Review by Relle
"Mass Effect...in my pants!"
I don't own a 360, for the very reason that most of the big-name titles inevitably end up on PC. Mass Effect is no exception, and it arrives on the PC with a much better port job than other Xbox-PC efforts (Halo comes to mind...) Mass Effect is not the game you think it is. It's a Sci-Fi RPG by nature, but the battle system is pure third-person shooter action. The game balances this out with a very KOTOR-esque feel, excellent voice acting, and of course, superb visuals. That doesn't mean it's perfect, though.
First off, as it was said before, Mass Effect is an RPG, NOT a shooter. If you're looking for the next big Gears of War-esque title, you're better off waiting for Gears of War 2. Yes, the battle system is real-time, the primary weapons are guns (and Force-esque abilities, yet not the Force...spooky!) but don't be fooled. The game features long instances of chatter, exploration, and...gasp!...plot. In other words, if you're an action junky, you're likely to go into withdrawal between instances of gunplay. With that in mind, if you're an RPG nut (like me) and you have a hard-on for the dying genre that is the third-person shooter (like me) then by God, Mass Effect is your Holy Grail.
The battle system itself is rather intriguing. You have your choice of four weapons (assault rifle, shotgun, pistol, sniper rifle) plus grenades. Each has their pluses and minuses, of course. Rather than strict ammunition, each weapon has a certain number of shots before it overheats, so holding down the left mouse button isn't the best idea. Weapons can be upgraded with certain items you find that increase stability, heat dissipation, improve your on-screen radar to prevent the enemy jamming it, etc. You also have ammo upgrades available, increasing damage against a certain type of enemy, inflicting damage over time, or other nasty effects.
In addition to the standard weapons, certain classes have biotic or tech powers, the latter of which mainly work on machine-type enemies (of which there are many) and the former of which are about as close to the Force as you'll get. However, rather than standard MP or anything so droll, each power has a lengthy cooldown, usually 45-120 seconds. This is balanced by the fact that they're typically rather strong. The Lift biotic in particular picks up the targeted enemy and they hang suspended in the air, unable to do anything, yet you can still shoot them.
Mass Effect also gives you two additional party members (or squadmates, in this case) who'll pal around with you. Sadly, their AI is rather lacking. If they're flanked and being shot at, they don't have the good sense to take cover somewhere else. Likewise, they don't have very intelligent use of their biotics and tech skills. You can't control them directly like in NWN2, but holding down the space bar will freeze time and allow you to select party members' weapons, powers and abilities to use, as well as issue commands. The standard squad orders (attack, rally, take cover, etc.) are bound to the arrow keys by default, allowing additional control on the fly. The PC version also improves upon the console with quickslots for your abilities, reducing the need to go into the HUD.
The game also has a cover system, and it works out rather well. Simply run up against any flat surface and your character will press their back to it. Depending on the height of the object, you can then shoot at your enemies from around the side or above the cover object. This becomes rather crucial for most of the game, since you can't really run and gun and expect to live, especially with rocket troopers around. Though some have reported problems with the cover system, it's really rather simple. Pro tip: move directly away from whatever you're hiding behind rather than trying to go around the side.
There are two major drawbacks to the combat system. The first is that some enemies you'll come across have rocket launchers which, if you're hit with a shot, is almost always instant death. Very annoying, but not unavoidable. Still, anything that causes instant death from full health is a drawback in my book, as it's a cheap way to up the difficulty. The second is that, in a few close-quarters combat situations, the enemy will end up rushing you en masse, which typically ends with your imminent death unless you're good with grenades. Naturally you can remedy this by...well, throwing grenades. Then again, what situation isn't made better by grenades?
Being an RPG (and a Bioware RPG, no less) you can customize your character to a fair degree. You can choose your gender, fix up your face, hair, eyes, and in fact most aspects of your appearance from the neck up. You also have a few choices about your background, which doesn't really affect anything but a few lines of dialogue in-game. Oh yes, you also have character classes. Gee, who doesn't like character classes? Mass Effect presents a decent mix, from the combat-heavy soldier to the biotic-tossing adept. Your character class not only determines the powers and armor you can use, but the weapons training you can invest in. A soldier, for instance, can use all four primary weapons all sorts of armor, but a vanguard can only train with the pistol and shotgun. Equipping a weapon you haven't trained in inflicts a damage and accuracy penalty, though if you still want to go through the game with your assault rifle blazing, there's nothing stopping you, which is nice. You also have the option at one point in the game of selecting a specialization based on your primary class. For example, the vanguard can become a shock trooper (improves health, damage) or a nemesis (focuses on biotic strength and cooldowns).
