“Review”: Mass Effect

Mass Effect is the best movie I’ve ever played.

Many would read that as insulting (still having the “interactive movies” in memory), and I would mean it as insulting due to lack of interactivity in many other cases, but this is only in a positive way. From camera angles during dialogue sessions and the dialogue itself to the scenery, level-design and art direction it all goes with a very movie-like feeling, but it never takes the power away from the player.

The Dessing

Story

The following section will contain spoilers, so skip it if you haven’t played the game.

The movie, considered as such, is perhaps not the best I’ve “seen” from a dramatic perspective, yet still very engaging. Act one starts out as a fetch-mission turned battleground, following to an investigation to convince the council (the board of the galaxy) to accept one of their top agents is the enemy, which then lets the player become such an agent. Act two then follows several clues of the enemy’s presence, cleaning up the chaos he’s caused. This ends up in a frontal assault on one of his bases, the big plot-twist and the first encounter with the enemy himself. Act three then starts with a chase with the enemy which leads to some surprising revelations and sort of goes full circle with act one as the citadel you’ve learned to be safe and out of harm’s way suddenly is the battle ground and the road up to the last boss (which I was surprised, and a little bit disappointed, to convince into suicide). It all ends with a massive save-the-world and I’m-so-heroic sequence.

Which, as you can hear, goes from a pretty interesting detective story to a pretty conventional save-the-world story. The marketing was talking about letting you choose to destroy it, as well, but with a sequel promising to use your save-files that sounds very unlikely. It does really have an interesting dramatic level where the acts goes into one another, but that really drops by the middle of the first and second acts. Oh, and the side-quests drops that interest close to a zero, as they’re more a “I want more XP”-thing then interesting drama.

Okey, spoilers are over, you can keep reading here.

World

For those who jumped the last paragraph, I mentioned the story to be pretty engaging, and a lot of that is thanks to its setting, scenery and characters. Mass Effects takes place in a futuristic future (now *that* must be the dumbest phrase I’ve ever written) where the humans during a trip to Mars found some spaced-out tech, reached for the stars and found a federation of alien species and joined them. Humans, still being new-comers to an order that’s existed for several hundreds or thousands of years, constantly have to prove themselves in the eyes of the others and work their butts off to do so. These species all have their histories, cultures, religions and such, all unlocked throughout the game in an in-game encyclopedia.

As the galaxy has a lot of planets, the scenery has to reflect this, but as a rule of thumb the main-plot planets are pretty linear but beautiful levels while the side-quests are what appears to be randomly generated rocks on a small squarish area with a few points-of-interests on. But it will be the main plot levels that will stay when you think about the game afterwards. I just have to mention, without spoiling anything, that the last level is just amazing in both scenery, feel and dramatic tension. If I’d allow myself to spoil, I would, but I won’t.

A note worth mentioning is the elevators. The elevators of Mass Effect is basically a cleverly hidden loading-screen, but thanks to being an elevator,the side-kicks may start to talk to one another or a radio message may announce things that may or may not be related to the player’s adventures in the galaxy (although often it is related). Some people have complained that the elevators take so long to get where they’re going, but it’s a great way of not showing a loading screen that ads depth and believability to the world.

Characters

The characters of the game is a step forward since Kotor and Jade Empire, although not with as much incentive to explore and “get to know them” as Kotor 2. They all become involved in the story before you get them in your party (unlike, say, Jolee Bindo in Kotor that just joined up in the middle of the jungle), and you can choose how far you want to follow their story-lines. But this story-line is pretty much given to you if you only play the game, and that’s what feels like a step back from Kotor 2’s characters (which, I know, was developed by Obsidian) which damanded you to get to understand them to really get their full story and character,which had quite a few depths. Mass Effects characters do have their histories, but they’re too quick to spill it out, and engaging in them gives no real reward in the end (the sex-scene is infamous by now, but what I mean is game-play related).

Aestethics

The aesthetics of the game is another part which makes it interesting in the noise of sci-fi universes, blending clean and futuristic designs with modern-age uses for them. Although this is typical for all science fiction, there is all too often a wish to make spaced-out things that doesn’t make sense, and although Mass Effect has a few of those (such as “Virtual Intelligence”, which is basically a computer terminal you talk to), next to everything feels like something you’d expect civilization to have a few hundred years down the road. The human designs also has an iconic mixture of squares and curved lines to really nail a unique visual style.

Game Mechanics

So, to the bones of the game, the Mechanics. I’m going to write several paragraphs on this, in order of Combat System, Leveling and Experience and the Morality System.

Combat System

Combat in Mass Effect is a combination of a Third Person squad-game and a RPG. You aim and shoot like a Third Person Shooter, direct squad mates like a squad game and you have a bunch of spells and weapon proficiencies depending on your class (“weapon”, “psyonic” and “tech” plus hybrids). This all builds a very direct combat where you’re very much an active part of a battle rather then just picking abilities and waiting. Here’s the nice bit, though: You direct and shoot like a shooter, but then damage is evaluated based on stats in the background. There’s no accuracy-modifyer or anything, but items still has stats to improve along the way, which makes a really fun blend of skills and stats.

