The difference between clever and cunning.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Mass Effect Retrospective

The Mass Effect series is a trilogy of sci-fi action RPG’s from Bioware. I played about halfway through the first game when it came out five years ago before getting distracted. If you’ve been following gaming news you’re probably aware there has been a bit of a backlash about the ending to the third game, which perversely has renewed my interest in the series. 

As such I’m going to attempt a play through and review of the entire trilogy. My goal is less a “buy/pass” breakdown of the game and more a study of how the design has evolved from iteration to iteration. I’m also curious about the ability to carry my save from game to game.

The Mass Effect series has the almost unique property of allowing you to import your saves from one game to the next, in theory remembering major choices you’ve made and adjusting the game world accordingly. A few old school RPG’s like the Wizardry series would let you import an old party into a sequel, but nothing with such a dramatic effect on the game world and story. It’s a tremendously cool idea and I’m eager to see if Bioware was able to implement it successfully. 
Captain on Deck

Mass Effect puts you in the boots of Commander Shepard, a capable soldier of variable appearance, gender, and background. Aside from the usual facial customization you can also chose between six different combat classes, each wielding a different mix of weapon, tech, and biotic skills. Weapon skills are self explanatory and Tech skills do things like strip enemy shields or overheat weapons. The Force-like biotic powers are especially fun to use, sending enemies and objects hurtling about or floating helplessly through the air. 

Biotics reduce even giant alien bugs to physics props.

With character creation complete Shepard is launched into a tale of rogue secret agents, murderous machine intelligences, ancient alien legacies, and (of course) the fate of the galaxy. The opening mission does a solid job of establishing the setting, stakes, and primary antagonists. It’s a strong enough start but the pacing stumbles a bit after the gunfire dies down and you’re sent to the seat of galactic government, the enormous Citadel space station. 

The Citadel is mostly elevators and un-interesting side quests. Fortunately these are also largely inconsequential can be safely ignored. If you can put up with an hour or two of running back and forth, elevator riding, and petty politicking you’re ultimately handed your own ship and sent back out into the wider galaxy. In classic Bioware style you’re given a list of major plot missions and the freedom to tackle them in any order.

Strange New Worlds

It’s a big galaxy out there, with plenty of unexplored worlds. Almost every system has a planet you can land on and explore, both on foot and in a powerful APC called the Mako. The Mako is incredibly durable but handles like nothing you would expect from an armored vehicle, bouncing around like a giant chunk of Styrofoam and grinding up almost 90 degree inclines. It’s more goofy than annoying most of the time but feels very arcade like compared to the rest of the game.

The Spice must flow...

Unfortunately most planets outside of the core story missions aren’t worth the trip.  Mass Effect’s unexplored worlds are barren, featureless wastelands that feel like they were cranked out in five minutes with a random terrain generator. Only the Mako’s own improbable physics model makes it possible to clamber up and down the obnoxiously hard to navigate valleys and mountains. There’s little to do but prospect the occasional mineral node for a marginal reward and try not to get eaten by the rare giant sandworm, which have the charming habit of randomly emerging directly underneath your tank for an unavoidable one-hit kill. Many of the alien sky-scapes are quite pretty though.

You can also shoot through the same few rooms over and over again. I’m not kidding. Each unexplored world’s “dungeon”, whether a pirate base, rogue genetics lab, or lost colony, has the exact same layout. I understand development resources for peripheral content are limited, but this level of blatant recycling is ridiculous.

Be prepared to see this room a lot if you do any side quests.
Set to Kill

Combat is a significant part of Mass Effect, and unfortunately this is not the very best third person shooting you’ve ever seen. The cover system gets the job done but could be tighter. Weapons, especially sniper rifles, are aggravatingly inaccurate until you’ve made significant upgrades to your skills and equipment. You can pause at any point to shuffle equipment, queue up powers, and give commands to your teammates, which keeps things from getting too out of hand. 

Enemies with rocket launchers or special tech or biotic powers can be dangerous but don’t coordinate with each other. In outdoor areas they’re sniper bait, if you don’t simply vaporize them with the Mako’s cannon. Indoors foes are a bit better about using cover but still tend to trickle towards you a few at a time, letting your squad pick them apart piecemeal. Victory yields the expected XP, levels, and points applicable towards improving Shepard’s skills. 

This guy picked a bad day not to call in sick.

The character development system isn’t the most complex but still allows a degree of flexibility and specialization. Improving an active skill usually also provides a passive bonus, and there are never quite enough points to get everything you want. Squad mates level up at the same time Shepard does, so you never need worry about characters falling behind. 

