Review by DarthMuffin

"A bit underwhelming, but still very fun and accessible"

Introduction

Mass Effect is an action role-playing game from BioWare that couples classic RPG elements with first-person shooter mechanics. BioWare is renowned for making complex games with deep plots and memorable characters, and Mass Effect succeeds in delivering an engaging experience. However, the game's unwillingness to stray from used formulas, as well as an over-reliance on repetitive content, diminish its appeal.

Gameplay 7/10

Mass Effect lets you create your own character by customising facial appearance and picking a class. The facial appearance is set with a series of sliders that are in fact toggles and not “real” sliders (as opposed to Oblivion, for example). Basically, you get to make your character by browsing through series of toggles for pretty much everything on his or her face. It does give you a lot of control over what your character looks like, though perhaps not as much as in other games. Still, it works pretty well and you can create vastly different-looking characters.

There are six classes in the game: three “base” classes (soldier, engineer and biotic) and three hybrids (each being a mix of two base classes). Each class has a set of talents linked to it, and when you level up you can allocate points in talents to gain new abilities or improve your existing ones. Given that Mass Effect is an “action” RPG, I think the amount of customisation you have over your character is pretty good (as opposed to Jade Empire, BioWare's previous action RPG). From what I have seen, these classes allow for different play styles and strategies, and such variety is always welcome.

Six non-player characters will join you on your quest, one of each class, though you may only have 2 companions with you at all times. You must pick them upon undertaking a mission and you cannot change them during the mission itself, so it is important to get a decently balanced group together (you cannot, for instance, decide to go for a purely combat-focused group and “bring in” a engineer at appropriate times when you need a locked door opened). I think this is a pretty good thing, since you have to live with the choices you make. The companions all have their own backstory and goals, and you may develop their plot throughout the game. They also often banter between each others and with the other people you meet, so they feel real.

Although you cannot directly control your companions, the game makes a good use of a tactical menu that allows you to quickly give orders to your followers. When you enter this mode, the game pauses and you are free to move the camera around to send your companions somewhere, to have them focus on a specific enemy, to use a special ability, and so on. Even though you do not get as much control as if you could directly control them, I think this tactical mode works nicely overall. It is a bit hard sometimes to really have your companions do what you want them to do, but it blends seamlessly with the action and serves its purpose well enough.

One of the most publicised features of Mass Effect was the game's special dialogue system. I was a bit sceptic at first, but in the end I was pleasantly surprised by it. It is basically a wheel-shaped menu that appears at the bottom of the screen during dialogues. Your character's replies are positioned strategically around it, and only in condensed forms. This allows the player to quickly pick a reply, and keeps the full line unknown until the character speaks it. The result is that the pace is never broken and feels very cinematic.

Like in most RPGs, there is an “alignment” system. Instead of being the classic good and evil duality, they are called paragon and renegade this time. Technically, paragon is for the law-abiding character, whereas renegade is for the “get the job done no matter the cost” crew. Generally speaking this is respected throughout the game, though the renegade alignment often ends up with the “jerk” options, whereas the paragon one often feels more “good” than the “lawful” that it is supposed to represent.

Mass Effect lets you equip an assortment of items. There are four kinds of weapons (pistol, shotgun, rifle and sniper rifle), a variety of armours, as well as special items for characters who have access to tech and biotic abilities. Weapons and armours have slots for upgrades, and you will acquire tons of them during your missions. Overall, I was rather pleased with the itemisation. There is one annoyance here though, and it is the inventory system. The developers succeeded in making inventory management a real pain. It is unintuitive, confusing and gets very messy extremely fast. There is no reliable way to properly sort items by categories when speaking to vendors as well, which makes buying equipment and selling unwanted items rather tedious. There is also no way to know how many items you have on you at a given time, which is a bit of a bugger considering that there is a 150 items limit (if you pick up items after reaching the limit, they have to be broken down into parts). Some brainstorming is definitely needed here in a potential sequel.

The game uses the “free planet visiting” approach that was made popular by Knights of the Old Republic. Unlike in BioWare's Star Wars RPG though, the galaxy in Mass Effect is positively huge and there are lots of planets to explore. At first it leaves the player in awe in front of the possibilities, but the reality is unfortunately not that impressive. To put it bluntly, there are essentially ~5 planets in the game that are really fully-fledged, and these are the ones that are mandatory for the completion of the game. The other optional planets that can be landed on (called uncharted worlds) basically have a square map with mountains and a couple of “zones of interest”, such as a crashed probe or a small underground complex. On these planets you land in your vehicle, some sort of tank from the future that is excruciatingly difficult to control. You basically roam around these wastelands generally devoid of life until you reach a probe that is to be investigated or something of the sort. Side quests generally involve clearing small enemy bases, the designs for which are re-used over and over again on nearly every uncharted planet.

In a nutshell, the game basically gives the player a false sense of freedom. That is to say, it does feel nice to be able to “explore” (the term is used very loosely here) an array of optional planets, but these uncharted worlds are so boring and repetitive on their own that it kind of foils the fun in the long run. Of course, these sidequests could be ignored, but then the main plot alone is not very long compared to other sprawling RPGs. To give the system some credit though, it gives the game a measure of “pick up and play” value; someone looking for a quick gaming fit can fire up the game, complete a pair of optional planets, and be done with it in half an hour. Nevertheless, Mass Effect relies way too much on these uncharted worlds to provide content to the player. In the end, it seems like Mass Effect tries to reach a compromise between plot-driven gameplay a la Knights of the Old Republic and open-ended gameplay a la Oblivion. From what I can tell, the blend does not work that well here.

