Review by LordVanil
"It's the End of the Galaxy as We Know It"
Mass Effect was released on the Xbox 360 last year to almost unanimous critical acclaim, heralded by some to be the 'greatest role-playing game of all time'. Highly anticipated since its original announcement, Mass Effect is a next-gen single player role-playing game developed by BioWare, the developer responsible for a veritable stable of classic RPGs including 2002's stellar Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. That game was important when it was released on the original Xbox because it introduced many console gamers to the Western RPG and paved the way for other, similar games becoming viable on such a platform. Mass Effect is BioWare's attempt to do the same thing for the next generation of consoles, and while Mass Effect fails to live up to the greatness of Knights of the Old Republic by virtue of a series of poor design decisions, it still manages to stand on its own as an enjoyable role-playing game.
Mass Effect is set in a not-so distant future where mankind has propelled itself into the far reaches of space thanks to a cache of buried alien technology discovered beneath the surface of Mars. Quickly finding itself surrounded on all sides by a multitude of alien species, the human Systems Alliance is swept up by the byzantine intergalactic politics of these various groups. At the head of the galactic government is the Council, a group of elected alien officials who oversee the comings and goings of civilized territory at large. Humanity has been pushing for a seat on the Council of late, much to the chargrin of their fellow species who feel that humanity is moving too quickly; the nearsighted bullies of the Council community.
The right hand of the Council are the Spectres: highly-trained operatives who are free to meet threats to galactic stability outside the boundaries of the law, freeing them to use whatever methods they feel necessary in order to accomplish their goals. But what happens when this privelage is taken too far? When Saren Arterius, the favored agent of the establishment, goes rogue and unleashes an armada of synthetic AI soldiers called 'geth' on an unsuspecting galaxy, the Council turns to Commander Shepard, the only human Spectre, to bring Saren to justice by any means necessary. As Shepard, the player will travel to various worlds aboard their vessel, the Ebon Ha...duh, I mean, the Normandy, in an effort to spurn Saren's manic plans.
If any of that sounds complex, that's because it is. Without a doubt, Mass Effect's greatest triumph is in the universe it presents and in how well it's presented. It's clear that BioWare put an incredible amount of time and effort into creating the universe of Mass Effect, and if you're into this sort of thing, you'll find yourself joyfully mired in the intricacies of the setting. Every detail imaginable here has been fully fleshed out, and both verbal and text entries to your Codex are made constantly throughout, further bringing to light just how much effort BioWare has invested in making the universe of Mass Effect a real, dynamic place. Alien species are distinct and full of character, and each comes with its own history, biological traits, religious beliefs, system of government, and feelings towards humanity and its neighbors (all fully documented, of course). All manners of advanced technology exists in Mass Effect, and the game will go to impressive lengths to explain exactly how and why. Mass Effect will immerse you, with my having lost sleep to it as evidence enough.
Much of the game's narrative is carried forward through dialogue with various characters, and in true BioWare fashion, this tends to be both well-written and the best part of the game. Though you must play as Shepard you are free to ask the questions you wish and respond as you will, which means that you can either play the game as a thoughtful, open-minded poster-child of human-alien relations or as a ruthless xenophobe willing to do almost anything to see the completion of a mission. Unlike Knights of the Old Republic, the decision-making in Mass Effect isn't such a clearcut choice between good or evil either. With a Spectre's unique position of being above the law comes an added layer of responsibility and moral consideration, and sometimes a decision more regrettable in the immediate future may seem necessary in the long run. The writers were clearly attempting to draw a parallel between Saren's actions and Shepard's decisions, and they succeeded to a degree.
When you're not conversing with the many colorful characters throughout the game you'll probably be fighting. Mass Effect utilizes a real-time shooter-esque 'tactical combat system' that really doesn't turn out to be very tactical at all. Taking a page out of Knights of the Old Republic's book, the game allows you to take two followers with you at any given time. Unlike that game however, you are never able to take direct control of either of them and are instead relegated to giving them extremely rudimentary commands like 'move' or 'rally' along with telling them to use their abilities (the ladder of which is entirely pointless because they'll all do so on their own anyway). There's also a primitive cover system which allows Shepard and his allies to duck behind crates or corners and take pot-shots at exposed enemies, and unlike the command interface this proves to be somewhat useful because most enemy tactics boil down to either rushing at you like lunatics or standing still and firing listlessly your way. Some characters can make use of psychic-esque Biotic powers as well, which allow them to hurl enemies back or lift them into the air, the second of which being particularly useful because you can just fill them with bullets as they float around helplessly like balloons. Ultimately, Mass Effect's combat isn't particularly engaging or challenging, but it gets the job done.
