Review: Mass Effect

Game: Mass Effect
Recommended price: $15
Metacritic Score: 89
Completion Time: ~32 hours
Buy If You Like: 3rd-person pseudo-RPG shooters

Subtitles: On.

It is somewhat difficult trying to review a franchise-launching game like Mass Effect years after its initial release. Should it be compared to the standards of games of today, or of its time? Is it even realistic to believe the experience can be compartmentalized away from the knowledge $200 million MMOs are using its primary narrative mechanics 4 years later?

As I watched the ending credits this past weekend, it became clear in my mind that the concerns were largely moot. I loved this experience, I loved the narrative, I loved the setting where the writers were taking me. And I loved these things despite the weakness of the actual game bits of the game.

The combat system in Mass Effect is a cover-based 3rd-person shooter meets half-assed RPG elements. The shooting elements were decent on their own, even if the majority of the fights seemed to oscillate between completely trivial to instant death (at least towards the beginning). Your squad members are mostly competent in straight-up fights, although controlling them was sufficiently awkward that I was glad it mostly seemed irrelevant to the outcome.

Owned.

The “RPG elements” of the game though? I have mentioned this before, but there is really no point in having gear with stats – or talents that grant stats – if there is no way to actually look at your stats. Talent A gives me 3% more Hardening, but Talent B decreases the cooldown on my Throw ability by 5%. And yet I have no idea what my Hardening percent currently is (or, honestly, what it even does) or what my cooldown on Throw is currently sitting at. The first talent point in the weapon skills appears to boost damage and accuracy by crazy amounts (~10% vs 1-2% increments), but it is difficult to feel clever about making good choices when you never actually get to see numbers go up.

After the first area is cleared, the game map opens up most of the galaxy and gives you free reign to plow through dozens of side quests in a fairly non-linear fashion. The problem here is that it is all the same… literally. Each system has a landing planet where you are dropped off in a vehicle, drive around collecting junk, and cap off the experience in one of the two possible building layouts that are otherwise copy-pasted across the universe. Sure, the box maze is slightly different, but there are only so many times one can endure entrance corridor, large room, T-tunnel, two side rooms (or big room, small side room, stairs, small side room) before the very thought of landing on a planet becomes nauseating.

But then I asked myself why I was doing all these side quests to begin with. And the answer was that I loved it here. I didn’t want the game to end. I wanted to stick around in a game setting that people took the time to actually try and make intelligible. How is faster than light travel possible? Element Zero reduces mass, i.e. the Mass Effect. Why don’t we care about ammo? “Bullets” are just shavings off a brick of nondescript metal, accelerated at high speeds. Why can people take a bunch of bullets to the face? Kinetic shielding.

Mass Effect is Sci-Fi, but it doesn’t feel like the hand-waved or mystical Sci-Fi of settings with hyperspace or The Warp. Element Zero is fantastical, sure, but its interactions within the realms of physics largely makes sense. In other words, Mass Effect has more in common with Dune than Star Wars. And that is amazingly refreshing.

See you soon, space cowboy.

What is more than merely refreshing is the inclusion (and highlighting) of non-verbal dialog in an RPG. All dialog is fully voiced, which goes a long way in bringing otherwise disposable NPCs to life. But when they start winking at you, touching your character, raising an eyebrow… you realize how far the genre has come since Kefka’s 16-bit laugh of madness. Mass Effect might not break a lot of ground plot-wise, but it does break ground in the sense of being drawn into caring about the plot in ways most other RPGs can not achieve.

Overall, I was very, very impressed with my ~32 hours spent in this new universe, and eagerly look forward to spending some more in Mass Effect 2. And if they shore up some of the rough edges in the combat system, all the better.

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Posted on January 27, 2012, in Review and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. The combat in Mass Effect 2 gets quite a bit of revision as does the planet side missions. Guns using ammo is probably the biggest change. The make sense of this by saying with the technology savaged from Sovereign there were massive changes in armor and kinetic barriers. The result of creating weapons able to damage these armor resulted in drastic overheating. As a response you now use heat clips to conteract this.

    The other major change is you no longer land on planets and drive to a mission. You now scan the planet to gain resources for your upgrades and will occasionally detect an anomaly which you try to pick with your scanner. When you do you click and send a probe to the anomaly and you can then partake in the mission. To be honest this feature didn’t go over that well in terms of resource gathering. It really takes a while to gather all the resources on a planet and imo just doesn’t flow that well with the rest of the game.

    The story in ME2 is of the same quality of the first and what is really nice is the choices you make in ME1 will affect the way the story plays out in ME2. The final mission in ME2 is really well done and you can really mess it up. People die if you do poorly or aren’t prepared.

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    • Ha! I had heard beforehand that the combat was quite a bit different in ME2, but I find the fact that they went ahead and justified it in-game to be very… Mass Effect-ish. Makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

      I guess I’ll see how the planet changes hit me. Outside of that one side-quest where you get separated from the Mako and it becomes surrounded by pirates, I never really felt the Make played much of a coherent role compared to its use in story missions.

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  2. Thanks for this I am also going back and playing games I missed and this is one of them. I am going to pick it up based on your review. With ME3 coming out and the Amalur tie-ins, I want to try and finish both 1 and 2 before I start it. Sorry, rambling.

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  3. The final mission in ME2 was perhaps the best ending sequence in any game I have ever played (going back to the late 1970’s on a Commodore PET). And for once you actually do have to do things within a limited timeframe or people die. Not to mention that actions from earlier in the game can also cause people to die and decisions made at the start of the final missions can lead to death.

    And to top it all off they continue the character development of NPC’s from ME1 and introduce some very cool characters (looking at you Legion) in ME2 that had super great little idiosycracies in their personality.

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  4. One of my biggest issues with ME2 was the change to the combat system; while the heat clips were meant to encourage you to move around the fights they ended up mostly just starving you for ammo. That and most combat became *Shoot enemy til their barrier/shield/armor goes down, then use your class ability* to the point where I found it tedious. The abilities they give you become more or less cool “executes” instead of combat defining skills. This is not to say that they didn’t make you a bit OP in ME1, but in 2 they felt trivialized. That said 2 is not a bad game, but I hope they move away from the “Shield + Health” system in 2 for the final game.

    Also

    “Reapers”

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  5. there is really no point in having gear with stats – or talents that grant stats – if there is no way to actually look at your stats

    What would you suggest as an alternative, assuming the devs don’t actually want you to obsess over the numbers too much? “Increases the effectiveness of your ability by a minuscule/small/moderate/large/huge amount”?

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    • If the devs don’t want us obsessing over the numbers… don’t have numbers.

      It doesn’t have to be overly elaborate or anything. I just have a real problem with talent points purchasing upgrades that I can never see. For all we know, a majority of those talent boxes actually do nothing at all. I remember being excited looking at how the very first weapon talent increases accuracy with, say, the shotgun by 10% whereas each additional one only increases accuracy by 2%. I felt pretty clever… until I realized there is no way to figure out if that actually did anything.

      All I’m asking for is for there to be a simple graphic on the character screen that has a list saying “Shotguns: Base Damage; Bonus Damage; Accuracy; etc.” I am otherwise getting zero feedback as to the decisions I make.

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