Review by haikenedge

"Mass Effect: A Decent Diversion"

A word of advice: this review contains spoilers.

There's been a lot of hype surrounding the release of Mass Effect; when it first saw release on XBOX360, it was hailed as redefining the role-playing game genre and one of the greatest role-playing games of our time. With that in mind, I approached the game with a grain of salt, knowing most games never live up to their hype to begin with, but still expectant after the long drought of decent single-player role-playing games for the personal computer and thusly bought it shortly after its PC release. What I found, however, was not a good, let alone great, game; despite the hype, all Mass Effect turned out to be was a mediocre game, poorly defined and hardly genre-redefining.

First Impressions
When I first installed the game and began playing, the first thing I noticed were the exceptionally long load times, despite the fact my computer was well above the recommended specifications. Once I got past that, though, the game looked very polished, with an ingenious character creation system. All this, of course, was just my first impression.

The game, of course, looks gorgeous. Not in the same way Crysis was, granted, but very few games would be able to live up to the standards set by that hardware killer. That said, the game only looks gorgeous on the highest settings, and the default film grain becomes a pain to look at after a while. Luckily, film grain can be disabled, but the visual experience is reliant on the end-user's hardware, meaning, compared the XBOX360, this game's visual quality varies for each player and their computer, and is therefore hard to rate objectively.

However, despite my praise of the game's graphics, it must be taken with a grain of salt; the in-game models for weapon and armor are extremely limited, to a point where the difference between armors and weapons are merely skin swaps, and, after a while, they begin to bleed together, rendering them forgettable.

Sound and music are both essential elements to any gaming experience, and this is where the game begins to falter. While the sound effects are decent, they're nothing spectacular, especially in an age of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. The music, on the other hand, proved to be anything but memorial; to this day, despite completing ten playthroughs of the game, there's really no music in the game that stands out to me in the same way some tracks from the Final Fantasy games or even the more recent Gears of War; if anything, the music fades into the background, and not in a good way; if anything, it fails to set the mood and ambiance for any given scene, making it less than memorable.

Voice Acting
The voice acting in Mass Effect is a mixed bag. While some characters, such as Joker or Harkin, have excellent voice acting that fitted their character perfectly, there were also voice acting that was awful, like the voice actor who voiced the NPC sentinel, who also voiced Carth Onasi in the two Knights of the Old Republic titles. While I have nothing against reusing voice actors, I do have a problem with the voice actor so much like his previous role that the two characters become nearly indistinguishable from one another aside from their model and skin. Furthermore, despite the number of races found in the game, almost every NPC of the same race sound all the same, as if individuals within a species have no differences in their speech patterns and vocal quality. Essentially, the game's voice acting can be separated into two groups: good voice acting and bad voice acting, and there's more of the latter category.

Character Development
By character development, I mean NPC character development, not player character development, which will be covered under the core gameplay elements section. This may be another bright spot in another otherwise mediocre game; every NPC party member is unique, along with even some of those not in usable in the player's party. However, despite being unique and coming from varied backgrounds, none of the characters are really compelling in any kind of way similar to Annah from Planescape Torment, or any of the NPCs from Baldur's Gate; if anything, they're almost all flat, given enough personality to make them seem unlike paper, but not enough to care about. If anything, the only character that have any sort of depth to them are the ones the developers want the player to hate, and even then, they're hated solely because of the way their carry themselves and for no other compelling reasons, meaning the writers and voice actors did a good job, rather than the character designers.

Core Gameplay Element: Combat
Core gameplay elements is where the game shows its mediocrity. Categorized as an action RPG, the same genre as Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening and the Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the game has a lot to live up to, being described as redefining the genre. However, despite being called an action RPG, there's actually very little action in the game, and what little action there is turns out to be poorly done.

Take the core combat, for example. The game's combat system is that of a tactical third-person shooter, reliant on cover, similar to that of Gears of War; however, this is where the combat system fails. The cover system within the game is clunky at best; the player's character will occasionally leave cover for no apparent reason, and sometimes won't be able to leave cover for a second or two when actively attempting to, and sometimes won't even stick to the cover when running face-first into it for several seconds; furthermore, despite the existence of the cover system, the player's teammates rarely take advantage of it, instead standing around to be shot.

Another problem in the combat system is the so-called tactical command system. While it is nice in theory to be able to command an ally to move around in combat, in practice, the function is useless, as, half the time, the ally will run to the designated position and then run back, while the other half of the time, the ally won't even go to the destination due to poor path-finding. With the exception for the very first mission, which itself is an extended tutorial, this holds true throughout most of the game, thereby nullifying the purpose of the game's tactical command system.

Another note about allies: their AI is terrible. Aside from being unable to competently follow orders given by the player, they also stand around, shooting walls and crates that enemies are standing behind, rather than moving around to get a clear shot. Furthermore, they seem perfectly happy to either stand behind the player and shoot them in the back, or stand in front of the player and block their shots, although friendly-fire doesn't exist in the game, so it's more of an annoyance than a major problem.

One last note about the combat: the grenades within the game are problematic. Half the time, they clip through the ground, making them unusable; the other half the time, they don't explode on command, again rendering them useless.

