MASS EFFECT (2007) – BIOWARE
As a fan of the Star Wars universe, it follows on that I have a great deal of respect for Bioware. In 2003 they gave the world Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic, one of the most highly acclaimed games of the decade, and they are currently working on a new MMORPG, Star Wars: The Old Republic. Both of these games give ample room to expand the canon of the Star Wars universe, and it was handled very well. When Bioware revealed that they were going to have their own crack at a space opera, fans became very excited. The result of this was Mass Effect, a game released in 2007 on the Xbox 360 only. Using some of the dynamics from Knights Of The Old Republic (such as having full control of one character and issuing orders to team-mates) and blending it with a original storyline, Bioware created a game that received very good reviews. I picked it up for £10 when I got my Xbox a year after the game’s release, and after going through Gears Of War I decided to give it a go to see if the reviews were justified.
The first thing to really appreciate in Mass Effect is the storyline and the depth of the game world. The game takes place in 2183, by which time mankind has mastered the ability to travel through the galaxy at the speed of light, and is now attempting to place itself amongst the various alien races of the galaxy. The basics of the plot is that you take control of a character called Commander Shepard (who can be male or female), an official of the human Alliance military serving on the Normandy star-ship who is tasked with retrieving an artefact from the world of Eden Prime. However, before you can get there, the Normandy receives a distress call from the surface as the planet is brought under attack. It is identified that Saren, a rogue Spectre (a special co-ops unit) has got to the artefact first and taken its secrets. Shepard manages to also get to the artefact in time, where he learns of Saren’s plot to use an ancient race known as the Reapers to destroy the universe. After taking the evidence to the Galactic Council, Shepard is made the first human Spectre, and told to hunt down Saren across the galaxy.
This forms just the underscore for what can only be described as an epic space opera. Bioware managed to get three things spot on here; create a new range of believable alien races, open up a massive galaxy for the player to explore, and create a back-story for everything full of detail (there is a Codex in the main menu that holds every bit of information you find, and reading through displays what a staggering job Bioware did in making an engaging universe). Shepard’s journey brings him into contact with many planets and races, plus plenty of individuals who will offer information, missions and challenges. The main story stem also happens to be excellent; a quick moving story full of twists, hard decisions and action. For me it does what any good space opera should do, and sucks you into the world.
The other thing that Mass Effect attempted to do, besides creating a new world, was to offer what can only be described as a hybrid RPG. All of the elements that you would expect from a Bioware RPG are in there; character customisation (you can choose the appearance and back-story of your character from a preset list of options, in a nice touch the different back stories open up different missions later on in the game), upgradeable equipment, character abilities and so on, but its all somehow different: for one thing, your team uses guns and psychic powers instead of swords and the Force. The game plays from the third person perspective and you move Shepard around the world in two stages; there are safe places such as the Citadel where you can move around and talk to characters, and there is the battle environment where the actions starts coming into it. Shepard and his team can either use firearms (assault rifles, shotguns, pistols and sniper rifles), biotic abilities (warp fields, telekinesis and mind control: standard psychic stuff) or a mixture of both to get the job done, and Shepard can take cover and issue his team-mates to move around and use abilities. The game can shift seamlessly between battling and safety, so it’s wise to stay on your toes. After fighting is over, you can loot the dead for equipment and credits too. Mass Effect also attempted to be part driving simulator as well, and gives you access to a buggy, called the Mako, to help you transverse the some of the worlds. As well as offering the chance to drive on the Moon, it comes in useful as it has a cannon which can fire at enemies. Considering the size of some of the worlds you can explore and the difficulty in getting to some terrain, it’s a very useful thing to have on your space adventure
The most important dynamic of Mass Effect however is the speech wheel. When engaging in a conversation, a wheel will appear in the screen when it is Shepard’s turn to talk, and it will have varying responses that you can pick. It generally is the case that the options at the top promote a paragon approach, whereas the options at the bottom offer a more evil approach. Doing this over time opens up more charm/threaten options on the wheel which can give rewards and shorten sidequests later on. Take for example one of the early side quests, where you are asked to help remove a preaching Hanar (a jellyfish like thing). Choosing the good path will mean that Shepard will give the Hanar money for a license to speak freely in the Citadel, whereas if you are a hard nosed bastard you can tell the Hanar to leave by force. It means that for the most part, you can choose the attitude that you want your character to have. The game generally promotes the paragon path, and there is never really an option to go fully evil, but it is a welcome addition to the game. Its also worth noting that some of the big options in the game, including romantic storylines with your team, play very heavily on this split path dynamic, so it is worth taking time to make your decisions.