On the downside, it’s a bit of a shame the game throws the same enemies at you the whole game instead of demanding more co-ordination and ability-usage towards the end, as you can pretty much carve through them like a hot knife through butter at the end, but it’s great fun to fight, something I’m rarely saying of either FPS:es or RPG:s. It’s also a tid bit confusing to know what ability does what and how they work in practice.

Dialogue system

When you start talking to an NPC, you enter the dialogue mode, where your character and the NPC stands and chat. As the NPC is about to say its last line before yours, your coming dialogue-options become visible. All options are shortened to the core of what they mean to make them easy to read and Shepard’s reading more interesting to hear. The options are also placed in a very logical manner – they all fit into a circle of six choices, three to the left and three to the right. The left-most side is reserved for investigation to get more information about things, the right side to bring the dialogue towards its conclusion. The upper choices leans towards Paragon, or are Charm-options, and the lower toward Renegade, or are Intimidate-options. Charm and Intimidate are two special kind of answers unlocked by the player’s skill-points put into them (more in the next paragraph about that system). Being very special, they are colored – charm in a light blue and intimidate in red. This order makes it very easy to start picking choices based on desired result instead of figuring out what the lines might mean. For instance, if I want to know more, I make sure to hover on the left. If I wanna be a good guy, I’m almost clicking the top-right before even reading it. This all makes for very fluid dialogue that only stops when you have to think (for, like, important decisions) or are away from keyboard (which happens a lot in these games). So even if a timer would make the dialogue more fluid, it would take away a lot of breaks (but could cause impulse-decisions, which are as close to the player’s True Character as it gets).

Leveling and Experience

Like all RPGs, you gain experience for killing enemies and completing missions. Enough experience gives you a level-up. We all know that stuff. When you level up, you gain a few “feat”-points which you can place in lanes, each representing a weapon, ability or other class-feature. These lanes improves stats and unlocks improved version of these abilities, and often another feat-tree. As I’m quick to compare to recent MMOs I’ve played, it gives a pretty shallow impression. In theory, it shouldn’t, but it felt like you could get pretty much everything you used maxed out and leave the rest be. This might be related to me playing a hybrid class and not understanding most of my spells, though, which filtered it out to what I did understand. Perhaps I change my mind after a few more play-throughs.

Morality system

The morality system of Mass Effect has one major difference from earlier games – getting “good” points doesn’t negate the “bad” points and vice versa. Although this sounds like a reasonable step on paper, it doesn’t quite work out in practice. As both meters are visible as something you can fill up, you’re initially tempted to balance it to fill them up evenly. You may later realize that it doesn’t matter, and just pick something as you find funny. Another difference is that the point of your morality doesn’t seem to have any gameplay-implications. The KotOR-games both gave you a penalty/bonus on your spells’ force-cost, all visible in a neat table-like form, but if there’s any such implications from Paragon/Renegade it’s implicit and as such not very much used as incentive. Either way the morality doesn’t feel like the central feature it was in kotor. But it does deserve credit for not using obvious “good” and “evil” terms, instead picking “be diplomatic” and “use brute force”.

User Interface

It’s worth noting on this segment that I’ve played the PC-port of the game. Thus some things may be different then the console-versions has.

The Heads-up Display of the UI is really nice, in a minimalistic way always showing me what I want and nothing more. I just wished I could hide the action-bar for weapons and abilities hidden when unused, as I paused and used stuff manually anyway. As with targeting, the PC version behaves a bit wierdly as it doesn’t always select what you look at but something behind or beside it, most likely a result from the console way of changing targets through a given order.

As with menues, the Galaxy map works greatly, and the world map works great with just one exception. When you hover an elevator or gateway to another part of the map (most notable in the citadel), it is displayed where it leads. Clicking on it takes you to the journal instead of the map the icon refers to. The quest journal is nice with all quest having a root-tree with every objective branching from it, but for some reason only down in one level. Several levels would be a great way to show parallel objectives on. Also, it often mention clusters and locations without a link to hint you in the right direction. With a game with so many systems with strange names and loading times for every system you enter, it would be a great time-saver to not needing to remember “[cluser x][system y]” for the quests you wanted to play.

Lastly, the encyclopedia makes the game world very believable. Perhaps because a lot of people takes a lot of unknown information from Wikipedia, which this has a lot of similarities to. I think it the encyclopedia could have gained even more believability to the game if you could search everything from the get-go. I believe this is a consequence of learning-curve and a wish to keep some exploration-awards, but for such an optional-to-use system as this I don’t understand that thinking. This is a bit be like me having to visit, say, France to browse France on wikipedia.

Conclusion

I’ll end the review the same way I started it. This is a game that combines the fun and interactivity from games with the dramatic interest and feel from movies. Which is a great combo. Give it a try if you like movies, RPGs, squad games or shooters, and you might get curious about the others. If you like all those… well, where’s your closest store?

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