Summary: BioWare's hit RPG shooter for the Xbox 360 has finally found its way to the PC. In this article Brett takes a look at the game and finds it offers a mixed experience.
Much of the story concerns humanity's attempts to deal with aliens who don't trust how quickly mankind has reached the stars (Star Trek: Enterprise). One of the big threats is posed by the Geth, a race of Cylon-like sentient machines who expelled their creators centuries ago and forced them into exile on a ragtag fleet (Battlestar Galactica). And the main mystery involves the Protheans, a vanished ancient civilization whose artifacts serve as the foundation for the technological revolution that hurled humanity to the stars (Frederik Pohl's Heechee, anyone?), and their vaguely Borg-like, civilization-killing machine adversaries, the Reapers (Star Trek: The Next Generation).
But I can't complain about all of this obvious ripping off because the end result is so well pulled together. The scope of the game is incredible. Even if most of your adventures are linear, the idea of being able to cruise around the galaxy in command of a starship on a grand quest is pretty intoxicating. Shepherd is a believable protagonist, if a bit of a cipher because the creators likely wanted to leave some of his character open so that players could project themselves into his space-boots.
All of the dialogue is brilliant. I've never enjoyed a talky game so much, likely because of the way that conversations were broken down into snappy, cinematic sentences. Acting is equally top-notch, save for the flat Seth Green, who once more proves as helmsman Joker that Robot Chicken will forever be the height of his achievements as a thespian.
Background details are also incredible. Shepherd can examine objects spread all over the galaxy and pick up additional information on alien species, galactic history, weapons and other tech, and planets that wind up stored in a menu-screen codex that soon evolves into a veritable Mass Effect encyclopedia. All of these fine details don't mean a great deal when you're running around performing quests, although they add XP and provide enough information to make it seem like you've stepped into a living universe with real history and depth.
It's just a shame about the gameplay. Mass Effect isn't as much of a next-gen console RPG as it is a revamped take on the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) games with extra shooting. The end result is an RPG/Shooter hybrid that leans a little more to the latter than the former.
Character creation is more involved than usual for this sort of game, however. You can change Shepherd's sex, first name, and face. You can mess around with his background by choosing from one of four sci-fi stereotypes (you're basically either a hero with a tragic background, a hero known for an incredible exploit, or a colonist with deep-space in his or her blood). You can choose one of six classes that let you specialize in various types of combat, tech, and biotics (biomechanical augments that allow players to use Mass Effect technology to fire off what amount to high-tech magic spells). You can add skill points to a wide range of talents every time that you level up, altering everything from how well you fire pistols and shotguns to how well you utilize special abilities such as the biotic Throw or Warp.
All of these offered alterations to Shepherd's background and class don't afford the game a lot of replay value, however. The six classes are all fairly similar variations on a couple of solider and mage archetypes. So many levels are gained through the course of your adventure that you can get awfully close to maxing out a lot of talents and become sort of a jack of all trades. And I was left cold by the biotics, which added some spice but just didn't seem to fit into a game that seems shoe-horned into the shooter genre by all the combat.
Off the Beaten Path
Now back to that shooting. Common perception is that Mass Effect is an RPG, but really it isn't. Combat is intense and action packed, taking place in real-time without any of the pauseable stuff seen in the KOTOR games. So battles can be as frenzied as those in a third-person shooter. The two NPC additions to your three-man party (members of which can be swapped in and out every time you leave your ship, just as in KOTOR) can be ordered around like squadmates in a tactical shooter.
Shepherd himself backs up to walls and other objects for cover whenever he touches one with a weapon drawn. About the only real difference between combat here and combat in a shooter is frequency. Only the significant quests always end with some kind of blazing firefight. A lot of the routine side missions wrap up peacefully with a delivery or a conversation, and of course there are no random attacks out of the blue or levels crammed with goons that need some killing. Still, there is enough combat here to turn off dedicated RPG fans, especially long-time PC gamers who don't expect this sort of twitchy action with their elves and aliens.
And as much as the peppy dialogue and explosive combat liven up Mass Effect, too many dull quests and disappointing level design bog it down in tedious repetition. There are a lot of Romper Room side assignments here where you deliver junk to random aliens, push levers to activate machinery, solve dreary set puzzles, and decrypt lots of locks with a new PC-only minigame where you guide an arrow through a rotating maze. At times you seem to be jetting all over the galaxy and visiting strange new worlds just to help out strangers in bars. Most of the big-picture stuff that occurs at the end of story missions is seriously awesome, with multiple routes to the finish lines and numerous killer firefights. There is just too much busywork needed to get to these great moments.
Even worse, you're forced to run all over some seriously large levels to complete tasks. Many areas don't have any shortcuts courtesy of the usual RPG transit system where you can instantly move from one key point of a map to another, so you're generally stuck hoofing it. Most of this level sprawl isn't necessary, either. It's as if the developers decided to lengthen the game simply by throwing in a lot of long hallways, stairwells, and seemingly endless elevator rides. Good lord, don't get me started on the elevator rides. It takes 20 seconds or more just to ride up or down a single floor, just like on the 360. And at least these rides in the console version hid level loading times; here, they're just holdovers that really desperately need to be cut down in length.
Sense of wonder is further beaten down by bland backdrops. I didn't feel like I was gallivanting around the universe as much as I was visiting factories and old concrete strip malls. And even though Mass Effect was designed as a showcase for the next-gen 360, most rooms are devoid of decorations and furniture. At a glance, the game looks more like a port from the original Xbox, not its higher-powered successor. Only the often excellent character art saves the day. Some of the aliens look almost photo-realistic, particularly the dinosaur-like Krogan.
A great musical score compensates somewhat for the pedestrian art, however. Describing the tunes is actually kind of difficult, although everything sounds a bit ethereal and weird, almost like an update of old 70s sci-fi scores like the groovy one that Jerry Goldsmith did for Logan's Run. Close your eyes and you can readily imagine bizarre alien landscapes in the far-flung future. Unfortunately, you eventually have to re-open them again to actually play the game.
Great Story and Script: