Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Computer Game Review: Mass Effect

Mass Effect was the best computer game RPG I have ever played. It had its flaws, but I happily overlooked them and enjoyed the story, the world, and the characters from the beginning to the epic finale.
First off, Mass Effect was made by Bioware, the superstars of computer RPGs. Their past titles, like Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic set the bar very high and were known for giving players a several ways to overcome every challenge, epic plotlines, great writing and memorable NPCs. In my opinion, Mass Effect surpasses all of those previous Bioware titles.

Mass Effect is set in its own universe, and the writers did a marvelous job filling out this world and making it every bit as immersive as the Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons properties that Bioware has worked with in the past. The game includes an in-game Codex that fills up as you play with interesting facts about the planets, races, monsters, factions, and technology you come across.

If I had to pick a favorite thing about Mass Effect, it would be the NPCs. As much as I loved seeing the cool settings and playing through the interesting and thought-provoking missions, hanging out with some of the coolest characters I've ever seen in a video game definitely made every part of the game even better.

I totally dug Garrus Vakarian, the turian renegade cop who quits the force to go after the game's bad guy, another turian named Saren.

I have to confess I developed quite a crush onTali'Zora nar Rayya, the quarian mechanic on a pilgrimage to find things to bring back to her people's fleet of aging starships.

But of course my favorite NPC was the krogan Battlemaster, Urdnot Wrex. The ancient, battle-scarred warrior is every bit as badass as he looks. His gruff exterior hides that he's genuinely worried about the krogan race, which is infected with a virus that has cut their fertility rate so badly that they're all dying out. It doesn't help that he often finds himself going up against other krogans, further lowering the numbers of his already endangered race.

I'll try not to say too much about the NPCs, because getting to know them is one of the coolest things about the game.

The main plot is suitably epic, and really hits the ground running. You don't waste any time killing rats and beetles in Mass Effect. The first enemies you fight are the minions of the main bad guy, Saren.

Saren is a Spectre, an agent of the Citadel Council who has special permissions to operate outside the bounds of ordinary justice. His motivations are mysterious, but his main goal is no big shocker: he wants to wipe out all life in the universe. And guess who gets to stop him?

As the player, you take the role of Commander Shepard. You can choose a first name for Shepard when you create the character, but everyone just refers to you as Commander and/or Shepard. You can choose to play as a male or female Shepard, and you also choose his or her appearance. I played as a male Shepard, so I'll refer to Shepard as "he." You also choose a role for Shepard, who can focus on firepower, technological attacks, or biotic powers (think of biotics as Mass Effect's version of the Force). You may choose to focus on two of these areas instead of just one, so I took a firepower/technological blend.

Your other choice with Shepard is to go either Paragon, Renegade, or a mixture of both. Unlike the normal good/bad choices that most RPGs offer, in which you can choose to either lie, steal, and kill your way through the plot or to stop and save every lost child and sick puppy you come across, Mass Effect gives you two ways to achieve the same goals: you can either go in guns blazing as a Renegade, sometimes sacrificing civilians to get the job done, or you can take the more careful approach of the Paragon, going out of your way to make sure only the bad guys get hurt. I appreciated that the game doesn't try to trick you about which choices are Paragon and which are Renegade.

To me, one of the best moments in Mass Effect was when I had the ability to choose, about halfway through a game, to either kill an NPC or allow it to live. I won't say any more, but even though I was playing a Paragon, I had a very hard time convincing myself to make the Paragon choice. It's when a game can make you pause and grapple with a decision that you know you're playing something golden.

That's not to say that the Paragon/Renegade system always works perfectly. A lot of times, the only difference between a Paragon and a Renegade is that the Paragon avoids civilian casualties, while the Renegade does not. This can be as simple as avoiding having civilians wander into the crossfire in a gunfight.

Soon after Shepard starts chasing after Saren, the Citadel Council makes him the first human Spectre. This allows you to choose your team and fly off in your new spaceship, the Normandy. Even though the Normandy's only purpose in the game is to ferry you from one quest to the next, I loved being able to run around inside my ship between missions, talking to NPCs and party members, and exploring my ship (which just happens to be the best ship in the human fleet).

After playing some  Fallout 3, it felt great to play a game where I did not have to worry about stocking up on ammo or repairing my gear. In Mass Effect, all weapons have unlimited ammo, but overheat if you fire too quickly. Also, weapons and armor do not degrade and never have to be repaired

One thing I could have done without, though, was the unnecessarily complicated inventory system (which I hear has been improved in the sequel). All weapons have many levels. The only thing this accomplishes is to ensure the you routinely need to switch out your weapon for another weapon of the same model but a better level. You also have to stick in upgrades to your weapons and armor, giving you extra damage or effects. Like the weapons, the individual upgrades also have levels, so you'll be switching them out throughout the game.

Another time-consuming aspect of the game is the amount of time you spend getting from place to place. This was my biggest gripe about the game. Almost every planet you land on is extremely mountainous, and you drive your all-terrain vehicle, known as the Mako, over endless hills and mountains to get from where you landed to where your mission is. This might not be so bad if there was more scenery along the way, but for the most part you don't even get trees or lakes to drive past.

Worse, if you come across some bad guys, you'll probably want to jump out and kill them on foot, because using the Mako's powerful guns to kill bad guys yields significantly fewer experience points than killing them on foot. This leads to the immersion-breaking realization that you can whittle down a big opponent's hit points with the Mako's guns, then jump out and finish it off with your regular weapons for the larger share of experience points.

The only point to driving from your landing point to your mission is that you sometimes come across a deposit of ore or a crashed probe or something. These do one of two things: give you items and experience, or give you money and experience. Helpful, but not worth boring, bumping driving to get to.

Whenever you interface with a rock deposit, crashed probe, beacon, locked box, or encrypted computer, you'll play a mini-game I think of as "circular Frogger." It's pretty intuitive and easy to get good at, and as far as hacking/lockpicking mini-games go, I actually quite liked it.

I'm sure I've left out some other things I should say, but this review is long enough now. I hope that those of you who haven't already played this excellent game will check it out. I, for one, have started a second play-through, this time as a female Shepard who will be going Renegade. I also look forward to importing my first Shepard into Mass Effect 2 as soon as I buy it. And Mass Effect 3 is coming out soon, too!

So, I'll end with this:


No comments: