Review: Mass Effect

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In 2005, Roger Ebert voiced his controversial opinion that video games are inherently inferior to movies and books, and that games, by their nature, cannot be art. Despite the stir his words caused, they present an important corollary: games, in their best form, are another form of narrative fiction.

2007 has already seen one game which, more than any before it, truly defined the power of an interactive narrative: BioShock. The storytelling and world-building 2K accomplished within the context of a first-person shooter is astounding. How much more potent a canvas for such expression would a well-developed action role-playing game be? This brings us to Mass Effect and BioWare’s answer to that question.

I am wordy by nature, and Mass Effect is an immense game; so let me sum up the important things quickly for those who don’t want to scale sheer walls of text armed only with a rapidly tiring scroll-wheel finger. Mass Effect is a great game with big problems. Not game-breakers; not deal-killers. But problems that beg some important questions about the industry and the priorities of the people who make things happen in it. That said, Mass Effect’s strengths definitely outweigh its weaknesses. It’s very nearly a game that pretty much anyone ought to own. The shame is how little more – in relative terms – would have been required to remove those qualifications. However, I’m telling you here and now that Mass Effect is worth your time and money. If you need the specifics, keep reading.

BioWare’s history with ARPGs is very strong. Beginning with the well-received Knights of the Old Republic and moving into new territory with Jade Empire, the developer has established a reputation of being consummately familiar with the fundamental narrative elements of their source material. Merely their success at pleasing notoriously picky Star Wars fans should be proof enough of such competence. In both prior games, BioWare managed not only to give impressive homage to the film (or film genre) which inspired each game, but to wrap that tribute around a fairly deep and enjoyable play system.

Just as KOTOR was firmly based in the Star Wars universe and Jade Empire grew from the wellspring of countless martial arts stories and films, Mass Effect is sharply focused on its own defining influence. However, that influence is so vast a body of material as to be daunting sometimes even to a fan, let alone a layman. BioWare’s third effort venerates the prolific genre of hard sci-fi. Like those of its predecessors, ME’s narrative exhibits an astonishing attention to detail and deep knowledge of the vast estate of both printed and filmed material comprising this genus of fiction. Yet despite the breadth of its antecedents, ME’s story remains, for the most part, cohesive and internally relevant. It also shares with the brightest examples of its genre that most important of qualities: it’s a ride you enjoy taking.

Trouble on the shakedown cruise

Your avatar in the world of Mass Effect will be Commander Shepard, who like many SF heroes is basically billed as an ordinary person who, through events, is driven to extraordinary things. At the game’s beginning, players can choose from a remarkably complete suite of appearance-customization options, including gender. The base appearances for male and female Shepard models are quite competent and there’s no real need to fiddle with them, but players who do want that level of freedom will find an MMO-like level of tweakability. Depending on the persona you assume with your character, some of the face customizations – like scars, or a habitually cruel expression – can be pleasingly appropriate.

Default Shepard face

That chosen persona is a significant issue. Another part of the game’s opening is the creation of your character’s recent history. This is handled with eloquent simplicity, but gives a very nice set of options on which to build a rationale for your character’s actions. There’s no compulsion to adhere to the (usually obvious) personality traits your character “should” have based on the background you choose, but doing so makes the game that much more fun and involving. It also makes the story’s flow and your character’s actions – and interactions – feel more convincing. Some backgrounds clearly depict a selfless character with a painful past; others paint a ruthless and self-oriented anti-hero who can be counted on to look out for him/herself first. Still others leave much more room for ambiguity. Your choice of class, if you so desire, can mirror your background (you’ll have the requisite story material presented with the background options and class descriptions), though again there’s no penalty for coloring outside the lines.

The default Shepard, a Soldier

Classes are well-done and excellently balanced in ME. The default setting is Soldier, built for toughness and proficiency with all forms of guns and armor. While the Soldier’s skills might seem simplistic compared to the powerful psionic and technological powers of other classes, they make up for it in damage-dealing and soaking ability. Engineers are techno-wizards, able not only to manipulate almost anything electronic or computer-related but also to short out or shut down enemy weapons and abilities within a radius that grows significantly as they increase in power. They can also cause non-organic enemies to attack each other, though they’re unable to influence very high-level opponents. Psionics, known as Biotics in ME, are capable of impressive telekinetic feats, which can have substantial (and often unintentionally hilarious) effects on the battlefield. There are also three hybrid classes, mixing and matching some of the key strengths of each primary class to great effect. All six resultant classes are very worth playing, just to see the different effects and combos that can be set up, and they all play differently over the long run. Once you hit a high enough level you’ll also gain Specialization abilities, which allow you to further fine-tune your class selection. In another nice touch, as your party develops you’ll gain representatives of all six classes. Depending on the tactical situation you’re getting into, you can always draw on any particular skill set regardless of the one your main character has. The entire party levels up as a unit too, so there’s no need to keep rotating your support characters out to keep everyone’s growth even. You’ll want to bring different party members into the story flow as it moves along though, just to talk and interact with them.

Three of your party members

Interaction with other characters is arguably the game’s greatest strength. The conversations in Jade Empire were well-written, but the player’s character was silent the entire time, with only mild changes in facial expressions illustrating the emotion behind the words. Not so Mass Effect. Every line of dialog is spoken, and the voice overs are all extremely competent. In fact, letting the credits roll after you’ve beaten the game will show a few surprising names among the voice talent – though you might recognize their distinctive voices anyway. Though neither the male nor female voices for Shepard are provided by big-name movie stars, the actors chosen are clearly very skilled. It’s a good thing, since you’ll be hearing them a lot. However, the supporting cast is equally capable, so every conversation feels straight out of a high-budget SF film. There’s a very clear delineation between the game’s story-integral quests and its hugely numerous side-quests, but even in the completely superfluous side missions you’ll find the voice-acting is almost impossible to fault. Totally incidental characters whom you may never talk to sound convincing and believable. This, almost more than anything else, gives you the sense that your decisions matter – and some of those decisions will really make you think.

One exchange among thousands

The way conversations play out hearkens back to the old “pick a path to adventure” books in that players have a wheel of choices. Perhaps to help players keep the flow of dialog moving along – which you’ll want to do, it’s pretty involving – BioWare elected to make each potential choice clear in terms of what “alignment” it fits. Choices on the upper part of the wheel are typically associated with the Paragon alignment, which is altruistic and cooperative. The lower segments correspond to the Renegade path – think Jack Bauer, or one of David Gemmell ‘s darker heroes. Being a Renegade doesn’t connote evil – you’re still working for the overall good of humanity and other races – but your character will be ruthless and often hostile, compared to the Paragon. I’ll step a little outside my typical “no spoilers if it can be avoided” stance here to make one important point: play as a Renegade at least once. It’s that meaningful to the overall experience. The Paragon path does involve some hard choices at a couple of points in the storyline, but some moments in the Renegade path are, by comparison, gut-wrenching; the Paragon’s path may seem milquetoast after experiencing them. This is just as important a component of BioWare’s world-building as the huge amount of background information and minutiae included as readable material; you’ll catch yourself believing the game’s characters are people. Not just your party members, but others as well. You’ll care about them, and feel it when they get hurt – or die, and some of them do.

You don't always want to be a nice guy

From the beginning of the game, the developer’s dedication to creating a convincing sci-fi world is evident. By engaging in conversations or examining objects, the player slowly amasses an incredible wealth of background information about the universe of Mass Effect. The primary storyline pays homage to an amazing breadth of sci-fi literature, but delving into the Codex – your storage medium for all the secondary lore – reveals a nearly mind-blowing attention to detail, and a scope of storytelling rarely seen outside well-written novels. Something like 20 years of serious SF were strip-mined and incorporated into the game – the references any genre fan will catch could go on for pages. From lighter works like Flatlander or The Last Legion to more serious efforts like The Mote in God’s Eye; from simple action/suspense novels to the towering epics of Frank Herbert, Peter F. Hamilton or Dan Simmons. Shows like Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek. It’s all in here. You almost have to experience it to believe it, but trust me when I say that BioWare didn’t approach Mass Effect as just a game – it’s more like an enjoyable exploration of the antecedent genre with a solid game attached.

The Normandy's command deck

But then, the game’s the thing after all. No matter the amount of creative power behind the project, if the end result isn’t worth its scratch, the effort is moot. Again, Mass Effect does have issues – real ones, not the silly nitpickery ascribed to many good games to avoid having to give them scores of 9 or higher – but the end product is enjoyable enough and of sufficient quality to gloss the problems over, even if you’re never able to totally forgive them.

