I remember when Mass Effect was first shown, well the first time I had seen it at least. This was during X05 when Microsoft announced some exclusive titles. The teaser trailer didn’t give too much away, although being developed by Bioware who were responsible for the highly praised Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic on Xbox, it was obvious that this was going to be something special. At the time I wondered how, and if Bioware would be able to pull it off considering there was no established franchise behind the game.
After a viewing of a playable section during X06 a year later, I wasn’t overly impressed with how the game was looking. Sure the general idea was there, but to me the execution was looking somewhat sloppy; although I have to concede that a lot of games come across like this during the early stages of development.
With more media being released since then, Mass Effect has continued to gather momentum and garner much interest from gamers. Whilst Bioware have managed to release quite a lot of background info for the game, they certainly have kept a lot of elements close to their chests, and rightly so. Mass Effect is one of those epic games that seem to be sparse on Xbox 360 these days, and after playing, my head has transcended into realms of complete and utter amazement. I also have an undeniable respect for the people who created and took part in the game’s development.
I’m not going to reveal much about the story, other than what you probably already know. Mass Effect is set in the distant future, where space travel has meant the human race has been able to explore the far reaches of the galaxy. Yes, there are parallels with many other sci-fi stories that you’ll be familiar with, such as Star Trek, but the main onus here is on the execution of that ideal. You play as either a male or female Commander Shepard, who is part of the human Alliance fleet. The galaxy is rife with various species, and so humanity is not alone and is in fact part of a larger galactic coalition. During the game’s opening, as Shepard you are part of the Alliance as one of it’s best personnel, and with this lies the the opportunity to become the first human Spectre agent. As a Spectre Agent, you would be tasked with keeping law and order within the galaxy, as you would be reporting directly to the council (they oversee and govern the galactic coalition of races). Spectre agents are able to operate above and beyond the law, as long as their ideals remain true to the overall safety and protection of the galaxy.
To break down the game for you, Mass Effect is part third person action, mixed with some role playing game (RPG) elements; as in you choose a character class, gain experience for completing tasks, killing enemies, and of course level up your character by spending points gained. Where you spend the points is entirely up to the player, and of course there is an option to simply let the game auto level up your character, should you find the task a little too much for your tastes. What skills you spend your points on, are based entirely on what character class you choose during the game’s character creation process, of which there are several to choose from; with each offering a slightly different gameplay approach. Right off the bat, I am going to say that the similarities here to Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic are quite apparent.
Let me rewind a little and take a look at the game’s character creation process for a moment. I have to focus here because this is something I found to be not only very engaging, but also an important aspect of the game. Why? Well, what you are going to have to consider like it or not, is the fact that you will be seeing a lot of the character you have created, this is not merely restricted to a behind view, (as seen during combat) but also during the numerous conversations that take place within the experience. I say, gamers should think carefully about what and who they create, and whilst there are only templates for Humans only, the temptation to make some wacky looking character is present. I would say this would be a huge mistake, and one that regrettably you could not change, especially after the initial laugh has worn off. Bioware has done an awe inspiring job of conveying emotion with the characters facial expressions, and so having a wacky character is not only going to kill the mood but to a degree detract from this.
We’ve all seen the male Commander Shepard in the videos/media released, and so I tasked myself with creating a female character. I was actually quite surprised at how in depth the character creation is, considering its simplicity. You can change pretty much everything about the facial structure only. This includes things like eye spacing, jaw width, hair colour, cheekbones, nose shape and numerous other aspects. The way this is handled is using sliders to get the desired effect. Of course, for gamers who are less creative, or simply want to get stuck into the game as quickly as possible, then there is an option for a quick create using some prefix templates. Either way, in a short space of time, I was able to create a highly attractive looking female, someone I would enjoy looking at, and in retrospect I am so glad I spent those extra minutes perfecting her look. By the end of the game, I was not only in love with my character’s ideals, but the fact that she was so bold, beautiful and movie like in her appearance, that I cared for her more than any other gaming character I have encountered to date. The bonus being, that she was my creation, rather than some prefixed character.
Mass Effect is full of adventure, but things begin as you would expect (fairly basic), it really does begin to heat up after the first 3 or 4 hours play (this is also dependent on what you do). There’s a lot of scope here, and with numerous missions that are tied to the main story to complete, there’s also a ton of side missions. You really have to set yourself up and make the realization that you shouldn’t rush through the game (although you can do if you wanted to). By exploring and talking to the various inhabitants, you’ll discover a rich and detailed galaxy full of mystery, intrigue and of course those in need of your talents. Side missions vary from simple go talk to such and such person, to full exploration missions to other planets, with some spanning the entire galaxy!
Space exploration is handled very well, as you are presented with a 3D map which shows various systems of which you can zoom in and out of. There are quite a lot, with some planets being barren and non interactive, bar scanning them for resources, there are a wide number where you can actually land and explore. Each planet has a detailed description, and it’s quite impressive how the team have given the level of depth to the galaxy.
When you land on a planet, you can use a controllable vehicle to move around quickly. The vehicle is pretty stable, and with the terrain often being quite jagged and irregular, it’s amazing how your craft is able to traverse these environments with ease. Various points of interest are shown on the map, and like the rest of the game’s locales, you are able to set a waypoint marker which appears on your radar (which is permanently displayed during exploratory moments). This makes navigation so much easier, especially combined with the map which not only can be accessed at any time but shows a little more detail in where you need to go. The vehicle is also equipped with weapons should you encounter any un-friendlies, such as pirates or alien lifeforms. I found the trick with staying alive during combat using the vehicle, was to use it’s boost function to jump out of the way of incoming projectiles, especially the explosive ones! You can at any time decide to leave the vehicle and move around on foot, but due to the size of the open planets would take way too much time. When you encounter points of interest, then obviously you have to step outside to investigate. Entering buildings is one aspect where you have to leave your craft and venture into the unknown.
Mass Effect has a comprehensive combat engine in place that is not only engaging but quite intuitive as well. A brief tutorial mission at the game’s start, eases you into its nuances. Again I have to reiterate that depending on what class you chose at the start, will affect the gameplay to a degree. All characters can use guns, but obviously a Soldier class character is going to be far more proficient in their use; as opposed to an Adept who relies more on other skills. In fact, my Soldier class Shepard wasn’t able to use the more flamboyant skills such as Throw (throws objects at opponents), Lift (lifts enemies into the air) and such like. My hacking ability was also non existent, which meant I was unable to open a number of crates, and lockers that I encountered. Like the physical appearance of the character you create, I do suggest you think carefully when choosing a class.
Mass Effect’s combat allows you to lean up against solid objects for cover (a la Gears of War), and even pop out and shoot. Some cover is also destructible which works both ways, as the AI will also use cover effectively. Using the left trigger allows you to focus fire (with a slight zoom depending on the weapon used). I found the basic level of the combat to be of a high standard, and I really did notice that my weapons improved greatly as I leveled up the relevant skills.
Another aspect of the combat, and in fact a huge factor of the game is the squad element. During your adventure, and quite early on in the game, you will meet characters that will join you on your adventure. There are six characters, of which you can have two of them join your party when you start exploring. They are weird and wonderful bunch of humans, aliens and each have their own skills to utilize during combat situations; as well as deep back stories which you can delve into during your moments on board the Normandy (your space craft). In the options you can set it, so they use their abilities on the fly, but for the hardcore adventurer who wants full control, you can set it so that it’s you that gives them the commands. This is handled using a simple menu which pauses the game and allows you to select what skills they should use and what target they should use them on. It’s pretty intuitive and what’s more, you are also able to select what weapons they use at any given time with another similar menu. You might feel that the pausing of the action is intrusive, but I felt that it was necessary.
You also have some more conventional squad commands at your disposal, such as ordering team mates to a certain position, firing on a specific target or holding ground. This aspect is standard fare, but does allow for some rather neat flanking tactics. You could quite easily ignore the squad control aspect of the game, but I would say it’s worth getting to grips with because at some points you are going to need every advantage you can get, especially during boss encounters – and when playing on the harder difficulties. The AI of your team is generally very good, although some problems do occur, especially when they start firing at solid objects due to an enemy hiding behind cover. Rather than stop firing and moving to get a clear line of sight, they will continually fire, which does seem a little odd. They also do this occasionally when a target is above you in some other room, and there’s actually no clear view of them.
