Fantastic and Disappointing Space Opera
Mass Effect really propels certain elements of the Action-RPG to new heights. First off, the ability to create an avatar of either sex and any facial type and ethnicity is a welcome ability. Too many games make you play as the same old chiseled/effeminate white dude. Any variety is a very good thing.
The conversation aspects of the game couldn’t be discussed without talking about the plot and voice acting, so let me address all of them at once. This game is based around talking; the combat is really just a way to get to the next conversation, but these are conversations which I love, and couldn’t be happier with. Unlike most Western RPGs that involve a customizable main character, your hero will speak every line of dialogue (there are two voices for your character, one male, one female).
As is often the case with Bioware, the main character and the other characters are all well acted. The dialogue is pretty good, for the most part, and even minor characters have well thought out lines of dialogue, delivered with care. The thing that really sets all this apart from other RPGs is how you conduct conversations. Instead of dialogue trees, you have a wheel. Instead of full sentences, you have the gist of the intended remark. Select the appropriate part of the wheel (maybe it says “no way”) and you character will say “Absolutely not, there has to be another way.”
Luckily, the facial animations in-game are up to the task of conveying emotion, and every conversation has camera angles like those in a movie. You’ll want to listen to every line of dialogue. The plot of Mass Effect is satisfying, and once it gets going, you’ll be drawn into this new world that Bioware has created. You can act in both self-sacrificing (“paragon”) or reckless (“renegade”) ways, and both provide interesting results. This time around, they don’t have to Star Wars license to help support their game, but with th next game in the series, I can see the world of Mass Effect becoming more and more compelling.
As far as exploration and combat goes, I enjoyed the combat, leveling and “magic” (biotics) elements. There are plenty of ways to develop your three character party, and 6 characters to choose for each mission (along with your own character, Commander Shepard). Combat is difficult at first, but you quickly get used to it. It may not have to slick feel of Drake’s Fortune, but it serves the story section of the game well enough.
Again, the plotline of Mass Effect is extremely intriguing, and the fact that your character is always working to save the galaxy makes the game intriguing. You might be committing murders and other horrible acts, but your character will always feel that their actions are necessary. Controlling a dangerous, violent, short-fused vigilante is invigorating and terrifying. You’ll be surprised and frightened as your avatar calmly explains how she had to kill those innocent people. She’s saving the galaxy, after all.
The problem is, you’ll see how she could be right, every time. From a technical standpoint, Mass Effect succeeds and fails. The characters look amazing, the effects are pretty, and the world is fully realized and very detailed. This is a new world, a new galaxy, and you won’t have a problem believing in it.
When I said that the combat was enjoyable, I didn’t mean it was great, just that I tolerated it in my odd way. Some parts of combat feel awkward (sniping!), and your teammates are pretty stupid. Why even bother with squad control if it doesn’t help in any way? Your teammates provide gunfire, healing and some biotic attacks, but they never rise past the level of barely adequate.
Even worse, Mass Effect “boasts” an entire galaxy to explore. Sadly, each system has maybe 3 or 4 planets that can actually be landed on. The rest are either blank (save a text description) or “scannable.” Most scans lead to the exciting discovery of different ores, gases or minerals. Wonderful.
Planetside, the average planet looks like a Brice 3D creation. No foliage, no rivers, no animals, nothing. You’ll pilot your space buggy (which is actually fun) to various locations, most of which provide you with anomalies or crashed space probes… for you to scan. From time to time, you’ll be ambushed by Geth (hive mind AI robots), giant underground worms, or space pirates, but for the most part, planets are very boring.
True, the game provides you with many side quests, mostly involving mining facilities, abandoned spacecraft, or science facilities, but each of these interiors looks the same, with only a few different enemies. Boredom eventually sets in. Finally, the inventory system could use some work. You’ll pick up a lot of weapons and items from enemies, but you do this automatically. Yes, you can break unwanted items into omni-gel (which allows you to hack items), but eventually this process will annoy you.
As I mentioned before, the graphics aren’t up to everything Mass Effect demands of them. Pretty they may be, but there are hideous (and slow) draw-ins when you enter a level. There are also elevators that take 3 to 4 minutes to get to their destination. Excuse me? Just give me a loading screen.
The Bottom Line
Mass Effect is hugely flawed. It has egregious load times, hugely boring planet exploration, and an infuriating inventory system. Yet at the same time, I have never been so invested in the outcome of a game. It also made me feel more strongly about my own decisions than any other game ever has. The characters in this game are so real (special thanks go to Keith David, who voices Captain Anderson), and your own character’s reaction to them is so believable, you won’t want to stop playing. Plus, the decisions Bioware asks you to make become meaningful and scary, quickly. Like I said before, this game gives you tough decisions, and shows you the brutal consequences of every single decision. Have fun saving the galaxy.