Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Mass Effect: Beginning of an Epic

There have been many games in history that have stood out from the crowd as shining examples of what can be done with storytelling in the video game genre.  One of the more recent ones is Mass Effect, telling the story of how every fifty thousand years a race of sentient machines, known as the Reapers, come to wipe out all organic life in the galaxy.  Mass Effect is a masterpiece from Bioware, and with this game the company has definitely lived up to its stellar reputation. 

There is a lot to talk about in this review.  I’ll start off with the story.  The story of Mass Effect follows the adventures of Commander Shepard, a now famous figure in the rogues’ gallery of video game heroes.  Like Master Chief, if the name Shepard is mentioned in video game discussion it is often instantly recognised.  Mass Effect has a very well written story, with interesting and likeable characters, excellent dialogue and brilliant voice acting.  First and foremost, someone I recognised was Seth Green in the role of Joker.  Seth Green is brilliant in this role.  While I didn’t recognise any of the other voice actors at first, they still do a great job.  Later in the game Lance Henriksen’s much appreciated voice crops up in the role of Admiral Steven Hackett.  The amount of voiced dialogue in the game is impressive – the player has a choice of what to say in each conversation, but this also varies depending on whether they’re using male or female Shepard and also whether Paragon or Renegade.  My first playthrough I used a mostly Paragon male Shepard, with the second playthrough as a mostly Renegade female Sheppard – it’s a lot of fun hearing the completely different attitude the character has.  Then there’s all the voiced dialogue for all the NPCs you’ll meet – and that’s a lot. 

Bioware have gone to great lengths to not only write a good story but to make a realistic and believable universe.  Mass Effect is filled with a myriad of races, each with their own culture and society, and while not on the same scale as Star Wars, it has much more depth and detail than most video game franchises.  There is a massive amount of detail in the game, including worlds, solar systems, technology, weapons and locations.  The level design is stunning – areas such as the Wards and the Presidium come across as real places that I would love to visit and experience in real life.  The amazing graphics in Mass Effect make these places so much more real, and are some of the best I’ve seen in a video game.  A special mention must go to the Normandy – this is truly a remarkable experience, even if it seems a bit bare in places (namely the captain’s cabin).  Being able to wander around your own starship and talk to your crew is pretty damn awesome when you’re not doing missions.  In addition, the design of the Geth are pretty inspiring – rather than your usual clunky, angular droids, the Geth look organic.  There is a particular type of Geth that look similar to robotic frogs, with the agility to match.  The Geth are organic-looking synthetics.  This is something I have yet to see in another franchise and so is quite original.  There is a large variety of enemies in the game too, so it doesn’t get bland fighting the same ones all the time.  Character customisation is also pretty good.  I think a few more hair and facial hair options would’ve been better, but combined with the awesome graphics Shepard looks very realistic (except for Bajo’s.)

Sound and Music: essential aspects of any great video game.  Mass Effect has excellent ambience, whether walking through the upper wards, chilling in the Flux nightclub or battling Geth on Feros, the sound of Mass Effect is always good.  I especially love the theme that plays when Shepard is inducted into the Spectres: it’s very heroic and uplifting.  Throughout the game the music is always appropriate and powerful.  It’s also worth noting that composer Jack Wall has the game Myst: Exile on his resume, so he’s no stranger to awesome soundtracks it seems. 

Despite having excellent presentation, I am divided on the gameplay of Mass Effect.  This is due to the main missions relying on a six-wheeled vehicle called the Mako.  Basically you get dropped from your starship onto the planet and have to drive across the planet’s surface to the mission destination in the Mako.  While the idea isn’t a bad one, the controls of the Mako are frankly quite terrible.  They are very sensitive, so it’s hard to keep driving in a straight line, and the machine gun is quite pathetic.  There is a cannon, but after every shot you have to wait 5 seconds or so before firing again and the targeting system while driving the Mako at the same time is very bad.  The amount of times I had the Mako destroyed whilst trying to fight in it during my first playthrough drove me crazy, and although during my second time I found it a little easier, it was still massively frustrating having to replay sections of the game due to the insane vehicle controls.  There were occasions where the Mako would get stuck on a mountain or a Geth shield wall during which I could do nothing but get shot, continuing to take damage.  I was very glad when the Mako is consequently destroyed in the final battle against Saren. 

