry when someone died or gushed over any romance, but ever so often I’d give someone a compliment or do them a favor or just not be as much of an ass as I could’ve been, all for the same reasons I’d do so in real life.
Mass Effect involves you. Completely.
The first thing you do is create a character, and while it‘s not the deepest system, you can still get a realistic face going; scars, different hairstyles, even makeup for the ladies. You can choose what kind of history your character had; raised in space or raised on Earth, famous war hero or infamous slaughterer.
For most games, these touches wouldn‘t make a difference. But Mass Effect molds the universe around you. You’ll hear people talk about you, whisper as you walk by, reference things you did, treat you based on the person you chose to be.
But there’s more.
It can be as deep as a bunch of innocent colonists standing between you and your ship, driven insane by a force they can’t comprehend or stop. You have special mine that can pacify them, yes…but that’s a hassle, a risk, and you only have so many. Go in guns blazing? Destroy or save?
It can be as simple as signing an autograph for a fan.
You will make decisions that you’ll later regret, you will wish some moments could be done over, and there will come a time when you have to stop and seriously think about your next move.
But there’s still more.
It’s the setting. Mass Effect features over a hundred planets, and while you can only explore a tenth of them, there’s no denying the depth. Each planet has statistics; their compositions, revolutions, circumferences, AU and history - you’d almost think they were real. Every race has a chronicled past that you can read in the game’s Codex. Civil wars, the structure of their society, their anatomy, things that never even come up in the story, the total portrait.
It’s the characters. You ask them questions. Questions lead to stories. Stories reveal their past, their beliefs, their ideals. Wrex is a tough guy with a soft spot for his race; his people are on the brink of extinction and he’s one of the few who give a damn. Ashley’s carefree in the bunkers but serious in the trenches; her family has a history of shame on the battlefield, and she wants to be the one who washes it away. They stutter, take sides, laugh, joke around, tease, yell, question and run the gamut of emotions, with facial expressions to match.
It’s the story. Saren, once a proud member of the greatest peacekeeping force in the galaxy, wants to destroy all he swore to protect. Why? He’s allied himself with the machine race known as Geth, who despise and dispatch all organic life without question or remorse. How? A force is under his control, a power that lets him turn even the most rational beings into mindless slaves. What? As you fight your way through Saren’s endless army, the picture of a horrifying evil is slowly unveiled, greater and more devastating than anyone dreamed.
And what a fight.
You have five weapon types; remote mines, shotguns, pistols, sniper and assault rifles. Ammo is infinite, but you can’t fire much without overheating and the aiming’s too sensitive. You can choose to be a class that uses telekinetic or hacking abilities, but these are weak and take too long to recharge. Mass Effect‘s combat won’t impress you.
Then you’ll level up.
Like a traditional RPG, you get experience and money for kills. Experience gives you talent points; spending points to increase your accuracy makes the reticule less sensitive, putting them towards weaponry makes them overheat less. Turn a light telekinetic push in a crushing one-hit kill, hack the Geth up so bad they start ripping each other apart. Money doesn’t just buy better weaponry and armor, it buys explosive rounds, poison rounds, incendiary rounds, attachments to improve everything you could possibly improve with a gun.
As powerful as you can be, though, you’re just one man; Mass Effect specializes in squad-based combat. And though you can‘t give your two teammates complex instructions, you’ll quickly learn that you don’t need to: They handle themselves. They take cover when shooting starts. They flank their opponents, change positions when needed. They back off and heal when health is low and cover you in a pinch. They’re smart, and though they occasionally get stuck in places when they’re following you, in combat they make no mistakes.
That’s good, because you’ll need them at 100%. Most enemies are smart enough to use cover, and the ones that don’t are so strong they don’t really need to. They hit more often than they miss, and even the weakest can take a few shots before they fall. Running into a room with guns blazing might work for the first mission, maybe even the second, but it won’t be long before you open a door and find a rocket heading straight for your face.
Duck. Run. Regroup. Heal. Snipe. Strategize.
It’s hard to say whether Mass Effect is a shooter with RPG elements or an RPG with shooter elements; the two are blended so well that the line blurs. And while story and action are the core, they’re hardly the only attraction. You have hours and hours of solid voice work from solid voice actors, like Keith David, the resonating voice of Halo’s Arbiter, and Aliens alumni Lance Henriksen. Some of the finest graphics the Xbox 360 has to offer, shown in everything from the trickling water in a mine shaft to the breathtaking view of Earth from the Moon‘s surface. A haunting track of electronic beats, music that captures the ebbs and flows of every scene.
There’s much to love and little to hate. Load times are a bit sluggish, but they’re hidden well; while you travel from system to system, you’re treated to the nebulous view of your ship speeding through space, and while the elevator takes you from floor to floor, your teammates strike up a conversation and the local news relates your exploits with a media spin. I’ve come across a few glitches that sent me to an early death, but these were few and far apart, and I only saw them on my third play through. You could even say that the story is too short, and you’d be right - if you blaze through the main quest and never take a moment to explore.
The main quest takes ten hours to beat. If you stop to try out the side quests that come up, you triple that. If you play it over to see how dramatic the choices you made were, you triple that. It’s all a matter of how you play.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call it the greatest game ever made, or even the greatest the Xbox 360 has to offer. But it’s the best science fiction game on any current system. It’s worth buying a Xbox 360 for any fan of SF or action or just good storytelling. And, in a few years, it will be spoken of in the same sentences as Fallout 2 and Deus Ex.
A classic series in the making.
Featured community review by lasthero (November 25, 2007)
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