Review by Crofty

"BioWare at their least best"

Mass Effect is a most curious game; despite having broken AI, hideous visuals, a cheesy and rushed plot, terrible side-quests, and content that is severely lacking, it still managed to be a very very popular title. I put the reason down to the possibility that the majority of people who played it and thought the experience superb simply missed the much superior BioWare title known as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and therefore they hadn't seen what a real RPG should offer. Even so, the aforementioned flaws only applied to the Xbox 360 version of the game that I reviewed, and so I felt it would be a good idea to re-visit the game on the PC to see if I missed something that other people are clearly seeing. And, after another 40 hours dedicated to the more refined PC iteration, the short answer is no – Mass Effect is still the same over-rated, unimpressive RPG.

BioWare, of course, are mainly known for their ability to tell good stories, and to tell them in a reasonably clever manner. Knights of the Old Republic, for example, is so good at telling a story that it single-handedly renders every Star Wars prequel redundant as a viewing experience. Meanwhile, Jade Empire – not anywhere near as impressive as KotOR, granted – offers a very unique and refreshing oriental themed experience. However, with Mass Effect (and the more recent Dragon Age, to an extent) BioWare's knack at telling good stories is not so clear. Mass Effect is much less unique and clever, but more akin to watching a few episodes of whatever sci-fi drama is popular these days (perhaps Star Trek or Stargate SG1). Furthermore, the game is so short by RPG standards that the plot ultimately feels rushed and undernourished to a massive extent.

Remembering to zip up your jump-suit after visiting the bathroom, that's good.

Mass Effect starts off well enough; you take control of Commander Shepard, a famous military entity whom is chosen to represent the human alliance as a potential Spectre (an elite group of individuals whom enforce the will of the galaxy's council). Humans are seen as impatient and bullies by other species, but Shepard's superiors feel it is time that humanity have a say in galactic affairs; Shepard becoming the first human Spectre would ultimately help obtain that goal. Before Shepard is given that honourable title, though, he must first prove himself on a human settled-planet known as Eden Prime – rumours of ancient super-alien technology being present on the planet's surface mean that the mission is of the utmost importance. Things take a turn for the worse though, and eventually the game sees Shepard and his allies searching the galaxy for a Spectre-gone-rogue known as Saren.

You'll need to select Shepard's class, abilities and background story before you get that far into the game though. There are three main classes available that offer the opportunity to utilise abilities exclusive to each type of combat, such as the typical soldier who can master all weapons, or the biotics who can manipulate energies to throw enemies about like ragdolls, or even the engineer-like class whom specialises in using abilities that disrupt synthetic opponents (they are also best equipped to open locked containers, and hack computers). There are also hybrids available offering a mix of two-classes together, so it should be possible for most players to find a class-type that suits their needs best otherwise your allies can make up any difference in future.

Shepard's appearance is also customisable, though I think the default avatars are definitely more visually authentic and realistic-looking compared to any 'made-up' character I ever made, and the default voices for both male and female Shepard's certainly suit the default models the best. It's usually somewhat important for players to have some input on what their character looks like, but the main freedom this game offers is the decisions you make, rather than what your avatar ends up looking like.

Like other BioWare titles there will come countless occasions where the opportunity to be either nice, nasty or neutral will occur. These can range from simply being cocky towards a shop assistant, right through to deciding whether an entire species continues to exist or not. The ability to act in more than one fashion is still a good component of BioWare RPGs and offers incentive for a couple of playthroughs to check out the different responses and outcomes. Unfortunately, the story and characters are never engaging enough for you to ever feel emotionally obliged to take one decision over the other. It's not like you will feel particularly upset or even bothered should you end up making a decision to lose a team-member, or initiate an action that will alter the galaxy completely. Even if the plot managed to not feel so rushed I don't think it would ever reach out to the player in a way that would make it thought-provoking, but even so it's still, at the very least, intriguing to see the results of your decisions.

The main issue with the plot and characters though, as I keep saying, is that it feels too rushed. Heck, by the end of the first “proper” planet (actually, it's more of a space-station, but you get the picture) you already have five out of six possible team-members in your party, which mashes things together in a not-so-smooth manner. And as you chase Saren through the galaxy you're hardly ever given much reason to really feel any monster-hostility towards him for most of the game; Shepard spewing out cringe-worthy one-liners or cheesy speeches in justification towards wanting Saren's demise seems to be the main reason for the most part. The whole issue is further highlighted when you go from discussing Ashley William's preferred type of martial arts, to randomly ending up talking about how she will pounce on you like a cat when Saren has been defeated (this conversation literally happens out of thin-air – there's a few hints she likes Shepard, but to go from a normal conversation to talking about jumping into bed together without any mention in-between is completely disjointed). Needless to say, the romance element – as ever – is handled in that typically geeky 'this is why videogames are still seen as niche' way, with God-awful dialogue, and a love-triangle about as convincing as something similar in Home & Away. Still, at least the actual 'love' scene is pretty well done, especially when compared to Dragon Age...