Mass Effect’s combat is real-time, and draws inspiration from 3rd-person shooters like Syphon Filter and Gears of War. Characters can hide behind cover (though not blindfire), sprint from one location to another, and use a variety of weapons on the fly. Though the control interface is simpler than the above-named games, ME’s combat controls work surprisingly well, with the exception that the Back button was a fairly awful choice for throwing grenades (and can’t be remapped). Combat always involves a 3-person squad, but you’ll have direct control only over Commander Shepard. Simple squad-level movement controls are mapped to the D-Pad. Sometimes you’ll have to give an order more than once to have both teammates respond, but once you’re reasonably familiar with it, the command system works better than it’s given credit for. However, it’s largely unnecessary; your teammates are fairly self-sufficient and will fight semi-effectively with little or no player input. They will get killed (more correctly, knocked out) from time to time, but after a certain point you can revive them with a special ability. The only time you may want to order them to hold back and not move is while sniping a particularly tough target from long range, with one of the classes that can use sniper rifles.

Your teammates know their stuff for the most part

Somewhat more important than movement is the management of each character’s class-based special abilities. You’ll have instant access to both the weapons and abilities of all squad members through a selection wheel for each, brought up by holding either the right (skills) or left (weapons) bumpers. You’ll want to give your support characters discretion to use their own skills and powers; they’re pretty good at it, and the player still can micromanage any particular ability in the middle of a fight. Bear in mind, only one power or skill can be mapped to a hotkey; for all other weapon choices and powers you’re effectively pausing the game to make your selection. This may be off-putting to hardcore action gamers at first, since it breaks the flow of battle; however, it makes a decent amount of sense once you’re used to it. Having a good balance of classes on the field is important too, not just for the mix of combat abilities but for accessing advanced electronics or hardened storage boxes (see also “locked treasure chests”) after the fighting is over.

Leveling up your characters is a fairly simple process once you’re used to it, but there’s still an option to let the game choose your skill-point assignments automatically. I personally wouldn’t recommend doing so, even for the support characters. Perhaps sadly, there’s no similar option to automatically equip a character with the best possible (or at least highest level) gear out of your party’s stockpile. The inventory system is a little complex at first and would really have benefited from some organizational options; in fact, it’s likely to be some time into your first playthrough before you actually start utilizing your gear to its fullest extent. Doing so is very important though; for all its action-game feel in combat, Mass Effect is an RPG through and through, and equipment selection plays a significant part in your combat survivability and amplifying the abilities of your chosen class. Both armor and weapons can be augmented, while Biotics and Engineers will get more powerful versions of their class-specific tools, increasing the duration and effectiveness of their powers in combat while speeding up their cool-down times. Past a certain level, weapon enhancements in particular can get pretty complex, and it’s quite fun to tweak different combinations to see just how nasty you can make a particular gun. Character progression is well-handled. No matter the path you choose, your character will develop into a serious bad-ass over time – this is one of the most fun things about the game.

Say hello to my little friend

The overall universe of Mass Effect is immensely vast, but there are actually only five major plot event hubs around which the main story arc revolves. The entire rest of the game – roughly 15 to 20 hours more – is purely incidental. You will be presented with cues to embark on one of the side-quests periodically as you move between the major story landmarks, but (especially as the Renegade) you’ll have the option to basically say you don’t have time to bother. The primary story sequences and their attendant locations are clearly the focus of much time and care in development. The characters you’ll meet here are exceptionally well-realized, and the venues themselves are consistently gorgeous. The actual plot events sometimes feel just a touch linear – occasionally the game simply won’t let you go where you’re not supposed to be yet – but you usually won’t mind, as you’ll be too busy enjoying the scenery or exploring the dialog options to find out more about your objectives.

The Citadel Presidium

When not engaged with the main story arc, you can explore Mass Effect’s fairly vast galaxy by choosing from the large selection of side-quests. The number of planets in the mapped Galaxy is staggeringly large, but only a small portion of these can actually be landed on and explored. For the most part you’ll be surveying these worlds from orbit, and (in reading the descriptions of each planet) struck again by the immense wealth of detail and minutiae poured into the game’s background. Many of the planetary descriptions are quite thought-provoking and hint that these worlds might be featured prominently in potential sequels. Surveying the planets often yields a plot item for one of the general-collection side-quests as well, so you really can’t go wrong in spending at least a little time just taking in the galaxy’s sights, and doing credit to the developers’ efforts.

System map

On those worlds you can explore, you’ll drop down to the surface in an armored personnel carrier called a Mako. The vehicle is tough and well-armed with powerful machine-guns and cannons, making it good for softening up enemy forces or taking them out entirely. The vehicle sequences (some of which are mandatory) are weirdly reminiscent of a circa-1982 arcade game called Moon Patrol – this might indeed be another homage. Regardless, the scrappy Mako is fun to drive for the most part, though there is a bit of a learning curve at first. Sadly, the side-quest worlds themselves feel rather barren and plain. Though there are individual differences in color scheme and (sometimes) weather, the work of a fairly large-bristle procedural brush is fairly apparent. For this reason, it’s really better not to try and experience all, or even most, of the side-quests on a single play-through. Though not low-quality by any means, these sections of the game do pale enough in comparison to the primary arc that they’ll grow stale. At the same time, players shouldn’t totally miss out on the side quests, as some of them are indeed fun and worthwhile.

