Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Mass Effect review

Bioware is one of a select list of developers (see also: Blizzard, Nintendo), that have managed to build up a legion of fans thanks to the consistently high quality of their games. Though they started out as predominantly a PC developer, in more recent times they have moved further towards consoles, a trend which began when they took over the MDK franchise from Shiny, and then moved on to the Xbox with Knights of the Old Republic. Their RPG's have always carried certain hallmarks, such as branching dialogue trees, the ability to complete quests in a number of different ways, and deciding whether to be predominantly good or evil. Other aspects of their games have continued to evolve though, from a true turn based system, to partial real time, and then fully real time battles with the martial arts game Jade Empire and now the action adventure that is Mass Effect. Do they manage to get the balance right? Read on...

Format: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Bioware
Genre: RPG
Region: Europe (PAL)
Price: can be found for £29.99

Graphics: 8 out of 10
For most of the time, Mass Effect looks pretty damn good, but it is let down by textures that take a few seconds to be drawn when you switch scenes, and a sometimes unstable frame rate in battle. It's not a major problem by any means but it is enough to lose a few points in this category. When everything is running smoothly however, the game looks fantastic, if a bit plasticky. The planets which feature the main parts of the story are very well designed and range from a volcanic world, and icy industrial planet and a picturesque tropical world, but uncharted worlds can be a bit barren and featureless. This is compounded by a rather lazy repetition of buildings and scenery on these worlds, which means they largely feel interchangeable. You'd think that having spent more than three years developing the game, you'd spend a bit of time on these optional side areas before pushing the game out the door, but no. Hopefully Bioware won't need to spend so long developing underlying game systems for the sequel, and will be able to spend more time addressing problems like this. Time will tell.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
This is one of the strongest areas of the game, due to the excellent voice acting, synth score and weapon sounds. The cast includes many familiar names, both from Hollywood and TV (Marina Sirtis, Seth Green and Armin Shimmerman) and from other games and anime (Jennifer Hale, Kim Mai Guest, that-guy-who-did-the-voice-of-Carth-Onassi-who-I-forget-the-name-of and more). The quality of the voice acting is up to the usual high standard that you can expect from a Bioware game.

The music is highly reminiscent of Blade Runner at times which is entirely in keeping with the style and tone of the rest of the game, and the the weapons all sound suitably forceful and realistic. The sniper rifle with its thunderous boom is a particular favourite. The Geth (a nasty cyborg race which are very similar to the Borg from Star Trek: TNG) make noises which can only be described as robotty, which is appropriate really. All things considered, it's a job well done. Nice one, Bioware.

Exploring uncharted worlds in your Mako tank looks like fun doesn't it? It is, until you've done it over two dozens times on worlds that all look the same.

Plot and Character: 9 out of 10
This always the major strength of a Bioware title, especially the character part. The basics of the plot involve a Spectre agent (kind of like the SAS, but in space) going rogue and you and your team having to first expose him and then stop him, although of course there are some twist along the way. While the plot was entertaining, I wouldn't say it was amazing, but it's also only part one of a trilogy so it was setting up pay offs for further into the series. I only hope that Mass Effect sells enough copies for Microsoft to see it through to the end, I wouldn't want this series to suffer the same fate as Shenmue and be cruelly cut short.

The characters include a human soldier called Ashley Williams, a biotic by the name of Kaiden Alenko, a huge ugly alien mercenary by the name of Wrex, an engineer called Tali, an ex Citadel Security agent named Garrus and finally Liara, an Asari scientist who was studying Prothean ruins until she got attacked by the Geth. The first time I played the game I left her rescue until last, and when I finally turned up to save her she thought I was a hallucination! The second time I played the game however, I went there first and she was fine, so the order you choose to carry out the main missions does have a bearing on the overall story, which is quite smart.

Each of the characters does have their own backstory which can be explored during downtime after a mission on the ship, and if you choose the right conversation options you can actually get into their pants. Because the Asari are a mono gender race, they can "do it" with both men and women, which makes for some interesting gameplay options to say the least!

This is Liara, blue-skinned alien scientist and potential love-buddy (even if you play as a girl!).