It's just politics, Shepard

Obviously the story feels rushed as a result of an extremely short game overall; even by BioWare standards, 20 hours is pretty atrocious for main content alone. Obviously, completing the side-content adds to that figure, and that's usually a staple-requirement for RPG players to get the most out of their game, but when Mass Effect's side-content mainly consists of the most repetitive, boring, grindfest crap you've ever seen it's better to just ignore it completely. But even then, if you can somehow endure such torture (seriously, it is about as close to real torture as you will ever get playing a videogame), and throw in the two download content add-ons, you're still looking at a very disappointing 35 hours or so.

To give an example of side-content: One of your companions will ask if you can help them find some ancient ceremonial armour, and so gives you the location to take your ship (the SS Normandy) to a new planet. When you get to this planet you are ejected from the ship in a vehicle called Mako (which is like a futuristic tank) that handles absolutely horribly, and that you're expected to explore a barren mountain-ridden surface in. You get to the place where the armour is, go inside a generic building, kill enemies, get the armour and job done (unless you want to complete the resource quests, which means you will have to explore each four corners of the map to find minerals/medals/insignias). This sounds okay in theory, but if you take this example and apply it about 23 more times then you'll soon get the picture; every planet, aside from textures and placement of mountains, is the same – barren, annoying to navigate and massively boring, and each of the buildings on these planets is taken from a pool of 3 or 4 interiors that the game recycles constantly. How BioWare can sell this stuff as “content” and think that it warrants entertainment is beyond me, since it is the laziest design I've seen in a long while. This is the same developer who came up with side-quests involving helping Sand-People gain water generators on Tatooine, competing in Swoop Racing, playing Pazaak, and helping Carth convince his son to leave the Sith in Knights of the Old Republic. It really does astonish me just hot massively poor the side-content in Mass Effect is.

Fortunately the main-content planets you visit in the game are of a much higher standard than Mass Effect's side-content, and these places also offer small, but more enjoyable side-quests to take part in (such as scanning the ancient and mysterious Keepers on the Citadel, or helping a Hanar merchant smuggle an illegal weapon on Noveria; do you keep the weapon for yourself, sell it to the Hanar, or take it directly to the Krogan waiting at the bar for it?). The layout of the terrain and availability of cover is much better refined with the main-content too, as is the use of Mako which is utilised just enough to enjoy using it, but not enough to get bored (which is definitely the case with the aforementioned barren planets). The combat starts off pretty enjoyable too, especially on the first planet Eden Prime.

Mass Effect essentially uses a third-person shooter format, with an over-the-shoulder camera and reticule for targeting, and abilities/weapons available via holding the space-bar, or hot-keying them to the number-pad. You can crouch, sprint, switch between a pistol, shotgun, sniper, and assault rifle, use abilities like throw (which will push enemies away) if you have biotics, sabotage (which will cause explosions on robotic enemies) if your an engineer, or immunity (increases damage resistance) if your a soldier, along with several other abilities depending on class, and also get behind cover by running into flat obstacles. The range of movements, cover and forms of attacks are pretty impressive for Mass Effect, though I wouldn't feel entirely comfortable comparing it to the likes of Gears of War or Uncharted. However, it does a good job overall and manages to feel enjoyable, though it's just a shame that both team and enemy AI are so hideously rubbish that combat soon becomes boring and predictable after Eden Prime.

The enemy AI tends to either stagger about from cover to cover or head straight for you until they drop dead. They show no signs of tactical intelligence at all, and are more than happy to leave you in cover indefinitely without ever attempting to flush you out with grenades, or flanking (that is the AI who dither about, not the ones who just run at you constantly). Increasing the game's difficulty doesn't increase their efficiency either, instead the developers just up their health pools and prolong the boredom as you stand there firing endless rounds and watching their health go down whilst thinking that watching paint dry is a life ambition in comparison. Meanwhile the team AI just follow Shepard about like lapdogs, firing the odd round and using abilities every-now-and-then, but usually end up on the floor when things are getting heated, or, even worse, getting stuck behind a crate.

I'm not a harsh man; I don't expect an RPG with various gameplay elements to excel at combat, but Mass Effect falls well below the threshold for even 'acceptable' AI, and therefore the combat suffers greatly. It's only the process of gaining experience and spending points on talents that makes combat bearable for the most part, since using new abilities is usually an experience worth striving for.