A heavily-armored party member near the Mako

The main story is heavily character-driven, and you’ll meet some memorable people – heroes, villains, and even bureaucrats – over the course of the game. The completeness of the background world and the deep character realization (and development, in more than just the main character) will make you care about the story’s eventual outcome and want to see it through to conclusion. The designers did their part here – Mass Effect’s story ends, even for the Renegade, on a very satisfying note. It’s like finishing a really good book or movie; the experience really is a worthwhile and mind-broadening one, a journey you wouldn’t mind taking again (and you should). ME’s plot qualifies as epic, and the cinematic sequences near the end of the game are among the more memorable in gaming history. The ending itself may not be a great surprise by the time you’re about to see it, but you’ll enjoy it nonetheless. Even as the game itself is worthwhile, the storyline finish wraps things up nicely while leaving the player wanting more. Not surprisingly, at game end, the plot is at a reasonable stopping-point, but much is left unresolved and a sequel is clearly hinted at.

The last battle

With so much good to say about Mass Effect, it’s a shame that there are some significant negative issues with the game as well. Frame rate has been a complaint from anyone who’s reviewed the game, and I’m no exception. Surprisingly, this isn’t limited to frantic combat (in fact it’s usually as bad or worse in normal events and sometimes even cutscenes). Further, some of the textures you’ll see are surprisingly low-resolution; if the film-grain effect isn’t turned on, you could almost believe you’re looking at an original XBox game in some (fortunately rare) places. The ugliest and most visible design artifact, though, is texture draw-in. Literally any time you enter a new area, or even when the camera’s perspective changes in a cutscene, you’ll see the most basic (often barren-looking) objects first, then textures will visibly “stream” in, in layers. You’ll learn to disregard this, but there’s no denying it’s there, and it’s really painful to watch at first. There’s also a feeling of almost laziness in the design of the side-quest central areas. Close examination will show that literally every mining tunnel, derelict spaceship, military emplacement or colonial building has the exact same gross structural layout as all the others of its type. There’s literally no variation. Only internal layouts change – cover objects in different places, plot items in different rooms. Other than that, these environments are just stamped with a cookie-cutter. The variation in fine-level layout is enough to make each encounter different and enjoyable, but the sameness of the overall level design is hard to ignore. The last two items on the list of concerns are the lack of tutorials and the overly-sparse autosave system. The inventory system especially could have really been made more accessible, since all you ever get is one static screen of text the first time you access it. A simple “how to” section, guiding players through simple equipment and augmentation changes, would have improved the experience substantially. Autosaving simply happens far too infrequently – sometimes resulting in a big chunk of play time and events being lost, until the player learns to hedge their bets and save after essentially anything of importance happens.

In short, Mass Effect sometimes almost feels like a port – and not even a great port, let alone a flawless one; a fairly decent port. The excellence of the storywriting and world-building manages to shine through regardless, but it’s pretty much impossible to analyze the product as a whole without getting the impression that a few final tuning passes, and maybe even some content, were left out of the development process. What results from their lack is by no means an unplayable game, nor even one worth passing up; but one can’t escape the impression that good as Mass Effect is, it could – and should – have been more polished and complete. Obviously both BioWare and Microsoft were heavily invested in keeping this year’s blockbuster schedule rolling out more or less according to plan, yet this is one of those cases where I (at least) really feel someone should have stopped the presses and allowed Mass Effect just a little more time to cook. This is a good game, maybe a great game, that’s struggling to be a phenomenal game – an essential experience, a must-have. That missing layer of polish and focus is what (at least nearly) keeps it out of that lofty circle, and leaves serious questions about the series’ future. Will EA’s acquisition of BioWare result in less creative control, or harsher deadlines? Those are questions ME’s sequel will have to answer, but with all due respect to the team which created this mostly awesome game, I have to advise players to consider looking carefully at the next game in the series before purchasing it. (I’m aware that I’m talking about something years in the future – bear with me.) If Mass Effect’s sequel shares the same obvious and evitable flaws as the first game, then something really worthwhile that should be happening isn’t, and the people who pay the bills – that’s you and me, by the way – need to say something about it.

But for now, go buy Mass Effect (if you haven’t already) and enjoy it. I can promise the enjoyment will outweigh the disappointments.

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