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SummaryHardly massive, but somehow effective
The GoodI've been a fan of BioWare ever since they entered the RPG stage with the legendary Baldur's Gate. Needless to say I was very excited when I heard about Mass Effect, ready to trust the crafty Canadians even after a few hiccups. I grabbed the game immediately. I played it non-stop, having some of the longest gaming sessions in recent times. And, even though it managed to confirm some of my darkest suspicions concerning BioWare's new design philosophy, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it.
For me, one of the defining factors of enjoying a video game is its personality. Games are more than just code. Developers often put a great deal of themselves into the games they make. They treat games as their creations, almost like their children. It was obvious to me that the developers of Mass Effect treated it just that way. It is a game with a lot of charisma, ranging from cheap bravado to serious cinematic appeal; it cleverly cheats its way out of situations another game would surrender and collapse in.
Some people see the new combat system as a drawback. I think they did their best, given the impossible task of combining fast-paced shooting with party management and role-playing. In any case, this is a definite improvement over the paltry choices of Jade Empire. You have a fully controllable party, plenty of weapons, armor, upgrades, etc. It is in many ways similar to Knights of the Old Republic. With a press of a button, you can tell your companions to move forward, target the same enemy as you, take cover, etc. If you pause the game, you can give them specific instructions: use a power, change a weapon, and so on. You can set them completely on AI, allowing them to use their powers at will and concentrating entirely on controlling the main character. The twists is, of course, that your protagonist still has to aim and shoot in real time.
The game thus combines tactical approach to battles with adrenaline-raising gunfights. Sure, the team AI and particularly pathfinding could be improved somewhat, but overall the system works really well, making the battles fun all the way through. The added nuances are indeed refreshing. Taking cover, throwing grenades, paying attention to weapon overheat, crouching, aiming - all those physical activities are satisfying. Just don't play the game on the easy difficulty setting to truly appreciate it.
A nice gameplay feature is the ability to navigate a "mako", an armored vehicle with guns, through the outdoor areas of most planets. The weapons mounted on the mako are very powerful, and it's fun to use them in combat against the many enemy ambushes you'll encounter on your way. There are many planets you can simply go to and drive around in your mako. You cannot land on all of them, but there are still enough left to explore and to look for side quests. In comparison, Knights of the Old Republic games didn't allow you to go to any planets but those that were required to visit in order to complete the main quest.
Thankfully, many standard RPG elements are still present in the game. The three character classes of roughly correspond to the traditional fighter, thief, and magician. Soldiers are pure firepower and nothing else; technically oriented characters can hack into electrical devices, crack open locked crates, etc.; finally, some of the characters have "biotic" powers, with all kinds of interesting supporting and weakening spells. Some of the party members specialize entirely in one of those areas; others can be moderately good at two of them. Having a balanced party, experimenting with party members, investing experience points into their (and your own) talents, testing out newly acquired powers, upgrading weapons and armor with all kinds of cool enhancements is a must if you accept the challenge of higher difficulty settings.
Just like in Oblivion, you can physically create your character in Mass Effect. You can shape the face of the character in a meticulously detailed way, changing his or her nose, cheekbones, eyebrows, etc., not just choosing a portrait from several available ones. This character (always called "Commander Shepard", no matter the first name you choose or the gender) is also fully voiced throughout the game. You can choose a background story for Shepard, and unlike many other RPGs, it is actually referred to in the main story. During the conversations, you'll always have different responses at your disposal. While some of them are merely cosmetic, leading to the same outcome, many others affect the events that will take place afterwards.
Many of the things you say, many of the decisions you take will leave their mark on the game's story. Some of those decisions are tough and go beyond being nice or rude to someone. At one point of the game, you'll have an opportunity to commit a genocide against a race that is perceived as incurably violent by nearly everyone. However, the representative of the race promises you that they have learned their lesson and will never attack anyone again. Will you risk putting peace and safety in the galaxy in danger, or will you exterminate an entire race of living creatures? The choice is yours. At another point, you'll have to take a life and death decision concerning two of your party members. You won't be able to rescue them both, but you will be able to choose whose life you'll save. Which one will it be? The choice is yours.
Keeping a well-known BioWare tradition intact, Mass Effect pays a lot of attention to companions. Each party member comes with sharply defined backgrounds, personalities, opinions, etc. Very often party members will interfere in your dialogues, agreeing or disagreeing, stating their opinions, giving you advice. Sometimes I wanted to replay an entire location just because I was interested what other party members would say about what I did. Companions will comment on situations, talk to each other, and generally will always be present. After each major quest, more conversation topics will be open for you with each companion. You can take your time and get to know them all, find out more about their past, their opinions, their personality. And of course, what would a BioWare RPG be without romance? As a male Shepard, you can have love affairs with two female members of your party; as a female Shepard, you can romance a male human soldier, and a sexy female human-like alien. And oh, naturally there is the famous lesbian sex scene that caused so much controversy...