Mass Effect allows you to customize not only your Commander Shepard, but also the rest of the team. This is also not limited to weapons, weapons upgrades and armor, but you can develop their leveling up process as well. Again, for those of you wishing to just focus on Shepard, then there is a quick auto level up you can use for your companions. There are quite a number of different armor/weapons sets to use, and you’ll probably find that towards the middle of the game you’ll have reached your 150 item carrying limit. The onus here is to either sell stuff that is not needed, or convert it into useful Omni Gel (useful for bypassing electronics should you mess up the manual override mini game). The game does warn you prior to reaching your limit, and so I found it best to get rid of the junk as soon as you can before you have to convert stuff that you actually wanted to keep. Sadly you cannot store items in lockers, but I guess there really is no reason to hang onto stuff that you aren’t going to be using; and if you really want to store stuff, then you can sell items and buy them back, but obviously you’ll lose money this way. If you leave things to build up too much, then the cumbersome process of converting items into Omni Gel is a tedious exercise at best.
Another aspect of the gameplay are the numerous conversations you get into with various characters, both in your party and otherwise. The fact that you choose an emotional response using a simple interface which gives options as if it’s what you are thinking, rather than what you would say. It works really well, and sometimes the outcome (should you choose) can be very definitive. In fact there are numerous occasions where you will have to make some tough choices, and depending on what sort of character you are playing as, there are the good and bad sides to every conversation. You can be an ass, or overly aggressive for which you receive renegade points for. Or you can be a more reasonable diplomatic person of which you receive Paragon points. I’m not 100% sure, but I believe that whether you are affiliated more with the Paragon side of things, or Renegade has some bearing on how the end of the story pans out. What is more, for the impatient, you can actually interrupt or skip conversations, although I don’t recommend this other than when you hear a character saying the same stuff again. It does seem like some characters are more fleshed out than others, and sadly we don’t have a similar character like the charismatic and humorous HK-47 droid from the Knights of the Old Republic games. In fact there is a high level of seriousness to the game’s characters with very few moments that will make you laugh.
From the offset I have to say that to get the best out of the game’s graphics, TURN OFF THE FILM GRAIN IN THE OPTIONS (sorry for the all caps – Ed). Whilst Bioware have created a very movie like experience, the grain makes things look a little too fuzzy. I also turned off the motion blur; these are optional and can be toggled at any time. I guess what ever suits you, but for me anyways, having these off, heightened the experience more than having them on.
Graphically Mass Effect comes in two forms. There’s the high level of detail during conversation or when observing character animation, and then there’s the environments. There is a lot of variety to the environments and interior locations throughout your adventure, although some times there is an element of blandness. However, on the other side of the coin, there are some moments that will leave you breathless (kind of). I was impressed with how much variety there was to the locales, and I think the team have done a grand job of conveying various planetary terrain. There’s some impressive lighting, and perhaps some not so impressive real time blocky shadowing, which became noticeable during close ups of the characters. However, maybe I am being a little too picky here because I can’t really fault the characterization and animation at all.
As I said earlier, I created an attractive female character, and her beauty of character became more apparent as I played. Physically I could see her every emotion as the animators have made probably the most realistic characters in any video game to date. Anger, awe, love, surprise, respect, defiance are all conveyed perfectly with facial expressions that sometimes look spookily too real to be a video game. Things like having a characters eyes dance around as if studying a face during conversation, really adds to the realism (compared to blank stares we are all used to). A raised eye brow, or even a slight difference in eyelids covering the eyes when squinting are all featured; heck, they have even included wrinkles on the face when the character is surprised or frowning. It’s all very subtle, but at the same time, you’ll notice that it brings the characters to life in such a way that it really does feel like you are watching a movie. My interaction with the female love interest in the game was spectacular, as somehow I could really see my female Shepard look at her with such devotion and care. This in fact made the much touted, lesbian sex scene even more beautiful. Again I have to commend the script writers and the animators here, because the fact that the moment, whilst brief, is actually an amazing and tender moment between two gaming characters – something that hasn’t been conveyed that well before in video games. It wasn’t cheesy or crude, and I was left really feeling the moment for how it was, considering how it built up during the story. The animation of movement in general is also of a high standard and I was impressed by how my character simply shifted about when standing still in the many lifts you ride during exploration. The alien species are also animated extremely well, and whilst it’s harder to convey emotion with the not so human looking aliens, Bioware’s animators have still done a grand job. I just have to say the Krogans are an amazing accomplishment.
