Having been a huge fan of BioWare's console RPGs since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, I can honestly say that I have been waiting with a great deal of anticipation to play their first next generation console offering, the Xbox 360 exclusive Mass Effect. Lord knows I've mentioned it enough times on this very blog, and the reason I purchased my Xbox 360 when I did was for a previously incorrect Mass Effect expected release date.
Now that Mass Effect has been out for a month and a half, I've finally completed my first play-through last weekend and am now faced with the task of reviewing BioWare's latest epic. All I can say is wow, though not necessarily in the way you'd expect. The best way for me to describe it is that Mass Effect is a perfect example of what can make a great game and what can get in the way to make it fall short of its true potential. Mass Effect is an excellent example of why I'd love to sit in on a developer's internal meeting and simply ask them "Why?" Why the heck are you doing what your doing.
Firstly, however, a brief overview about the game's setting: Mass Effect is a brand new science fiction universe created by BioWare themselves complete with different races, cultures, and worlds all fleshed out with the game's lovely Codex. Players take on the role of Commander Shepard, who can either be male or female, and he/she must lead the crew of the star ship Normandy to uncover and foil the plans of the rogue Spectre Agent Saren.
Like BioWare's previous console RPGs, Mass Effect is very story heavy and the game world itself is rich, detailed, and beautiful. To summarize it best, the universe of Mass Effect reminds me very much of Star Wars if Lucas would never have touched it; that is to say it's actually, you know, good.
The game uses Epic's amazing Unreal Engine 3, and I have to say that without question Mass Effect is the single greatest looking game I have ever seen. Not just the environments, but the digital actors and the full range of facial expressions; it's all awe-inspiring. The characters of Mass Effect, be they human or alien, look almost photo realistic. In fact, my only major gripe with the digital actors would have to be the shadows often seen on them. I can't perfectly articulate it, but much of the shadowing simply looks wrong. Think almost like retro-'70's comic book dot shading. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, but I really don't like it. The game also defaults with the video options of Motion Blur and Film Grain on, and I honestly find that both effects look plain bad. The Motion Blur is too excessive whenever you pan the camera that I found it distracting, and I can tell you right now that Film Grain does not look like film grain (I work in television production kids). If you disable these options, the only major graphical issue with the game would be a significant amount of texture pop-in. The texture pop-in in Mass Effect is constant and its everywhere, on every screen, ever menu, everything, and while every Unreal Engine 3 game to date has featured some level of texture pop-in, it's the worst in Mass Effect. I must admit however that this flaw didn't really bother me so much as, like many, I've played Halo 2 on the Xbox, and at least in Mass Effect we don't have digital actors magically popping into a scene after the scene's started, instead we just have their texture details popping in.
Audio wise the game is solid. Mass Effect is dialogue heavy in traditional BioWare fashion, however instead of reading and then selecting a conversation response like in past titles, BioWare has introduced the new conversation wheel in which you can select a quick response while the other conversation member is still talking, such as "Get to the Point.", "Who wants to know?", or "Sure I'll help." Once the speaker is done talking, Shepard will chime in with a fully detailed, fully spoken response that elaborates on the short answer you selected. This new system allows for very fluid, dynamic conversations, and the camera angles chosen by the development team are exceptionally cinematic. The voice acting itself is simply excellent, and the development team really made the most of those solid performances in tandem with the digital actors. The only voice acting I found plain old average would actually have been the male Commander Shepard himself. His voice acting fluctuated from great to sub-par, depending on what he was saying. Sometimes he'd sound too excited or too low key, and I found he could fluctuate rather unbelievably with no real warning or provocation.
The musical score of the game was great, and a lot of the tunes reminded me of retro-'80's sci-fi flicks (especially the main menu's), and one track in-particular reminded me of some of the music from Jade Empire, though unfortunately I don't know the track's name.
