Published by Microsoft Game Studios
Developed by Bioware Corp.
For Xbox 360
ESRB Rating: M for Blood, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes and Violence
Edmonton, Alberta-based Bioware is a veritable legend among many for innovating Western RPG design. From their seminal PC games (Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, Neverwinter Nights) to their rise to console fame with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire, Bioware has been telling gamers stories for years, and they have been doing it with a certain inimitable style. That very style has been honed and unleashed with their latest game, Mass Effect.
Game Play 19/20
In the vein of Star Wars, and even Blade Runner, the story of Mass Effect is one that incorporates imperialism, war, racism, politics, eugenics and more while it develops its characters and weaves individual plots around each one. All of this is based around player choice, and even if it isn’t, it feels like it is. In what is planned to be a three game story arc, the player takes the role of a male or female Commander Shepard (the player's choice, either is fully and ably voiced) right before embarking on a doomed mission to a backwater planet called Eden Prime. Things happen, stuff blows up, a couple of characters (minor or major, depending on your view) die, and before you know it, you’re whisked away on a galactic adventure that has never before been seen in a video game.
Mass Effect, at its heart, is the RPG that wants desperately to be a squad-based shooter. That is to say that Mass Effect is very much an RPG, but not in the popular style; it supplants the sword and magic style of every RPG for the past few years (with a few notable exceptions) with lasers and biotics (a genetically enhanced human).
Combat is very difficult at first, and presents a steep learning curve that will need to be overcome prior to really enjoying and experiencing the game. Gunplay is all active. The player is free to aim and fire about the environment at enemies as he/she would so wish, but there are other elements that need to be taken into account. Sometimes a player might wants to damage an enemy without firing a gun. Easy. Just hold the RB on the 360 controller (which pauses the action), select “Overload” from one of the three party members on the menu that comes up, and target the enemy. Release the button, and with some visual trickery, the enemy is hurt. This gets harder when used in conjunction with the normal shooting action that many players will opt for, but when used correctly, can completely overpower many foes.
While the combat is really quite difficult, and will be what turns most off from the game, the options outside of combat are where this game really shines. Whenever not fighting, the player can wander their spacecraft, the Normandy, explore a planet that has just been landed on, or explore cities and pursue assignments there.
Of these, there are quite a few; unfortunately, there are only a few planets that you can actually land on, and even less that have anything to do with the story. If you decide to do so, you will most likely be granted an extra assignment that sends you off on more tangents than can probably be counted, and will usually result in some sort of tangible reward for the player.
While all of this is great, it’s not what really makes Mass Effect, well… Mass Effect. Everything is linked together by amazing conversation sequences that are logical extensions of what has been seen before in past Bioware games. That is to say that each conversation allows the player to choose what they say, and in doing so, they choose what they want to be: a stickler for the rules (Paragon) or Jack Bauer, an extremist who gets the job done in any way possible (Renegade). Either way, the game changes depending on your choices throughout the game, including in conversation. At other points, you’ll be given opportunities to change the direction the game’s story flows. You might have to choose which teammate lives and which dies, or whether to let a dangerous, nearly extinct species live or die. It all changes the way the story plays out (though not necessarily the events within the game itself), and will, reportedly affect the next two games in Mass Effect’s story arc.
All of this is to say that Mass Effect is pure gaming bliss. Players will find themselves lost in Bioware’s universe, sympathizing with characters, and actually caring when someone dies. That’s something in a game. The only major downfall on the game play side of things is that the combat is one of the more difficult systems to get into. However, much like Final Fantasy XII, the player that invests his or her time in the game, really learning the intricacies of it all, will find a deep, engaging experience.
Mass Effect is a beautiful game. It really is. And I recently had the pleasure of seeing it on a big, 1080p HDTV. It was almost freakish to see the characters, to see the pores and wrinkles on the skin of those characters. This is made more amazing by the fact that the environments are all beautiful and (mostly) unique.
Bioware is known for creating their own graphic engine for a particular game, and then using that across the board for their next few releases. Mass Effect is an oddity because of this. It uses the Unreal Engine 3, which powered Gears of War, Unreal Tournament 3, and a host of other games. This is also the reason that it’s surprising to see some of Mass Effect’s graphical unevenness.
Throughout the game, you’ll run into textures not loading for a couple of seconds (sometimes up to ten or fifteen seconds) and graphical slowdown when a lot is happening on the screen. This is a major disappointment, especially given the excellent first impression that Mass Effect makes visually.
Mass Effect is a treat for the ears—usually. Standout voice acting and superb sound design round out an already impressive game, topped off by an amazing, subtle, almost hypnotic electronic score.
The one major drawback here is the voice acting, which is amazing except in one or two situations. One major character, voiced by actress Marina Sirtis (Star Trek: The Next Generation), proves to be a horrible choice for the game. Melodramatic, annoying and stilted, Sirtis’ acting leaves much to be desired and tarnishes the entire experience of Mass Effect.
Overall, however, the sound design is incredible, and worthy of the game’s heritage.
The main problem with the game is the frame rate. Oftentimes, the player will be faced with dispatching several enemies. This is where, in games like Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3, having a smoothly running game is required. And you’d expect that Mass Effect, a shooter with an RPG’s heart, would attempt to do the same. However, this isn’t the case. Mass Effect is bogged down by graphical slowdown, especially in the later stages of the game. The game isn’t unplayable, and the problems aren’t insurmountable, but they are most definitely noticeable and will most likely affect the way that the player plays the game.
