Monday, March 15, 2010

Mass Effect Review

For a description of the BofHam review system, please click here.

What can be written about the original Mass Effect that hasn't been stated elsewhere already? The engine isn't quite up to the aspirations of its developers, the interactive dialogue is a revolution for the RPG genre, the gameplay is addicting, and the story strong. By all accounts, Mass Effect 2 has remedied the short-comings of the original and improved on its strengths. Bag of Hammers will give Mass Effect 2 its review in due course, once the hype and flash have settled with time. For ME1 however, that time is now.

Saren: cooler than Darth Maul?

STORY: 5/5

Mass Effect has a great story, crammed with the attention to detail that signifies a true labor of love. The story makes sense, the characters' motivations are believable, and there is a genuine sense of gravitas to the epic presentation. Saren is a wonderful villain, oozing steely resolve instead of maniacal evil. The crew members of the Normandy are nuanced and so convincingly voiced that even the most two-dimensional of them overcome their archetypes. Granted, the romantic subplots are more about getting frisky than true emotional resonance but, given the consumer demographics, it's hard to fault Bioware with knowing their audience. (They even poke fun at this with some meta-dialogue delivered by Ashley on Noveria.)

She's not going to get pissed if you call her pointless.

While much has been made of the interactive dialogue system, multiple play-throughs suggest that its impact on the game is far more limited than the well-crafted dialogue trees would lead you to believe. (The scenes where dialogue can actually affect outcomes beyond your renegade/paragon alignment are amazing and hint at the future of the role playing genre.) But even without the weight of Wrex's life (or Shepard's sex life) hanging in the balance, the smooth flow of the branching dialogue helps you identify with your Shepard and get sucked even further into the narrative.

The backbone of ME's gameplay hinges on a stop-and-pop style of third-person shooter which it happily nails. It is easy to control, smooth to execute, and totally addicting. I'm reminded of Bungie's famous '30 seconds of fun' mantra when playing ME for they have nailed the core mechanic and are content with looping it ad nauseum to move you through the story. The enemy AI is strong, making for some truly harrowing firefights on the higher difficulty levels. And there is surprisingly deep strategy in this shooter gameplay. You can direct your squadmates to flank enemies, you can strategize on the right gun for the engagement, and you need to understand which biotic or tech powers are needed to dispatch the threat quickly and efficiently. None of the enemies in ME are push-overs and yet none are unbeatable. Recognizing and executing the best strategy to take down a ten foot tall Geth Prime or a Krogan Warloard is an incredibly rewarding experience.

But there is another part of the ME gameplay experience which falls short of excellence. The Mako vehicle is so close to being right that it makes its failure all the more bitter. On flat surfaces or ones with minor bumps, the Mako feels true. It animates with a beautiful sense of realism and weight with flawlessly synchronized sound effects. Firing its weapons is smooth and easy to control and, in the rare instance where your environment allows, you really feel like you're controlling a nimble but powerful piece of machinery. But once the Mako gets on more rugged terrain, the entire experience falls apart. Driving in a straight line becomes almost impossible and aiming an unhappy chore. And don't even get me started on trying to access those mineral deposits located way up on some craggy rock face.

Close but no cigar.

I can understand the trade-off Bioware dealt with when deciding to include the Mako in Mass Effect. Wide-open planets to explore certainly add to the immensity of ME's galaxy. (Some of these planets are hauntingly beautiful.) And adding variety to the addicting but repetitive stop-and-pop is certainly a wise move. But the more serious you get in exploring these worlds, the more frustrating the gameplay becomes and the less inclined you are to find every last collectible in the galaxy. Ultimately, the inclusion of these segments winds up marring the otherwise wonderful gameplay experience.

Mass Effect is a great game. It jumps headlong into the dorkiest end of the pool (science fiction videogames) and winds up telling a powerful story with surprisingly deep characters. Aside from some Mako trouble, it controls like a dream and boasts some genuine strategy below its 3rd person shooter exterior. It is a must-play for any RPG fan, sci fi fan, or blue alien babe fan.

No comments:

Post a Comment