Gameplay wise, this is where we enter the mixed bag. Everything certainly starts off well enough, with you having heavy customization options over your Commander Shepard, including gender, background, service history, appearance, etc. Shepard's face is actually so customizable that I spent a full 45 minutes seeing just how close I could get him to look like me, and while I did a rather good job, I couldn't help but feel he looks more like the neighbour's kid than myself (should I be disturbed by this?). You then get to explore the Normandy a bit and you get to experience the game's amazing dialogue system and very soon, you're dropped onto a besieged planet for a taste of combat.
Mass Effect's combat is handled in real time, and it's a third person tactical shooter, however much to my dismay unlike the smooth interface of Gears of War of which the preview videos reminded me so much, the combat in Mass Effect is clunky, tedious, and unrefined; so much so that it took me over a week to simply motivate myself to play through and finish the game's first "tutorial" world.
Let me sum it up for you: While you and all your Squad Members have Shields, the game relies heavily on taking cover, just like in Gears of War. However unlike Gears of War, you do not press "A" to "attach" to cover, you move up to it and simply press Up on the Left Stick. Sounds simple right? Well, the problem is that Shepard is notorious for _not_ properly affixing himself to a wall, and if you want to take cover on a low object, one where you'll need to be crouched, you have to manually crouch first, then move into it. Also, if you move to the right or left just a hair too far from cover, instead of peaking around you'll actually pop out exposing yourself. The whole cover system is tedious and could have been streamlined a whole lot better, and while you do get used to it after several hours of play, you shouldn't need several hours to do so; it should be smooth and intuitive from the get go.
You're Squad control is also really bad and generally next to useless. You can have two Squad Members with you at any one point, and you can order them to Target, Move, Rally, or Take Cover, however these options, accessed via the D-Pad, don't always work out so well. For example, I found that if you order them to Take Cover they'd sometimes just stand there stupidly. Rallying and Targeting (an enemy) tend to work fine and will be your most used commands, but Move is problematic since you can't order each Squad Member individually; you can only move both or none to a specific location. Ultimately, you'll just end up giving up and letting your friendly AI do its own thing, reviving Squad mates with the Unity Talent should they get incapacitated. The game's AI, friendly and enemy, isn't awful, but it's also nothing to write home about. I often found that my Squad would kill things well enough on their own, so long as I equipped them with some good weapons, but often enemies wouldn't kill me due to smarts, they'd kill me due to my struggling with clunky controls, with overwhelming firepower, or because I was screwing around.
Speaking of equipment, let's talk about the game's many items and Equipment management. There's a variety of Assault Rifles, Shotguns, Pistols, and Sniper Rifles to use, each with varying levels and stats, and you can also get different Omni-tools that allow you and certain Squad Members to use their Tech Talents and Tech Grenades. Your Biotic characters can get Bio-amps to help boast there native Biotic "Force" Talents, and as the player character you can use conventional Grenades, as well as Medi-gel for Healing and Omni-gel for hacking or repairing the Mako (More on the Mako later). Swapping items around is generally very easy, though you have to manually exit the Equipment Menu and toggle between your Squad Member's lockers if you want to do a massive re-equip on everyone which can be very tedious. I also found that the game likes to saturate you with so many upgrades for your weapons, especially if you've brought the right Squad Members with you to allow you to hack every single container, locker, etc. Some of these upgrades are useful, while some are less so, but when it comes time to sell the large amounts of excess upgrades that'll clutter up your inventory, the inventory list does a really poor sorting job which can make things frustrating. I also found the cap at having 150 items to be rather small for the amount of upgrades your always hit with, forcing me to spend the time re-equipping my Squad and hardcore managing my inventory much more than I would have liked.