When you are on foot inside buildings, the areas take on a very KotOR-esque style in design. That is to say, areas of moderate size divided by frequent loading screens and with lots of pre-rendered scenery around. Even more so than in Knights, I found the areas to be very linear; indeed, most of the time they feel like long corridors populated by enemies. I think that such linearity is a bit disappointing in a 2007-2008 game.

I found the play styles to be a bit confused in Mass Effect, meaning that some parts of the game are very heavy on action and light on role-playing, whereas others work the other way around. The beginning of the game is heavier on role-playing, since it has you explore a large friendly city in which there is a lot of traditional “city-crawling” with dialogue-based quests and so on. As the game progresses though, it devolves in a linear shooter experience in which you clear room after room, corridor after corridor, and reach a goal at the end which dispenses some plot points. I think a better balance of role-playing and action throughout the game would have made Mass Effect much more enjoyable and rewarding: being a “RPG/FPS hybrid”, Mass Effect does not really excel in either individual genre, and should have focused more on blending the two styles together.

All in all, Mass Effect offers a solid gameplay, allows a good amount of character customisation, and provides a very nice cinematic experience. The main annoyances here are the scope of the game, the linearity of the areas and the repetitive optional side-quests. I must also point out the vehicle-based sections of the game as a whole, which feel generic and uninspiring. As fate would have it, they are also grossly overused.

Story 7/10

There is one word I can think of that describes the story pretty well: generic. It is not bad at all, but it does not shine either. I guess that considering what kind of stories we get in games nowadays, Mass Effect could probably be called a real winner. However, it remains baseline.

The plot never really lifts off, the few “surprises” fall flat, and the ending begs to be compared to that of cheap action movie. All in all, the story gets the job done; but it is definitely not mind-blowing, or anything of the sort. Considering what BioWare has done in the past, I think the story was unsatisfactory.

As far as length is concerned, the game is not as long as it seems. As I said earlier, there are many side quests to do, and many optional planets to visit, but these trips end up being awfully dull. The result is that the game is artificially long; you are not really playing through constantly new material, but it is still something to do. One could draw a parallel between this and MMOs, which often have players do the same kind of quests over and over again. It gives you the feeling that you are indeed doing something, but when you look back at it you realise that it was not all that great. From playing the game a couple of times, I would say that an average play-through should take around 15 to 20 hours, depending on how many side quests you complete and how many uncharted worlds you explore. Note that this is still better than quite a few games on the market, and you can try different classes as well.

Video 9/10

Mass Effect looks very good, and from my experience it runs surprisingly well even on mainstream computers (though the requirement of a graphics card with shader models 3, which feels unnecessary at this point in time, will undoubtedly block out a number of potential players). The character models and their faces are very detailed and nicely animated as well. The cutscenes are also rendered by the game engine and look very beautiful. Thanks to pre-rendered backgrounds, the environments are also quite inspiring.

A disappointing aspect once again concerns those optional vehicle-based planets. The vast majority of them are wastelands with a couple of mountains. Some of them have great atmospheric effects, but as a whole they feel very dry. One could argue that an un-colonised planet ought to look as such, but realism is rarely a winner in games.

Sounds 9/10

Mass Effect uses first-rate voice acting for all its dialogues. For one of the first times in RPGs, your character's lines also have a voice-over, and this is probably what gives the game its distinctive cinematic feel since dialogues flow seamlessly without interruptions (the dialogue wheel also helps quite a bit here).

The sound effects themselves are very well-made and the game has a rather distinctive soundtrack. As opposed to classic-like music that often appears in RPGs, Mass Effect uses some sort of an electronic-esque soundtrack that works surprisingly well with the style of the game.

Replay value 8/10

I was actually surprised by the replay value. The game does not sport an editor like some of BioWare's previous titles, so we are “stuck” with the game they made for us. As I said, I was not particularly impressed by the story so I feared that I would not feel like playing through the game again. However, there is a pretty good amount of character customisation in this game. Not only are there 6 different classes, but there are also different endings, different companions to try, different strategies to use, and so on. The classes generally play quite differently from one another as well, and there are many achievements to unlock (some of which allow you to use a talent specific for one class on another class when creating a new character, which further broadens your options). Finally, there are two extra difficulty levels to unlock, which you can play through with a character that has completed the game on an easier difficulty (kind of like in Diablo).

Basically, the game encourages the player to play again and try new things. Down the road, it is still the same story, the same linearity and the same quests, but at least there is a good amount of variety with what you can do with your character.

Conclusion

Mass Effect does a lot of things right. It has some nice non-player characters and companions with fleshed-out personalities, a pretty good character customisation system for an action RPG, and streamlined shooter mechanics. Above all, it is a great cinematic experience. However, in Mass Effect's case, “next-generation” only means “better graphics”; that is to say, it does not innovate as much as it pretends to. Letting players explore a large number of planets whenever they feel like it is a nice idea, but each planet is surprisingly monotonous. The vehicle exploration and combat aspect of the game is flawed and preposterously overused, and the story never seems to really lift off. The mandatory quest line follows a very linear approach and the level design is, in my opinion, a (small) step backwards from Knights of the Old Republic.

Given the rather limited repertoire of modern single player RPGs, I think Mass Effect recommends itself automatically to anyone who likes the genre. Fans of shooters might also find the RPG elements in this game to be a fresh change from “normal” FPS games. Mass Effect is not perfect by any means, and actually ends up feeling a tad underwhelming considering its premise, but it is quite accessible and remains a great adventure that pretty much anyone can enjoy.

Final score: 7.63/10 = 8/10
(50% gameplay, 25% story/replay value average, 25% video/audio average)


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 05/11/09, Updated 12/14/09

Game Release: Mass Effect (US, 05/28/08)


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