As a whole, Mass Effect plays alright. The worlds that you visit in the main mission stem are obviously designed to lead you in one way only, but the other worlds have plenty of scope to explore. It’s just a shame that there are a few things that really annoy me with the combat system. It becomes obvious very early on that you can abuse the upgradeable armour and make your player nigh on invincible by giving them regen armour. So long as you stay in cover and have the Unity ability (which revives allies), you could let the AI play this game through for you. The Mako sidequests are for the large part, incredibly uninspiring. It’s a matter of drive here, have a shoot out, collect an item, return it, get the reward. Aside from one or two great missions, there’s really no obligation to do them unless you want to level up. And speaking of levelling up, this game employs some serious grinding. On my first playthrough, doing absolutely everything I could, I got to Level 50, the cap for one game. On my second playthrough using the data carried on from my first playthrough (admittedly a nice touch, but you have to collect everything again), I only gained 6 levels, again doing everything. I know its meant to be a challenge, but that’s overdoing it a bit. And finally, for those who want the ultimate ball-breaker of a game, there is Insanity Mode, which is quite simply UNFAIR. The enemies become overpowered so much that you are forced in the early stages to be as cheap as possible, just to get by. For the most part Mass Effect manages to get by with the hybrid RPG system, but a bit of refinement in areas would have been appreciated.
Little refinement was required for the presentation though, which is stellar at times. This is a very good looking game, and considering its all in the future it gave Bioware a lot of artistic license to create their world. The scenery of some of the worlds, such as the Citadel, is spectacular, and even the barren landscapes that you explore in the Mako have been given a suitable level of details to keep you interested in what might be behind that mountain ridge. The character models are also very impressive; given that the cut scenes provide close ups of faces, Bioware had to put a lot of attention in making sure that the animation looked smooth. The Alien races in particular benefit from the high levels of design, managing to look at the same time different from each other and not overly ridiculous. I especially love the design of the Volus, who coming from a planet of high gravity are very small and have face masks to aid their breathing. My one complaint about the graphics however is that in some areas where it takes a long time to load, Bioware decided to put in elevators to mask the loading screens; and my god they take a long time to travel on. Using the fast travel in the Citadel in particular is highly recommended.
The audio in Mass Effect is also superb, and here we can split it into two distinct areas. First of all we have the excellent voice acting. There’s an awful lot of dialogue in this game, and most of it is delivered very well indeed by an excellent voice cast, which includes Seth Green, Keith David (The Arbiter in Halo) and Lance Henriksen. I would say that the female Shepard delivers her lines better than male Shepard however. I must also point out that Wrex and Shepard have really good chemistry with each other. There is then also a wonderful ambient soundtrack in the background composed by Jack Wall; most of the time you don’t notice it being there as you attribute it to being part of the game world, helping you get sucked into the environment further. I will say that the recent soundtrack for Tron: Legacy produced by Daft Punk (which is awesome by the way) reminded me quite heavily of Mass Effect’s music. Standout tracks here include Saren’s theme, the attack on Eden Prime, and the wonderfully relaxing Galaxy Map music.
So how does Mass Effect stand up as an overall product? Despite my reservations with the battling system, I have to say overall that this is a great achievement on Bioware’s behalf. The story really is excellent space opera material and the hybrid nature of the game means that both shooting and RPG fans will be able to take something from it. For people looking to play something a bit different on the Xbox 360, it is a recommended game, and spawned an excellent sequel (which I will no doubt be reviewing at some point in the future before the third and final installment hits in 2012). Well worth checking out.