Mass Effect has very good writing. Most BioWare games shine in this department, and this is certainly no exception. The writing is fluent and natural, it never gets awkward or too sophisticated, but also never oversimplifies things. Many of the dialogues have that particular fine sense of humor those games are known for. What makes the dialogues truly exceptional, however, is the stellar voice acting. Mass Effect shows how much good voice acting adds to a game, how it strengthens the dialogues and gives them more depth. Another thing that stands out is the facial expression of the characters. I've never seen a game with more lifelike characters than Mass Effect. This also adds a lot of realism to the conversations, making the game a real movie-like experience.
However, what I liked most about Mass Effect is its ability to create a new world from scratch and immerse the player into it. In that respect, it is like a good sci-fi book, the first part of a series set in an original universe that compels you to get the sequels and have the entire collection. Even though the setting of the game is a rather standard sci-fi, complete with spaceships, different alien races, advanced robotic creatures etc., the developers brought it to life thanks to their dedication. They have created a whole universe in Mass Effect, and that universe became the undisputed star of the nascent franchise and the main justification for its existence.
Though a lot of its themes were hastily taken from various works of American science fiction literature, Mass Effect does manage to combine popular sci-fi tropes with interesting nearly-philosophical speculations and convincing depiction of a vast alien world. It almost makes the universe of Star Wars feel superficial and lacking detail. While in Star Wars there are all kinds of alien races, we never really learn much about them. They are all just aliens, weird or funny creatures. In Mass Effect, every race is described in detail, having its own characteristics, history, social system, customs, values, etc. I've rarely seen alien races so vividly portrayed, so interesting and memorable - surely not since Star Control II a while ago. It's a pleasure to just read the in-game "codex" - information about races, locations, scientific terms, and history of the game's universe. In Mass Effect they have created a setting that could serve as a great background for many stories.
The BadThere is no way around the fact that BioWare is getting lazy, and unfortunately Mass Effect displays clear symptoms of that disease. The biggest drawback is probably the size of the game's locations. I know it probably sounds strange, since there are all those planets you can explore, but the problem is that the planets themselves only offer a very small area for exploration. Same applies to the planets you have to visit as part of the main quest progression: they all consist of a small settlement, that is typically connected by a strictly linear route (on which you drive the mako) to a dungeon-like location.
What I personally missed most of all in Mass Effect are all those large urban locations from other RPGs, in which you can talk to hundreds of NPCs and undertake many side quests. The locations in the game are severely under-populated. While some characters offer extensive conversation trees, often with interesting personal questions and alike, others either blurt out short, simple lines, or won't talk to you at all. I like the feeling of being lost in a huge, bustling city, exploring it, listening to the latest gossip, talking to everyone, and interfering myself in the local matters. Alas, Mass Effect doesn't really have that. The only location that comes close to that is the Citadel, the main "hub" of the game.
This lack of population and activity probably harms Mass Effect more than it would many other games. The game is set in a very detailed universe, with many distinct alien races and cultures. How exciting would it be, for example, to visit a Turian megalopolis, or a beautiful Asari city! Sadly, there is nothing of that sort in the game. The planets that you can land on are for the most part colonies, with ugly-looking settlements and nothing more. Mass Effect is not very pleasing aesthetically. There is hardly a location that would stun you with its beauty. It is always the same unexciting architecture all over again. Even the dungeons look very similar to each other. There is a certain lack of life in the game's locations, which is even more noticeable when compared to the outstanding liveliness of the characters.
The side quests of Mass Effect are surprisingly uninspired. We are not talking S.T.A.L.K.E.R. here, but compared to previous BioWare games, this offering is less than satisfying in that aspect. The few interesting side quests are quickly dissolved into the many similar "go there, kill everyone, come back, get the reward" assignments. Granted, there are many side quests in the game, since there are so many locations. Unfortunately, the quantity hasn't really translated into quality here.
The paragon-renegade moral system sounds good on paper, more like a law-chaos axis than a good-evil one, like in Shin Megami Tensei. But in reality, the system is nearly always used for plain old good and evil decisions rather than lawful and chaotic ones. Sure, in some instances the game does use its system properly (like whether to report everything to the Council in a paragon fashion or just do your thing on your own, renegade-wise), but many other choices are just standard black and white decisions, much like Jedi and Sith in Knights of the Old Republic games. For example, exterminating a race for the safety of the galaxy is actually a pretty paragon (lawful) decision, while letting it develop, with unforeseen consequences, is much more chaotic (renegade). Yet you score paragon points for sparing the race, because it would be the morally good thing to do. The Council - the very incarnation of the paragon system - actually reprimands you for doing that! Which is another proof that something went wrong with implementing this system.
A minor annoyance for me was the fact that most of Shepard's responses didn't correspond to the conversation choices that were presented to me. Often I would choose a response only to have Shepard say something quite different from what I intended. Sometimes Shepard would change the tone of the conversation without me actually wanting that. That makes it pretty hard to make choices during dialogues. Also, some of the choices suspiciously lead to the exactly same answer, adding to confusion and making me wonder why they were made available in the first place.