Friday, June 12, 2009

Review: Mass Effect (PC)

Ah, my first review, let's start. Mass Effect is the action RPG created and developed by Bioware and ported to PC by Demiurge Studios. A classic space opera, Mass Effect tells the story of Commander Shepard, who explores the galaxy, becomes entangled in galactic politics, and (of course) uncovers a plot to destroy the galaxy. What follows is a mixture of excitement and pleasantness (and not necessarily the good kind of pleasantness).

You begin as the XO (executive officer, second-in-command) of the Normandy, a hybrid vessel made by the Alliance (the global government of Earth) and the Turians (humanity's first space-borne enemy). The ship is not a front line fighter; instead, it has the ability to trap the heat it would normally emit as a form of stealth, not to mention it is the fastest ship in the Alliance fleet. Your first mission, the tutorial, is fairly good. It allows you to explore the mechanics of the game in relative safety and comfort, then provides you with a nice test of your skills at the end. For the tutorial mission, you and two other soldiers are sent to a planet called Eden Prime, one of Earth's first colonies, to investigate a message sent by forces stationed there. While planet-side, you stumble across a Spectre, an elite soldier that operates above the law and is answerable only to the citadel, the galactic government apparent. While seeing a Spectre is a rare event in itself, it is what that Spectre does that really thickens the plot. But to reveal that would spoil the story for those who haven't yet played the game.

Eventually, you become the first human Spectre and are given command of the Normandy. You are tasked by the Citadel council to stop the plot to destroy the galaxy. In your journeys you come across others that are willing to assist you on your quest mission. The characters you find are all interesting and unique. They have their own perspectives and motives for helping you. Which, perhaps, makes it all the more disappointing when they only seem interested in talking to you, it is only when you are riding an elevator that you even have a chance of seeing them talk with each other. In some ways it makes the game easier because you don't have to worry about figuring out which characters like working best with the others, but it also makes them seem somewhat artificial. Not only do the characters seem to ignore everything except you and the things they help you shoot at, but you never have to worry about them leaving because they disagree with you. There is only one moment, near the end of the game, where you have a possibility of losing one of the characters.

Another benefit of pursuing your mission (and having your own ship to do it in) is that you can explore the entire galaxy. You simply select a cluster, then a system, then a planet within that system (however, there is only ever one planet you can actually land on, the others give you resources and quest items). It is at this point that the aforementioned pleasantness sets in. After you pick a team (of two other characters) you land planet-side to find a bleak, rough, jagged environment, always. None of the planets not in the main quest line have any sort of design to them. To me, it seemed as if the developers just fired up a program that spit out random height maps, picked a color for the ground to be, then decided on a name for the place. That isn't to say the planet exploration is boring, there is always a quest to do and loot to find, but after climbing your 200th cliff face in the MAKO (the all-terrain tank your ship comes with), the experience changes from mildly entertaining distraction in tedium. To make matters worse, some of the quests are rather boring, the kind of quests you find strewn all over most MMOs: go to a place and kill the thing that is there. Sometimes you can use your conversation skills to change the outcome, but the experience feels just as hollow. Admittedly though, the experience still manages to be pleasant, if not fun at times. When a thresher maw (a giant worm-like creature that pops up out of the ground) attacks or you find hostile targets on the mini-map things get exciting again. Don't get me wrong, I love exploring, but it just doesn't really feel like exploring when the planets all look the same with just a different color painted on.

Contrasting the dull, cookie-cutter side quest planets, are the luxuriously detailed planets of the main quest line. These planets are expansive, have more than one quest to do, and feel genuinely unique. Although they are not as vibrant or as quest filled as the Citadel, which acts as your home away from home, they an example of the quality that the side quest planets should be close to.

Overall though the game is good. The combat, which, in my opinion is one of the best features of the game, never feels clunky or unfair. The cover system works well and the abilities usable in combat add the right amount of variety, tactics, and fun. While other reviewers complained about the conversation wheel (which only shows the idea behind what your character will say), I only found one or two places where I felt that the wheel lied or misrepresented what I wanted. Regarding the achievements, they met two of my rules for acceptable achievements:
  1. They didn't encourage time wasting
  2. They give in-game benefits
Whether it be more damage, better health, or faster XP gain, almost all of the achievements had something to offer.

To conclude, those who have not played the game should. In spite of its failings, Mass Effect is still a fun game to play. The story, when you are following it and not doing side quests, is gripping and makes you feel important. The side quests for me were still fun enough to keep me playing the game and finishing them (that could be because I have a completionist disorder but we'll give the quests the benefit of the doubt). Final verdict: worth a play through.

I would like to note that if this post is of poor quality or it has obvious errors that it is most likely attributable to my lack of sleep (I have been awake for 24+ hours now). That being said feel free to comment regarding my errors, your impressions of this review, or your thoughts on Mass Effect.

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