Core Gameplay Element: Character Development
Being an RPG, I went into Mass Effect expecting character development in the same way as I would find in Knights of the Old Republic and Baldur's Gate, the former a BioWare title. During the advertising, it was mentioned the game would contain a system that judged whether the player was a paragon on what a soldier would be, or a renegade. However, both names are misnomers at best; instead, what the game gives players is a thinly-veiled good and evil morality system that has little to do with soldierly conduct, although the good and evil are tracked separately of one another.

Furthermore, despite the numerous dialog options within the game, the player character doesn't really change regardless of the choices made. Sure, some of the dialog choices lead to violence, while others bring about peaceful resolutions, but, at the end of the day, there's very little difference between the two choices, and even some of the dialog reflects this, with both the paragon and renegade options being exactly the same. Similarly, regardless of player choice, a lot of the story remains the same with only minor changes in the detail, not really befitting of a role-playing game. If anything, the player character development within Mass Effect is disappointing at best, and, at worse, shallow.

Core Gameplay Element: World Design
Every role-playing game involves the player's interaction with the in-game world; unfortunately, this hardly exists in Mass Effect. Firstly, the number of player-NPC interactions within the game is extremely limited; where in many role-playing games, every NPC has at least one or two lines, the majority of NPCs in Mass Effect cannot even be interacted with. Similarly, while the player does have the chance to examine a good many things, the interaction is limited to examining the object, which then adds an entry to the player's codex, which itself is a in-game journal of entries irrelevant to the plot of explanatory of the game world.

Unfortunately, while the game world has depth, the game world also lacks interactivity, making the game less than immersive. Every world the player visits, aside from the ones pertinent to the plot, look almost exactly the same save for skin swaps for the planet's surface and sky. Furthermore, while every star system has one planet that can be explored, each of these planets only contain 3-4 points of interest and any other exploration of the planet is pointless, partly because there is nothing else to the discovered, mostly because each planet has boundaries within which the player may explore.

The game's side quests are no help. In addition to being repetitive, as they're really all just missions requiring the player to go to a certain place on a certain planet and kill everything there, they're also poorly plotted out, with most of them not even having any point for being aside for the developer trying to stretch the game, and it definitely feels like it.

Core Gameplay Element: GUI
While I did go into Mass Effect with the understanding that it was originally a console game, there had also been a six-month period between the console release and the Windows release for there to be enough time for essential changes to be made. For the most part, this holds true for the game's GUI, which is functional, but nothing fancy. However, this falls apart when it comes to inventory management; unlike its predecessors in the Knights of the Old Republic franchise, also produced by BioWare, inventory management does not feature sorting of any kind, nor does it feature item stacking or selling items as a group. This is especially irritating in the game, as the player finds so many items useless to themselves that selling and breaking down the items occurs quite often, but yet, the system is clunky and poorly designed at best. Considering their previous outings in the console to PC realm, one would expect better from BioWare, but this such is not the case.

Core Gameplay Element: Dialog
BioWare has always been known for its decent dialog. Though sometimes corny and sometimes wordy, the dialog in BioWare games have never been as trite and convoluted as in Mass Effect, where the game feels like one long conversation with sporadic bursts of exploration and combat. While this would be fine if the game was a visual novel, the game is, unfortunately, an action role-playing game; furthermore, a lot of the dialog is either poorly written or just downright trite; by halftime, the player will generally have spent more time in forced conversation than in actual combat, which would be fine, except the dialog serves no purpose other than to further the plot, which itself is trite, overdone and predictable.

Make no mistake; Mass Effect is extremely short. A complete play through of the game is roughly about twenty-five hours, including the majority of side quests; for an old-school role-playing game player accustomed to 100+ hours per game such as myself, this makes the game unbearably short.

Of course, the pacing of the game doesn't help. In addition to the relentless amounts of plodding conversation that breaks up the combat and exploration, the game also involves a story that drives the player to finish the main quest as quickly as possible to prevent total annihilation of the world, yet the developer throws in a bunch of side-quests that do nothing to help move the plot along; essentially, these side quests do nothing to help the pacing of the game, as they're either skipped by a player who is rushing to finish the main quest, or breaks up the main quest so much that the main quest loses steam. Additionally, the player can only carry 150 items; with almost every enemy dropping at least one thing, the inventory fills up quite quickly, forcing the player to stop to break down the loot into components, which itself is time-consuming, as each item must be broken down individually, further destroying the pacing of the game.

In conclusion, Mass Effect is a game full of bad design decisions. The decisions themselves aren't bad enough to completely break the game, but are bad enough to make the game less than good, let alone great. While some may think I'm overly critical of the title, and BioWare in general, I must point out that games such as Fallout and Planescape Torment were far superior in terms of their core gameplay elements, and were released years earlier than this title; if anything, Mass Effect is a step backwards in single-player role-playing games. Simply put, the game could have used another two to three months in development. Combined with the game's length, Mass Effect is a mediocre diversion, unworthy of more than half the praise it receives, but a diversion nonetheless in this single-player role-playing game drought. Granted, role-playing game lovers will play the Hell out of it, but, in the long run, it won't make a lasting impact in the same way other titles have.

Some will argue that Mass Effect is part of a planned trilogy. This, however, doesn't change the fact the title itself is a standalone release, and will therefore be judged as such; furthermore, the problems with the game's core elements have little to do with the fact the game is a trilogy, thereby nullifying the argument completely.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 06/13/08

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

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