Mako aside, the gameplay is very good.  Mass Effect is a mix of third-person shooter and role-playing game.  While I have heard it claimed that it will neither satisfy fans of shooters or rpgs, I have to disagree.  Mass Effect perfectly blends the two genres, giving the satisfaction of blasting bad guys with the fun of levelling up and growing more progressively powerful as a result.  It is not a strictly linear game – while you do have a main mission, there are many side missions, called ‘Assignments.’  Apart from a few frame rate issues, I found the squad gameplay very smooth.  I played this on the XBOX 360; it could differ on a PC.  Whenever you initiate conversation with an NPC you choose what you want to say, and the conversation plays out in mini cut scenes.  It looks gorgeous.  Also, missions and assignments can play out differently depending on what responses you give in conversation.  Mass Effect is a very slick and beautiful world to explore.  While the map is very simple, it’s usually easy to navigate.  The Galaxy Map is a visual delight.  I would have liked a little more planetside exploration outside the Mako, but on the whole exploring the galaxy and wandering around is pretty awesome.  You always have two squad members with you.  Different squad members have different skills and abilities, and although sometimes the AI can act stupidly, such as getting in the player’s way or shooting at walls, squad members usually act intelligently in combat.  Squad healing is another annoying aspect of the game, as you can only heal yourself with medi-gel and once used you have to wait a rather long time as it ‘recharges.’  Therefore sometimes you find yourself with no means of healing whilst taking serious damage.  Health regen, while it is available, is only applied to armour upgrades.  Upgrades are useful, as you can enhance your weapons and armour with passive abilities.  The downside is that you collect a hell of a lot of these; it is quite tedious going through them all trying to decide which ones to get rid of and assigning them to various squad members.  Also something I find quite superfluous is the fact that each squad member, including Shepard, has four weapons – assault rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle and a pistol.  While it is advantageous to have a couple different ones at your disposal, it undermines the point of having multiple squad members – the idea is that you have different squad members with different weapons to give variety.  Giving each squad member four different weapons takes it a little far I think, especially if you have to apply upgrades to all weapons on all squad members.  Now that is tedious.  Both playthroughs I pretty much stuck with one type of weapon.  If you do this, and also stick to the same team throughout the game, it minimises inventory management and makes the gameplay much smoother. 

A special mention should go to the romance option in Mass Effect.  Assuming you choose the right dialogue options you can actually have a relationship with one of your team members, and be rewarded with a sex scene at the end of the game.  This is particularly satisfying for a video game, as you get close to the characters in a game such as this.  I would like to see a lot more of this sort of thing in video games, as it increases the facets of game characters and makes them a lot more likeable and believable. 

I should also mention the different classes to play in Mass Effect.  There are six different classes, three of which are basically full combat, full techie and full biotic.  The other three are variations on the combinations of these.  My first playthrough I used a Soldier, (full combat) and found it very satisfying.  My second playthrough I decided to try out the biotic powers with a Vanguard (combat/biotic) and although I had a slightly harder time in the battles, it was much more satisfying as I had to strategise what abilities to use against certain foes instead of just blasting everything.  The difficulty in the game can be changed at almost any time during play so if you find a particular fight too hard you can do it again at an easier difficulty.  The game also auto-saves quite often, although it is advisable to save manually before and after fights to save yourself unnecessary frustrations if it doesn’t go down as well as you planned. 

Mass Effect has secured its place on the stage of video game legends.  It’s not a perfect game, but it has definitely established itself as a massive, beautiful world filled with detail, action and adventure.  It certainly tells one of the greatest stories in video game history, and still has the awesome gameplay to back it up.  Mass Effect’s beautiful graphics and story, likeable characters, great gameplay and flawless music combine to overcome its few flaws.  If it wasn’t for the Mako, I would definitely give Mass Effect a 9.  As a result it still earns an 8.5 from me.