At various times Mass Effect also forces you behind the controls of a vehicle called the 'Mako', which is sort of a futuristic APC with jump-jets. These are some of the worst sequences of the game largely because they are what they are: vehicular combat sequences designed by RPG developers. The Mako itself handles like there's a drunken mongoose at the wheel and the whole thing just comes off as being out of place and stupid.
It's also worth noting that Mass Effect uses one of the worst inventory systems of any game in recent memory. Large numbers of generic, identical weapons and armors are commonplace and there's no stacking, clear presentation, or obvious sense of organization devoted to their storage. The game forces you to claw your way through numerous buttons, tabs, and tiny lists of equipment to find things, and on top of it all imposes an arbitrary 150 item limit on you, which means you're forced to engage in tedious inventory management relatively often.
But without a doubt the biggest problem with Mass Effect is the pacing of the game itself. The central narrative is compelling enough, but like any role-playing game worth its salt Mass Effect offers you the opportunity to embark on a great deal of optional quests in order to experience more of the story from a different angle and improve your characters. The problem here is largely two-fold. The first problem is that these side-quests are all exactly the same. They all involve venturing into the same one or two base layouts and gunning down anything that moves, which means that they are entirely forgettable and become very tedious rather quickly.
The second problem is that these optional quests don't tie into the main storyline in any way. If it feels like this optional content is entirely unrelated to stopping Saren, that's because it is. What's weird is that the story is written in such a way that Saren's victory is on a timetable, which means that you make the assumption that Shepard would want to stop the rogue Spectre as quickly as possible. This means that it's extremely hard to find any logical motivation to partake in any of these side-quests other than to advance your characters' statistics, and the transition between the engaging central storyline and the tedium of the extraneous content is jarring. I found myself treating the side-quests like chores and ripping through them as fast as I could so I could get back to the parts of the game I actually cared about.
Conversely, one cannot possibly review Mass Effect without pointing out the production values of the game, which happen to be unbelievably stellar. The visuals themselves, despite having been ported over from the Xbox 360, are still extremely impressive and at times stunning. The characters in the game, from Shepard and his companions to the conniving Saren and the rest, are all beautifully rendered and animated to the point where you may catch yourself forgetting that they're not living, breathing creatures. They react as you would expect them to, from verbal outbursts to subtle facial expressions, and the fact that Mass Effect manages to work this all into place so deftly is very impressive. The audio only serves to further immerse you into the universe the game spins so professionally, with the voice acting being another standout. The likes of Marina Sirtis and Seth Green lend their talents to the cast, creating emotional and impactful characters. Mass Effect manages to take all of these elements and expertly weave them amongst one another to create what can only be described as a cinematic experience, truly taking advantage of next-gen principles and hardware to craft a story that is, despite its dry spots, kinetic, beautiful, and motivating. No RPG prior to Mass Effect or any other game period for that matter has managed to do so with such success.
It was difficult for me to come to a conclusion over Mass Effect in the twenty-five hours it took me to finish the game. The storyline was engaging enough to keep me playing until I'd seen the whole thing and was presented so effectively, and yet these things only served to highlight the problems the game has as well. In spite being so slick in so many ways, Mass Effect also suffers from a number of poor design choices that hamper the experience in no small way. Mass Effect is supposedly the first game in a promised trilogy from BioWare, and I have very high hopes that the inevitable sequal will oversome this game's shortcomings while maintaining everything that made it worth playing.
Is Mass Effect the Second Coming of role-playing? Absolutely not. Is it worth the hype? Not really. But is it a gorgeous, cinematic role-playing game? Without question.
The Good: Imaginative and original setting, very immersive, sky-high production values and beautiful visuals
The Bad: Poorly-paced narrative, awful inventory system, stupid driving sequences
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 09/11/08
Game Release: Mass Effect (US, 05/28/08)
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