Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mass Effect

I've mentioned before that Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is the game that got me into western RPGs. So I guess it's not a surprise that I quite enjoyed BioWare's return to the science fiction landscape. Mass Effect takes place within its own original universe, although the influences on both the design and the setting from that game and other classic science fiction are obvious. Without being a real expert on the history of the genre, I'd say the two most obvious influences on Mass Effect's world are Star Wars and Star Trek. You have the former's quasi-mystical powers and diverse alien species (Trek has aliens, but they all look like people with weird foreheads), and the latter's more adult focus on politics and how a gathering of races from across a galaxy would form a society and government together. The final result is a bit darker than both at their more adventurous, but the impact is there. There's literally an encyclopedia in the game's pause menu if you ever want to look up details on the history and specifics of pretty much any piece of back story it cares to bring up, and the amount of thought put into everything is one of the game's biggest assets.

You play as Shepard, a customizable protagonist and eventual commander of the most advanced ship in the alliance fleet. The alliance is sort of like a more militaristic Starfleet, except it only represents human interests in the galaxy. There's no real shared military, although the alliance have a working relationship with the council, a multiracial tribunal that operates out of an ancient space station called the Citadel and has influence over many things. I'm really explaining a lot of background here, aren't I? It's an interesting set up. Anyway at the beginning of the game you are given a mission that will require a ship and an elite team, and you report to both the council and the alliance. It's pretty easy to fill out your party, and from there you generally have a choice of planets with important objectives to complete. There are also dozens of optional worlds you can visit, but I'll get to those later. You fight evil robots, help or ignore troubled people you come across, talk a lot, and try to track down and stop the bad guy.

The game likes to pretend sometimes that it's a primarily a cover-based third person shooter, since those have been popular for a few years and were really blowing up when it came out, but it really isn't. Yes, you can hide behind objects and point a target at enemies and click to fire, but success is less determined by an ability to aim and shoot and more by good management of your allies, use of abilities, and having stats good enough for an invisible random variable to decide that your shots hit more than the other guy's. This didn't bother me as much as other people, I just don't see the point of the charade. Knights of the Old Republic's combat system was plenty of fun, and totally honest. You paused the game to assign actions, and chance and numbers determined whether your light saber swings and blaster shots hurt the enemy. Mass Effect playacting as a shooter just distracts from what could have been a more interesting system. I understand that the sequel actually performs like a true shooter, which is a fine direction to take, as it's at least a more genuine attempt to reach beyond the standard number-crunching RPG player.

So while I lived with the combat, what I really liked was simply learning about the different cities and outposts I was exploring, and developing my relationship with the various people in my crew. RPGs always seem to do better at creating a camaraderie amongst an interesting cast of characters than other games, if only because they actually take time to do so. And I liked my crew a lot. I talked to them after every job to see what they thought, and I did all the side quests that tied directly to their characters, not for the rewards, but because I wanted to help them out. They're a diverse group, and while the dialogue was often a bit straightforward, I still felt some level of connection to them that I just don't usually. I found myself choosing who to take on expeditions based on who it made sense to bring, not who would statistically help me in combat the most, and some of the things that happen to some of them later in the story actually made me feel a bit of emotion. It lent weight to the morality system, which is mildly interesting because it determines more what kind of leader you are rather than whether you're good or evil, but otherwise is still pretty standard.

I guess I should mention the game's biggest weaknesses, the silly mini-game that seems to determine a little too much of what happens, and the Mako, a vehicle which popped up way too much based on how much of a headache it was. Frequently when activating objects in the game, you have to solve a little game where you guide an arrow into the center of a circle while objects rotate around it nearby that you have to avoid. Fail to do so, and you either have to try again or pay a material cost to bypass it. It made some sense when trying to break electronic locks, but the game uses it for much more than that, including recovering objects from wreckage and even surveying rocks for minerals. It's a huge pain in the ass and never really makes sense in context. And man, the Mako. It's an armored jeep type thing that goes over a lot of terrain, but it's a gigantic annoyance whenever you have to use it, which is often on required story missions, and always when exploring optional planets for useful objects. It controls like crap, it's not as useful as it feels like it should be in combat, and none of the places you use it in are designed well enough to get past this. It's just a struggle every time you're behind the wheel. It would have been a bigger issue if it was at its worst when it's actually necessary, but thankfully that's not the case.

Beyond those small issues, I had a lot of fun in the twenty hours the game took me. The story was pretty good, conveyed by some decent writing and well acted by the cast, including a smattering of recognizable celebrity voices that fit their parts appropriately. The game's presentation helps immensely, although I was unable to get the full effect of the motion capture thanks to the constantly poor frame rate on my machine. I'll admit it's an old system, but it probably shouldn't have run a three year old game this choppily. BioWare's games have always had odd technical issues on the PC, and I have to imagine it's partly the game's fault as well as my computer's, because I began Dead Space recently, which came out a year later, and it can at least do static conversations smoothly. It was rare for the issues to actually impact gameplay negatively, but it was an unfortunate distraction a lot of the time. It sounded pretty good though, with the previously mentioned voice acting and strong score helping to sell the universe. Whatever problems I had, I wanted to play the sequel as soon as I finished, which is not something I've been able to say much recently. I guess the question is whether I'll play it on PC, or if the way they handle the PS3 version makes it seem worth the switch.

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