Levelling up usually means that the automatically generated loot will go up a notch too, so applying new armour, weapons and weapon modifications is also something to look forward to when struggling to stay awake during combat. Unfortunately, this is another area that also suffers in Mass Effect, as the item management options are atrocious. Since loot is random and drops in abundance almost everywhere you go it means you soon end up with more crap than you can handle. The game will start telling you that you are carrying too much, and unless you sell some gear you will be forced to reduce items to omni-gel (allows you to repair Mako and bypass locks on containers). Sorting through all this stuff is an absolute pain, though, so I fully recommend players keep an eye on what they're picking up as much as possible, and equip/sell it as soon as possible to keep your inventory manageable. It's a good thing the process of equipping new items is enjoyable, especially with seeing some of the armour-types and weapons you can obtain (which there are plenty of).

Congratulations Shepard, you're an inspiration to knuckle-heads everywhere

It's more than fair to say that playing the PC version did absolutely nothing to quell what I saw was clear in the 360 version of Mass Effect; at its core, the game is still not a very good RPG, in fact, I actually like it less now than I did previously, which says it all really. I had every intention of enjoying the game more this time round, but found myself growing more and more annoyed at the content, lack of polish and reduced effort BioWare put into this title over their previous RPGs. However, even though the game still isn't a recommended RPG by any stretch, there are some key technical improvements that should be highlighted for the PC version of the game.

The technical faults I experienced when playing the 360 version of Mass Effect were heavily evident, from massive screen-tearing, bursts of random loading during gameplay, over-long and incredibly stupid elevator rides (faster than light travel exists in Mass Effect, yet elevators take longer to each their destination than any elevator I've used in real-life), frame-rate dips, and texture-build in most areas. To be blunt – the game's performance was absolutely terrible. Fortunately, the PC version does away with most of these issues outright – tearing is gone, framerate is mostly stable, elevator rides aren't as long, and texture-build is minimal and only occurs after a quick loading screen. The HUD and controls are also very well fitted to the PC too. Moving the game from console to PC and then optimising it for the best experience is something BioWare are still capable of delivering, so they deserve some kudos for that at least.

I also have to level some credit towards BioWare for their sound quality with Mass Effect. I don't tend to really notice their musical output very much in previous games, but with Mass Effect there is a distinctive techno quality to the music, and authentic sci-fi sounds for general effects and menus. While I wouldn't exactly go as far as to buy a soundtrack, this is one area where Mass Effect does a splendid job, and requires little improvement for sequels. And, as expected, the voice acting is excellent.

Aside from playing Mass Effect on the PC this time round I also played through the two download add-ons – Bring Down the Sky and Pinnacle Station. These two add-ons do little to help pull Mass Effect from the depths of mediocrity, but Bring Down the Sky is an example of how the terrible barren planet side-quests could have been improved, in fact, I would gladly remove all 23 side-planets for just a few more planets similar to BDtS. You still have to use Mako far too much, and you still have to explore a boring and barren landscape, but at least the mini-plot and overall objective is semi-interesting. Pinnacle Station is the lesser of the two, since it relies heavily on competitive based arena fights, which means the combat is being highlighted more than it is in the main game. Having modes where Shepard needs to eliminate all enemies in the fastest time offers nothing but trouble, as it exposes just how ridiculous and stupid the AI is. As it is, I would semi-recommend downloading BDtS (since it's free on PC anyway) but I wouldn't recommend Pinnacle Station.

Conclusion

Going back to Mass Effect on the PC offered, undoubtedly, the best way to experience BioWare's sci-fi title. The technical improvements, for a start, are certainly welcome, and would usually go a good way to automatically improving my initial opinion. Unfortunately, as technically improved as it is, Mass Effect is still a mediocre RPG by most standards. The majority of side-content is a shining example of lazy-design, while the artificial intelligence is more comparable to that used in games over a decade ago – not modern design. Furthermore, the obvious lack of polish, badly paced plot and staggeringly awful inventory system go too far to stop most good qualities getting anywhere near the surface.

It is entirely possible to wade through the horrible design to taste the best qualities of Mass Effect, but to do so is such a chore that the actual enjoyment available almost isn't worth it. For sure, there are pieces here to equal a very good RPG, and with any luck BioWare will remedy that with the sequel, but to recommend this to any RPG fan would be an outright lie. Mass Effect fails as an RPG, as a game, and as a piece of design. I stand by my original words – people who think this game is beyond mediocre simply haven't played a proper RPG yet, and so I feel some level of sorrow to anyone who takes comfort in believing Mass Effect is the best the genre can offer. It simply isn't.


Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 12/22/09

Game Release: Mass Effect (EU, 06/06/08)


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