Now, let's talk about the Mako. Mass Effect features this really amazing and detailed Galaxy Map aboard the Normandy which allows you to travel to any number of Clusters which hold several Systems which in turn holds several Uncharted Worlds for you to poke around in. Typically, you can Scan most of them to try to find resources or artifacts, and you can usually land on one of these Uncharted Worlds per System, which is where extra exploration and side quests, called Assignments, often occur. The problem with these Uncharted Worlds is that unlike the game's main worlds, they tend to be very repetitive and barren. Oh, they're often detailed enough in terms of an art direction standpoint, but for actual exploring, you spent most of the time driving around in your little rover vehicle, the Mako, simply getting from point A to B. This wouldn't be so bad if the Mako handled like a Warthog, but instead the Mako is one of the single worst video game vehicles I have ever had the frustration of driving. The controls and physics on the Mako are awful, there is no other word to describe it, and why such a poorly polished component was even included in the retail game is beyond me. Often times, when trying to maneuver quickly, I'd end up going backwards when I was pressing forwards on the Left Stick or vise-versa, and getting away from a Thresher Maw can be a hassle simply because you won't be able to drive in the direction you're trying to go. From a physics standpoint, the Mako seems to have the magical ability to almost stick vertically to mountains as it moves along, and yet it can have great difficulty climbing certain slight ridges. If the Mako falls and tips over, it'll stop itself, again by magic, just before completely tipping and right itself. I swear, if this weren't so bad it would be laughable, and though this may sound harsh, I honestly feel justified in saying that whoever designed the Mako should never, ever, be allowed to design another video game vehicle again. EVER. It was that bad, that frustrating, and I would welcome a Title Update that would remove the Mako from the game permanently.
In fact, the Mako and the Uncharted Worlds are an excellent example of why Mass Effect is a good game and not a great game. Given the blandness of the Uncharted Worlds and the ridiculous nature of the Mako, it would have been to BioWare's benefit to scrap them entirely and focus on polishing up the clunky combat system and adding even more content to the beautifully designed primary worlds.
And there you have it, the good, and the bad. Mass Effect is a game that does so much right, and sadly so much wrong. It is the closest I have ever come to starring in my own sci-fi film, with an excellent main story and the most convincing digital actors I've ever seen in a game. Without giving away any spoilers, the game's climax is one of the best I've ever had the privilege to play bar none, and I'm looking forward to seeing how things turn out on subsequent playthroughs. Unfortunately, however, the game also really blunders up with the lackluster Uncharted Worlds and the Mako vehicle that should never have seen the light of day. The combat of which you partake so much in is clunky but playable, and Equipment management could have been streamlined a little more. When all's said and done, Mass Effect is a game that no one should miss, but it's also a game that needed more development time, more polish time specifically, and it's a damn shame at that. When I finished playing Mass Effect last weekend, I set my Controller down and thought to myself, "Wow. What this could have been had they had a few more months." Here's hoping the inevitable Mass Effect 2 can deliver a more refined experience.
Somewhat separate from the actual review, I'd also like to comment on the Mass Effect: Limited Collector's Edition. I own the standard retail version of the game, which is too bad as I would have loved to have owned the Limited Collector's Edition. Why don't I own the Limited Collector's Edition? Only because it is the most poorly handled/distributed Limited Edition I've ever seen in gaming.
This fault can not be laid upon BioWare, but rather Mass Effect's publisher, Microsoft Game Studios. Originally, it was reported that the Mass Effect: Limited Edition would be available via online orders only within Canada, however that was quickly changed to unavailable period. Firstly, I think its inexcusable that a Limited Edition would be unavailable in the developer's home country, and the publisher's home continent, but if its not going to be made available then its not available and there's nothing I can do.
So what did I see on release day, but online availability at Best Buy, and a few days later, online availability at Future Shop. I thought it wasn't available in Canada? And what did I see this week past, but the Limited Edition for retail sale at Future Shop, and an associate of mine has seen it at Best Buy as well. What happened to online only?
Seriously, the distribution of the Mass Effect: Limited Edition was plagued with so much miscommunication that it smacks of nothing but sloppy, and again begs the question of "Why?"