On the surface, Mass Effect is a daunting game. The game begins with no tutorials, no instruction on what to do. And the player is thrust into the middle of a battle not twenty minutes in. There is, in other words, a very steep learning curve to the game, one that will likely effect the player’s perceptions and view of the game itself. Yet, for the player that sticks through the first four to five hours of the game and takes the time to learn the combat system, they will find an infinitely rewarding control scheme, one that is layered and well designed.
Bioware’s latest is a very violent game; there’s no question about that. The focus during combat is shooting (this really depends on your character’s class; either way, the player should expect to see quite a few weapons being fired), and although straightforward gunning is discouraged in favor of a more strategic approach, a player can, plausibly, take the game on any way that they want to. Essentially, this means that the player is given the choice of play style, and that play style will usually translate directly into combat.
Enemies tend to either be of the ugly alien or crazy robot type, but occasionally, players will find themselves in confrontations with other humans. The developers designed a pretty complex dialogue system for the game, and in doing so, enable the player to talk their way out of almost any situation, including fights with other human characters. (Killing non-human, fictional beings, -3.5 pts.)
Mass Effect can also be bloody in its violence. At one point in time, early in the game, the player stumbles across some hostile enemies impaling a man. Blood sprays, but it doesn’t spatter on the walls; there’s just enough so that the effect that the designers wanted is had. This holds true for the entire game. Often, the player will see alien goo or strange blue robot blood spray. It never hits the walls, however, and all the bodies of enemies eventually disappear. (Small red blotches or drops of blood, -1 pt.)
One of the best things about Mass Effect is its dialogue system, which allows player to select a response that’s usually significantly shortened from what’s actually said in the game. This allows conversations to flow in a very believable manner, instead of previous games, where conversations seemed stilted and more than a little contrived. Because of this dialogue system, Bioware elected to include a large amount of choice in the way that the character says things. This means that it is not unusual for Mass Effect to have profanity in it, if only in some attempt to recreate the way that many people today talk. (Swear words found in a PG13 movie are used in the game, -4 pts.)
Mass Effect also features a sex scene. This will be covered more extensively in the next category; the reason that it’s brought up here, though, is different. This scene is the only area of the game that has innuendos in the dialogue, and those aren’t particularly explicit in nature. However, they are there, and as such, are worth mentioning. (Sexual jokes are made once or twice, -2 pts.)
Sexual Content/Nudity 2/10
As mentioned above, Mass Effect does feature a sex scene. This scene is all based on player choice, so participants in the scene vary based on the actions of the player. The segment of the game isn’t required, and this is, again, through player choice, so the player actively chooses whether or not to participate.
Within the scene itself, there is partial nudity. Depending on the gender of your character, the player might see partial rear nudity or partial top nudity. (Partial nudity, -4 pts.)
The big thing that many people may have a problem with is the player’s option to pursue a lesbian relationship with one of the characters. For a long while, many believed that a male character would have the option to choose to have a male homosexual relationship in the game, but this is not the case.
In addition, characters are not actually seen having sex on screen. The scene itself is very brief and includes kissing and a shot of a hand on a window. Like I said, not explicit, but the player should get the point. (Homosexuality is shown as a positive in the game, -4 pts.)
Mass Effect, unlike many RPGs, doesn’t use a magic system that’s grounded in either fairy tale or occult magic systems that other, similar games might make use of. This is because, in Mass Effect’s universe, magic of any kind doesn’t exist. But technology does, and people called “adepts” (read: psychics) do.
Technology allows for damage to non organic enemies (robots) through a cool little tool that’s strapped to the player’s arm. Adepts, if you choose to include them in your party (once again, an example of player choice), simply pick up enemies and toss them around. It’s all handled in a very sci-fi, tongue in cheek fashion and definitely not intended to be serious in any respect. (Fairy tale type magic is used in game by player, -1.5 pts.)
Environments that are grounded in magic are non-existent, so there’s no need to worry on that front.
Mass Effect, like many games of its ilk, requires the player to make decisions, some of which may not sit well with its audience. Some of these choices can be considered taboo (do you talk a character into or out of suicide?) while others might require the player to make a decision that could affect the future of an entire race.
At one point in time, the player is required to go against the wishes of everyone above him/her. This begins the final act of the game, and is required to progress.
One of the best things about Mass Effect is that it presents real world problems amid a backdrop of futurist science fiction. Of course, this is what much of the best science fiction and speculative fiction does, and Mass Effect is not afraid to ape from the best. One of these real world problems is racism, which the game presents without much resolution. Humans are the subject of the racism, and are met with hate and revulsion. Only through the actions of the player do the other races in the galaxy grow to either accept humans, or reject them further.
Mass Effect is, at core, a game that is driven by choices. These choices often determine what kind of a person the player’s character is. Often, there will be one or more voices (other characters) telling you what you should do in a given situation and why you should do it. At times, the choices that one or more of the characters present is rather poor, yet the character stands by it, attempting to talk the player into it. (-2 pts., Game requires rejecting established authority figures or laws; -2.5 pts., Characters are clearly demeaned or negatively biased based on race or ethnicity; -1.5 pts., Poor value decisions are promoted throughout the game, but not required to progress)
Despite the score, Mass Effect is one of the most beautiful, best games on the Xbox 360. Its world is beautiful, its story epic. In short, Mass Effect is a hint of things to come in interactive entertainment, and gaming in particular.