There’s only one thing that really puts a spanner in the works in terms of the graphics, and that is the texture loading, which happens quite often. You’ll often see the detail load after the view has switched, and this is distracting but I kind of got used to it. Perhaps clearing the cache on the hard drive would improve the problem, but I guess the overall level of polish really made me forget about such a potentially niggling technical flaw.
Bioware have enlisted some great voice over artists, many of which are well known from TV and film. All characters are well voiced, and sound utterly convincing. Obviously not every character can have a unique voice, and so you’ll hear some repeats from time to time. The leading character Shepard (female version) is voiced very well, and conveys a character that is overflowing with personality, full of conviction by being bold and charismatic all the way through the experience. The music is typically sci-fi, and is full of electronic ambient sounds. It helps with the atmosphere, and seems to up the ante when the action heats up. Like the voice overs, the music is well produced and simply fits with the nature of the game. Other sound effects are as you would expect, like explosions and various weapons sounds which come in various forms depending on what guns, ammo combinations you use.
I logged in just over 22 hours of playtime to complete the main story and a number of side missions. However, I did have quite a number of side missions left, and I did not explore every inch of the galaxy. The difficulty also plays a big part in how easily the game is completed, I found the default regular difficulty to perhaps be a little on the easy side. For gamers wishing to prolong that first play-through, I would highly recommend starting off using the Veteran difficulty. When the game is completed you have additional difficulties to try your hand at. Enemies will level up as you do to keep things balanced, and on the toughest settings will actually gain immunities to some of your attacks
Mass Effect is a game that is full of options, and as I said earlier, your character class has a bearing on the gameplay, as does whether you play as a good or bad character. There are also differing interactions depending on whether you are a male or female Shepard, and of course you will get further insight into your team mates depending on who you have in your party whilst out in the field. There’s certainly a lot of replay value here, as the game provides enough scope to warrant multiple plays. You’ll also get specific achievements based on how many times you beat the game.
In this day and age of short but sweet gaming experiences, I found that despite being a longer game than many, Mass Effect remained a compelling experience from start to finish. Sure you’ll, find that there is some repetition, as there is with all games, but in general the overall gameplay is well worth the ride and good value for money.
With so many games that repeat the same old formula time and time again, it’s a breath of fresh air to find a game that does not necessarily break the mold in terms of gameplay, but offers an unparalleled adventure experience on Xbox 360. It’s easy to be overly critical of the game’s flaws (of which there are some), but I genuinely feel the good outweighs the bad, ten fold. For gamers who are after an all out action experience a la Gears of War, they might feel a little disappointed due to the heavy story based aspect of the game. Sure, the game caters for action fans to a degree with it’s real time combat and squad element, but for those who lack attention spans beyond killing things, are going to have to wade through a lot of stuff they might not be so keen on. For adventure gamers who like a little more depth to their gaming experiences, I think Mass Effect certainly delivers. There is quite a bit of simplicity here, but I think for the most part it works very well in the most uncomplicated of manners. Fans of the Knights of the Republic games will be pleased at how Mass Effect has taken elements from the series and utilized them for a more rounded experience even though some elements of the game are absent in Mass Effect.
I have had an excellent play time with Mass Effect thus far, and although the basic plot of the game’s story is somewhat cliche for sci-fi, it’s the execution that really has to be commended. As a gamer playing the game, I have been engrossed, entertained, thrilled and have really felt the vision Bioware created. Mass Effect is most certainly an outstanding piece of art and a testament to the great talents of the development team. It’s also a testament to the advances developers have made in producing games that project a very cinematic experience. My only main gripe other than those mentioned earlier, is the fact that once the game ends, there is not very much explanation of the characters you have cared for so dearly throughout the extravaganza. Some sort of closure would have helped greatly, even if this was in simple text. I have played so many games now in my life, that it’s easy to not be bowled over by games; but Mass Effect has certainly offered me a gaming experience that I will not forget. I am just glad that I’ve been able to devote some solid time playing the game and now look forward to Mass Effect 2 which the ending most certainly hints at. Perhaps we’ll see some fresh downloadable content at some point. I feel that Mass Effect has delivered an exceptional gaming experience, and whilst it’s not perfect, sometimes you just have to give a game credit where it is due; especially in light of the sea of mediocre games we have on any system during its life cycle. I find a 10/10 score to be well justified, and well deserved for this game.