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Written by  :  St. Martyne (3653)
Written on  :  Jun 16, 2008
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  2.57 Stars2.57 Stars2.57 Stars2.57 Stars2.57 Stars

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An epic adventure of the most humble proportions.

The Good

I liked Mass Effect. It’s great game packed with action, suspense, impressive visuals and quite a bundle of technological wonders, all of which I’ll try to praise to the best of my ability in the following paragraphs. The only problem I had with this game is that it failed to meet all the expectations I had for it. Or, to be more precise, the expectations I had in mind for a Bioware game.

There are plenty of things to be thrilled at in Mass Effect. Just like a previous Bioware game, Jade Empire, it is set in entirely new universe, which was created specifically for this game. And although the majority of components comprising the world of ME have been clichéd to death, the shear amount of detail and a careful attention to the actual “science” in “science fiction” is admirable. Very rarely we can enjoy a sci-fi game that actually tries to explain the inner workings of its wondrous technological future.

While not required in order to progress through the game, the in-built Codex containing the lore of ME world has clearly enjoyed a lot of effort on part of Bioware developers. Learning about the world, the customs of its inhabitants and the history of conflict between humanity and other races never get dull. And, although, this information will hardly ever come to an actual use (you don’t really have to know how the scanning equipment of your ship works) this enormous conglomerate of optional information helps to create an illusion of a huge world persisting outside your ship. The world, which is, unfortunately, not there.

However, you won’t notice that at first. Remarkable voice acting and brilliant cinematography of the game’s NPC interaction will make you believe in the characters before you and in things they say. Their actions, gestures, smiles and eye movements feel superbly natural and expressive. Even the species from other worlds have a set of facial gestures transforming the prosthetic mask into a living, breathing alien being. An effort which could’ve been undermined by amateur voice acting. Not this time, though.

Mass Effect contains some of the most brilliant video game acting ever captured on a DVD. Some notable Hollywood stars have been invited to lend their voices to generals, captains, aliens and dozens of other inhabitants of Mass Effect version of the galaxy. Specifically, I wouldn’t forgive myself if I let Jennifer Hale get away from this review without getting a special mention. Her confident and at the same time gentle acting has once again brought life and vigor to her on-monitor persona. This time it was Commander Martyne Shepard, the character I personally assumed control over. It was amazing how good her facial features (created by yours truly via game’s robust character creation utility) complimented on her voice and vice versa. In the end I have established a character, which I won’t be able to forget. What astounds me the most is that Shepard I know is totally different from what you could have come up with. This detail has provided another layer of an emotional connection to the character.

Other characters have also received additional personality treatment. Each character’s voice is characterized not only by its timbre, but by intonation, speed, simple but effective EQ effects and so on. Wry and cynic comments by Wrex, childlike awe by Tali, careful probing by Kaidan and confused arrogance by Liara. Every character is blooming with personality, thanks to ingenious acting performance.

But once they leave your ship they become little more than mindless squad members. Forget about the memorable exchanges between the characters of your party in Baldur’s Gate 2 and Knights Of The Old Republic. The occasional two lines of pointless dialog in a random elevator are all one can look forward to.

And given the game’s quality of tactical combat, I would have preferred to leave all my pals on Normandy altogether. The combat gameplay of Mass Effect bears little resemblance to either elegant brawl of the games based on Infinity engine or spectacular yet still thoughtful battles of Knights Of the Republic. But I have to admit, that gunwaving in ME is rather fun. Taking cover and shooting bastards into small pieces feels very tight, and with the additional support of biotic abilities it can provide an interesting field for experimentations. Your weapon proficiency matters a great deal, so take care while choosing your weapon, a low level in it might result in a quick and painful death. Anyway, the combat of ME is a good blend between Action and RPG with a complete failure in place of a tactical component.

The Bad

This is something I could’ve lived with; if not for other glaring flaws and mistakes Bioware had committed during the development of this game. The major flaw of ME is the lack of variety, scope and content. Everything in Mass Effect is small-sized, short and cut on expenses. Where have all the various worlds of Knights Of the Republic and Baldurs Gate 2 gone? There is only one (!) community area in Mass Effect, the Citadel. It’s impossible to believe, that this is the game made by the same people who created all those phenomenal locations from BG2: the drow city, the underwater fish city, the elven coven, various villages and huge Amn, the size of which alone equals nearly ten of ME citadels. There’s none of that in Mass Effect, there’s shortage on characters to meet, there’s a shortage on engaging side quests, there’s a shortage on dialog options, there’s a shortage on interaction with party members. The game is short of virtually everything which made past Bioware games so appealing.