Your character is then further customized by talent points. Each level-up gives you and your squadmates 1-3 talent points depending on your level (you get less as you level up). You can improve your weapon damage and accuracy, the power of your biotics, and as these skills are improved, they yield more and greater abilities. Your squadmates automatically level up when you do, regardless of whether they die during combat or if they're actually in your squad or not, which is flat-out my favorite system for handling party XP. Nothing worse than taking a neglected party member on a trip and then having them trip over a rock and die because they never hit level 2.
One thing that does strike me as great in Mass Effect than, say, KOTOR, is the fact that the main character actually speaks. In fact, everyone speaks. There's voice acting everywhere, and it's all top notch. You can practically see the production values oozing out of every pore on every highly rendered face. Not to mention the main character speaks, which is new for a Bioware RPG. It adds that extra layer of depth that was missing in KOTOR. Naturally you can converse with your squadmates on your ship, get to know their backgrounds, talk about their feelings, all that sort of stuff. Plus there's sex. Did I mention the sex?
Probably the biggest flaw in Mass Effect is the sidequests. The short version is they're more or less identical to one another. Yes, Bioware mixes things up in terms of objectives, but they tend to boil down to this standard procedure: land on a planet, pilot the Mako (your all-purpose planetary vehicle) around to the various points of interest on the map, explore and/or kill everything in a mine or bunker or compound, and leave. Granted, you could do the same sort of simplification to all RPGs, but it really sticks out in Mass Effect because everything just seems so...similar. The planets are almost identical, changing only in terms of the color of the environment and the placement of the mountains. There are no rivers or jungles, no lakes of lava or even trees. Likewise, the aforementioned bunkers/mines/compounds suffer from what I like to call the WoW cave syndrome: there's one mine map, one bunker, and one compound, and these things are copy-pasted all across the galaxy. I'm not exaggerating. The structure is identical, with the only differences being the placement of cover objects, lockers and other lootable objects, and various doodads: some bunkers have flowers, others have computer systems. This becomes painfully obvious in the sidequest that grants you your secondary class: without spoiling anything, you're required to go into three separate bunkers and destroy some computer cores. However, each of the three bunkers is literally identical to the other, right down to the enemy types and placement! Other evidence the sidequest designer was a lazy bastard is in the map. Some of the mines/bunkers/compounds have one or more rooms closed off. Does this show on the map when you bring it up? No. You get the same map regardless of the actual state of the area. The fact that there are so many explorable worlds may cause some to excuse this kind of programming behavior, but Mass Effect could be reduced to five or six 'sidequest' planets and you wouldn't be missing anything.
Now, in Bioware's defense, when you do the main story missions, they do mix up the architecture quite a bit. You've got your driving sequences, your Resident Evil style zombies massing for an attack, and generally more varied objectives than just "enter bunker, kill everything, leave." Though the sidequest objectives vary a great deal, it's just that the old adage holds true for Mass Effect: explore one planet, explored 'em all. The sidequests do hold the bulk of the XP and cash, as well as certain unique rewards (like the secondary class) so you shouldn't completely ignore them. They are optional, though, and you can plow through the main game without ever exploring beyond your primary mission. This is thanks to the fact that everything in the game scales. If you go straight through the main game, you'll get level 3-5 weapons and armor, and the enemies will have similar stats, so you can beat the whole thing at whatever level you want as long as you're smart. This is one game I'd recommend people cheat at to raise their level, though, because the higher levels of weapons and armor are significantly better than the lower due to added upgrade slots on your guns and armor, not to mention much better upgrades themselves. The really interesting stuff only comes around at item levels 7-10.
Sadly, if you do choose to blow through the main game, it's only about 10-15 hours long, certainly double that if you do the sidequests. Mass Effect does have a New Game+, allowing you to retain your levels and talents through a subsequent playthrough, and unlocking levels 50-60 (which also unlocks the strongest gear in the game). You also have various achievements, and unlike the majority of these on the 360, the ones in Mass Effect do more than increase the size of your e-peen. Kill 150 enemies with the assault rifle, for instance, and you can add assault rifle training to any new character you create after that. There are similar achievements for all the biotic and tech powers as well. Other achievements give bonus XP gains, unlock new difficulty levels, add damage to your weapons and more. This is the way achievements should be done, rather than obscure goals made to artificially extend game time. Despite the short length, Mass Effect certainly warrants a second or third time through the game.
Bottom line, if you enjoy shooters and/or liked KOTOR, give Mass Effect a try. Though there's certainly room for improvement in the sequel, Mass Effect is a great game by its own right, and definitely worth your time. If you can stand the repetitive sidequests, then hey, it's your dream game.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 06/09/08, Updated 06/23/08
Game Release: Mass Effect (US, 05/28/08)
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