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
Mass Effect is really divided into three separate parts which all flow and interact with each other - talking, exploring and fighting. For the talking part, things are pretty similar to how they've been in past Bioware titles, except that your response can be chosen while the other party is still chatting, which eliminates the pauses in the conversation and makes things seem much more natural. There are nearly always several types of reply you can make, unless the game is trying to steer you down a particular path which it does from time to time. This include a positive or kind response which usually leads to you being helpful and earning Paragon points, an indifferent response which doesn't do very much, a negative or nasty response which often results in you doing something bad and earning Renegade points, the option to Investigate and get more detail on whatever you are discussing, and if you have put enough ability points into them, the option to Charm or Intimidate the person you are talking to. A battle can often be avoided by using one of these options, but you have to invest enough points in them before you can use them everywhere.

Exploration sees you zipping from one star system to the next and landing on an uncharted planet, before trundling around in your Mako tank and investigating various things depicted on the map screen, such as debris, research facilities, or everybody's favourite word from Star Trek, anomalies. You will pick up many side quests while you work your way through the game, and most of them take place on some backwater planet which doesn't even have a Tesco Express. In fact, this is easily the most boring part of the whole game, as the planets are so similar that by and large they are interchangeable. I did complete the majority of the side quests on my first play through though, despite the monotony. In between planetside missions you can also wander the Citadel, a huge space station which serves as the main hub of the game. This place is full of interesting characters and lots of opportunities to soak up the backstory and get into mischief (if you want to). I must stress though that those of you who have a fairly low tolerance threshold for lots of and lots of talking may find the conversations rather boring, but for me this is one of my favourite aspects of any Bioware game. Make sure you know what you're getting yourself into if you've never played one of their games before.

Finally we have the combat, which plays like a version of Gears of War but with the need addition of all sorts of powers that you can call up and use at any time. There six character classes you can choose from, including Solidiers who mostly use traditional weaponry and can use heavy armour, Engineers who have abilities that focus on hacking or frying electronic enemies, Adepts who can use biotic powers which include being able to levitate enemies in the air, or suck them into a mini black hole. The other three classes, Infiltrator, Sentinel and Vanguard, are all almalgams of the first three classes. Later on in the game when you finish a certain side quest, you can choose a prestige class that further specialises your character. As a Adept, I was able to choose from Nemesis who specialises in attack biotic powers, or the Bastion who concentrates on defence.

A typical battle for me, sees me and my team sneaking into the enemies vicinity, powering up my barrier and then the Marksman ability of my Pistol, sending in Ashley to pick of a few enemies using her Assassination ability with the Sniper Rifle, and then Lifting or Throwing enemies with my character and Liara before finally hitting them with Warp or shooting them full of hot lead. So as you can see there's quite a lot of scope for different tactics. Purists may miss the more turn based systems from KOTOR or even Baldur's Gate but I enjoyed the shooty action of Mass Effect.

Innovation & Cleverness: 6 out of 10
While Mass Effect is undoubtedly a very solid gaming experience overall, it does feel like Bioware are following the same template they used with KOTOR and Jade Empire and just swapping out various elements for other ones, such as tactical shooting instead of kung fu. For all Bioware's claims that the conversation system would be revolutionary, it's effect on gameplay is really quite subtle and feels very similar to their other games. Yes, it's a good game, but it isn't particularly innovative on any particular front.

Value and Replayabilty: 9 out of 10
Replayability has always been another major strength of past Bioware games and Mass Effect is no different in this regard. The branching conversation options, the fact you can visit the main story sections in any order and the good/evil dichotomy all give you plenty of things to do for at least two playthroughs, maybe more. The character classes all play rather differently as well, with the biotic class having to rely on their powers way more than the soldier class who can usually just shoot their way through.

As for value, the main story is actually fairly short and can be finished off in about 15 hours, but there are so many side quests and optional conversation paths that this can easily be stretched out to almost 30 hours. This feels just about right in my opinion, and I felt the game was pretty well paced from beginning to end. In fact, I enjoyed playing the game as a kind female soldier (Billie Shepherd) so much that I immediately started replaying as a male psychotic biotic (Wanker Shepherd).

Overall: 8 out of 10
I really enjoyed playing Mass Effect (in fact I'm still playing it) but it's not without it's flaws. Microsoft have been positioning this new trilogy almost as a Halo replacement at times which is rather unfair as the two games are very different apart from the basic sci-fi setting. I hope Bioware continue to develop the series as it grows and they don't just churn out another adventure based on the exact same engine, as that would grow tiresome very quickly. If you're going to pick this game up, make sure you have the patience to sit through a lot of conversations, as that's half of the point of the game. If you don't you're probably better off playing something else.

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