But what Bioware offers us in exchange for memorable worlds and situations? Surely they must have provided something, since the game took me thirty hours to complete. Quite long for the modern age RPG actually.

They have, but I really wish they haven’t. I don’t know who had the idea, that all, yes, all the side quests (the majority of which rarely deviate from save/kill formula) must be completed in the same backgrounds, over and over again. At least all those barren planets I am asked to land on are reskinned every now and then, but the locations where the game’s side quests take place are totally indistinguishable, - bunker, warehouse, floating ship and an excavation site.

Only four three-room levels for every quest you may find in this game. It’s unbelievable. Should I remind that earlier games of this very company have featured hand-crafted environments for every room, closet and object, in a quantity that far surpass whatever Mass Effect may offer? Even Oblivion, which has been criticized for identical-looking dungeons have tried to change the layout of them, and certainly did not copied them over and over again like ME did.

The storyline planets are unique alright. As unique as you would expect four corridor shooting galleries to look. There are rarely more than two additional quests on these worlds, both of which can be completed in under five minutes and there is nothing memorable to them either.

Everything in Mass Effect has this taint of incompleteness, even the praised storyline. The characters arcs aren’t even complicated, let alone resolved. Despite having six party members, only three will actually give you quests, and all three will have no consequences on the character’s development. The main story leaves a lot to be desired too. Forget the violent plot twist of KOTOR, the personal agenda of BG2, or even the loyalty tale of Jade Empire. Saren isn’t cut to be a memorable villain and a mysterious cybernetic race threatening to wipe the whole galaxy is nothing original (I can trace it as far as Frederick Pohl, but I am no expert) either.

“But why are they doing it? Why are they destroying everything?” asks the dialog option, “Who cares? Do you want to die?” answers a superior being. So much for motivation.

Other artificial substitutions for real content which made their way into Mass Effect are: a ridiculous number of collecting mini-games to please Achievement obsessed X360 fans; funny little hacking mini-game, which is overused so many times, that it stops being funny at your first hour into the game; uncomfortable interface that makes party and item management much more painful than they have to be and general repetition in everything.

On this sad note I have only this left to say.

Let’s sum it up! ™

The Bottom Line

Talent: 4/5

Whatever Bioware does, it does it like no other can. That much is true, Mass Effect was created by a very skilled bunch of men and women. Even if they did it during the coffee break, the pure talent of those folks demands respect, which I am happy to provide.

Ambition: 3/5

The intention behind this game is a far cry from what we could read in the Baldur’s Gate 2 manual. Bioware didn’t care to deliver the ultimate role-playing experience this time around. However, their ambition was enough to make the most cinematic one.

Pteity (Pushing The Envelope - ity): 2/5

There’s really nothing new to admire in Mass Effect. The dialog system is the same we used for years, albeit a bit more fluid. But what’s point of the system if I have to endure characters repeating the same lines over and over again? If this is what people mean by “next-gen cRPG” then my generation is long gone.

Effort: 1/5

The minimal effort applied shows everywhere. Uninspired quests, lack of exploration options, a vast galaxy to investigate, yet nothing but barren rocks in it. No wonder Mass Effect is just a first game of the planned trilogy. Currently, it doesn’t have even the quarter of the content of previous Bioware titles (excluding Jade Empire, which shared the same disease).

Adequacy: 4/5

Despite couple of questionable aspects to the story, the game’s quite consistent in its presentation. The stylistic approach is maintained throughout the game at the expense of diversity. Why do every species clothe themselves in exactly the same colors and design? The characters feel extremely real though, no matter if they are blue-skinned female aliens with tentacles on their heads or a straightwalking bugs. Mostly thanks to the adequate voice acting.

Total: 2.6/5

As you can see, the problem lies not with the game’s length, but with the type and quality of content it presents. I hate to give Mass Effect such a low score, but truth of the matter is that a company of Bioware’s stature should be ashamed of releasing a game like this. With the amount of the talent the team possesses it’s unfortunate that they decided to keep things as small as possible this time around, relying more on copy/paste techniques rather than on original thinking. Why? I believe the answer is quite simple. Why bother making a full fledged game with tons of opportunities, options and possibilities, if you can recreate only the fifth part of it and put the same price tag on the box?

That makes business sense. But Bioware should take notice, because new kids have already arrived, and in the world of competition, talent is nothing without hard work to support it. Beware Bioware, you’re walking an extremely thin line here; make sure you won’t fall the victim of your own laziness.