Making leveling systems work in a game this non-linear is tricky, and Mass Effect attempts to remain challenging by having everything scale along with you. XP and money rewards, equipment drops, and enemy strength all grow at the same rate you do. This robs leveling up of some of its impact but Mass Effect’s free-roaming structure makes it a necessary evil. It also keeps looting interesting by ensuring you’re constantly finding slight upgrades, and you can conveniently recycle your old junk into “Omni-gel”, a magic paste that picks locks, repairs the Mako, and allow you to skip certain puzzles.

Engine Trouble

A few of the set pieces look good, but many of Mass Effect’s environments are sparse and dull. The frame rate was also surprisingly jerky at times for a five year old game. Loading sequences disguised as painfully slow elevators are common. 

For an armored vehicle the Mako can catch some serious air.

Moving from technology to design one of the minor but ubiquitous problems Mass Effect suffers from is a general lack of player feedback. It can be hard to tell when you’re taking hits in combat, especially from awkwardly animated melee enemies. The galactic map doesn’t tell you where you’ve already been, and where side quest you’ve accepted can be found. Character and power information is terse and vague. If an item gives me a bonus of fifteen to power cooldowns, what exactly does that mean? Fifteen seconds less? Fifteen percent? Does it stack with similar effects? It’s a mystery. 

Finally the equipment interface is clunky. Equipping your team is a real chore, one that would have been largely removed with a drag-and-drop paper doll interface. It’s still a significant improvement from the original console interface but could have been better implemented. Other PC specific upgrades, like hotkeys for player and squad-mate powers, are more effective.

Away Team

Over the course of the game Shepard assembles a small group of human and alien support characters. Two of them always accompany you in combat and they can be chatted up between missions for tidbits about the Mass Effect universe. Voice acting is well above par and everyone has a distinct personality and back-story, though as often as not it boils down to complaints about their relationship with their parents.

Krogan, like Wrex on the left here, are fiendishly tough to kill.

Your squad mates can generally hold their own in combat. There’s an interface to micromanage them, but I found it more trouble that it was worth and just let them do whatever they wanted. They’re at their best when allowed to use their special powers freely. 

I particularly enjoyed how biotic characters would yank enemies out of cover and leave them flailing helplessly in midair. There’s no damage from friendly fire, which is good because squad marksmanship is a bit less impressive. I had my aim thrown off regularly by allies shooting me in the back of the head. 

As you’ve likely gathered by now Mass Effect’s gameplay, especially its combat, is a bit uneven. Never outright broken or bad, but some elements (like biotics) work a lot better than others (enemy AI, the Mako, etc.) The greatest strength of the game comes from offering interesting, difficult choices without a clear cut answer and letting you resolve them as you see fit.

Prime Directive

Rather than the standard good/evil dichotomy Shepard’s actions are broken down a bit differently. Talking down a frightened civilian waving a gun at you is a Paragon action. Punching the man unconscious or shooting him in the hand to disarm him is a Renegade response. The Paragon and Renegade bars fill up independent of one another, unlocking new and generally beneficial dialog options as they do. 

Lets be honest. As a starship captain hitting on blue alien women is practically Shepard's job.

It’s a well handled system. Shepard never breaks character to act cartoonish evil or lawful stupid. Shepard is a military agent on a save-the-galaxy mission, not a random adventurer or mercenary, but how hard-ass, violent, or by-the-book Shepard acts is up to you. You’re also free to approach each new situation on a case by case basis. Unlike Bioware’s Old Republic games there is no penalty for acting against your dominant “alignment”.

The choices you’re called upon to make over the course of Mass Effect have real consequences, including what major characters live or die. Supposedly many of these consequences will carry over and affect the later games in the trilogy. Having only finished the first game I can’t yet judge how effective this is, but I’m looking forward to finding out. 

The dialog is snappy and the writing engaging, with bits of slightly self-aware humor when appropriate. It holds to the level of quality we’ve come to expect from Bioware. Finally there are a number of genuinely epic and memorable moments, especially towards the last few hours.

Bouncing off into the sunset.

In spite of some general gameplay and technical clunkyness Mass Effect is still able to get by and then some on the strength of its writing, its characters, and the vivid sci-fi universe it creates. The sequels supposedly tighten up many of the gameplay elements I’ve complained about, and I’m deeply interested in seeing if Bioware is able to make my decisions feel meaningful when I import my save into ME 2. I’ll let you know as soon as I finish.

Reasons to play: Galaxy spanning adventure. Biotic powers are a hoot. Game asks you do make difficult and interesting decisions. 

Reasons to pass: Dull, repetitive side quests. Moderately awkward combat. General lack of feedback. Loading elevators everywhere.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

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