- Review Price: £39.79
Back in the days of the original Xbox, Bioware created Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic – an RPG based on the Star Wars universe. Not only was KOTOR a great game, but it also rekindled the flame of Star Wars properties for all the die hard fans who had fallen into despair after the appalling Phantom Menace and terrible miscasting of Hayden Christensen as Anakin.
KOTOR and the latter Jade Empire managed to move the console RPG genre on, appealing to a new breed of players, and giving a real alternative to games like Final Fantasy and Zelda. Therefore when I first heard about Mass Effect I had very high hopes, and those hopes were bolstered when I managed to get some time playing a preview build back in September. But now Mass Effect has hit the shelves and the big question is whether the finished product lives up to expectations.
Make no mistake, Mass Effect is a hugely ambitious project and on many levels Bioware has realised that ambition. The most obvious achievement is the visual experience – the graphics are, quite simply stunning. I’m not usually one to waste much time with character creation, I tend to jump straight into a game and not care what my protagonist looks like, but Mass Effect convinced even me to spend a ludicrous amount of time tailoring the appearance of Commander Shepherd.
The facial textures and animation are really second to none. In fact it’s slightly unnerving when you’re constructing your character, as they become more and more lifelike with every joystick flick and button press. You can make Shepherd either male or female, with the same dizzying array of facial customisation available to either gender. It’s actually strangely compelling to create a character that is, to all intents and purposes, unique. OK, so there is will be a finite number of permutations, but the chances of anyone you know creating a character that looks exactly like yours are pretty slim.
But it’s not just the characters that look great. The futuristic environments are lush, colourful and beautiful. A massive amount of care and attention has been given to the Mass Effect universe, and every planet, building and spaceship that you venture through looks superb. There has been a lot of talk in the office recently about the poor environment textures appearing in games at the moment, but no such criticism could be levelled at Mass Effect. Every wall, every floor and just about every other surface looks like its part of a real world, 3D environment, complete with relief. Just like in the real world, flat surfaces aren’t actually flat, and you’ll see pits and holes in walls as you wander around corridors. The environment is also subject to damage, so you’ll see holes appear in walls as they absorb gunfire.
The textures may be good, but the lighting is even better. There’s a tendency to go overboard with HDR lighting in games these days, but in Mass Effect the HDR is measured and incredibly effective. Yes, you’ll encounter some intense bloom, that almost whites out the screen, but most of the time the lighting just adds atmosphere, especially when it’s reflecting off glass, or water.
Bioware has also thrown in some great cinematic effects. I’m particularly fond of the film grain effect, which really adds to the immersive nature of the game, although if you don’t like the film grain, you can actually turn it off in the options menu. Mass Effect also sports the best depth of field effects this side of Crysis – it makes it very easy to mark out the focus of the scene, with everything else just slightly blurred.
But truly breathtaking as the visuals are, it’s the story that really drives Mass Effect on. The game achieves something that so many other titles aim for, a truly epic feel. Admittedly, the basic premise could have been lifted from any number of Sci-Fi movies or TV shows, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, a degree of familiarity just makes it easier to immerse yourself in Mass Effect.
I won’t go into much detail about the story, since you really want to experience it for yourself. The basic premise however, has your Commander Shepherd being recruited into the ranks of an elite galactic force known as the Spectres. Your first mission as a Spectre is to track down one of your brethren, who has turned against the order and joined forces with the Geth – a race of mechanical life forms, hell bent on destroying organic life. Battlestar Galactica anyone?
Obviously the story develops as you progress through the game, just like it would if you were watching a movie. But in Mass Effect, your actions, or inactions can drastically change where the story takes you. Under normal circumstances I would say that this kind of feature adds up to a strong chance of replay for a game, but considering that you’re looking at around 25 hours of play if you shoot straight through the game in a linear manner, you’d be dedicating a large portion of your life to Mass Effect if you wanted to see all three of the endings. Add to this the fact that if you chose to explore every planet and complete every side quest, you’ll be looking at a far longer playtime.
If you’ve been keeping abreast of Mass Effect’s development, you’ll know that Bioware has been making quite a fuss over the conversation system, and with good reason. In some respects it looks like every other conversation system you’ve seen, where you’re given a selection of responses to choose from when talking to an NPC, but as soon as you start playing you’ll realise that it is very different indeed. For one, Shepherd never responds with the words you’ve selected – basically each selection is a framework for the type of response, rather than a verbatim sentence. This makes for some interesting encounters, and far more fluid communication.
Another great thing about the conversations goes back to those awesome facial animations. Characters don’t have to tell you that they’re angry, scared or sceptical, you can see it on their faces without them saying a word. If someone looks uncomfortable when you’re questioning them there’s a good chance they’re hiding something, and you may want to push them a bit harder for answers.
Also, how you choose to communicate with people affects Shepherd’s reputation, and will have a bearing on future encounters. If you regularly try to intimidate people, your reputation as a hard ass may scare the next person you meet, making them more pliable. On the other hand, if you try to strong arm the wrong guy, he might clam up when he could have been helpful.
As great as the conversation system is, there are still some annoying issues that I was surprised to see. For example, you can ask someone a question and get a prescribed answer, then if you talk to them again, you can ask them that same question and get the same answer. I would have thought that Bioware would have made sure that once a question has been asked and answered, it would no longer appear as an option.
A more serious annoyance, is that you sometimes can’t ask the question that you’d really like to ask. Early in the game someone tells you something very important about Shepherd’s Captain, but when I tracked him down, I wasn’t given the opportunity to question him regarding what I had found out. Instead I had to wait until later in the game when he randomly decided to discuss the subject with me.
As with most role playing games, you don’t wander around by yourself. Instead you have two other characters in your party – don’t get too attached to one of the guys in your first party though! At various points in the game you get to change your party, and you’ll soon realise how important it is to get the balance of skills right. There are basically three main classes – Solider (weapons specialist), Engineer (good with machines and computers) and Adept (equipped with handy psychic powers). There are also three subclasses – Infiltrator (Soldier/Engineer), Sentinel (Adept/Engineer) and Vanguard (Soldier/Adept).
If you choose your party unwisely, you can find yourself in deep trouble, something that I have first hand experience of. I set off on one mission with no engineering skill in my party, and therefore couldn’t unlock any lockers, or use any medical stations – the upshot being that I found myself dying all too regularly because I had run out of medical kits and wasn’t able to find anymore! But this isn’t a fault of Mass Effect, it merely highlights my naïve tactics. I didn’t make that mistake again though.
Bioware has also put a lot of effort into the combat system, and to a certain degree it works brilliantly. Rather than defaulting to a turn based combat system like traditional RPGs, or opting for a real time fights like the Zelda games, Mass Effect sits somewhere between the two. Weapon combat is real time and plays more or less like a third person shooter. You choose your weapon, and aim using the right analogue stick, while firing with the right trigger – the left trigger will zoom into an aiming mode.
However, you can also use your party’s psychic abilities and combat skills, which doesn’t happen in real time. Hitting the right shoulder button brings up a list of all the powers and skills possessed by your party members. Here you can select what you want to use, and assign each power/skill to a target. You can, for instance, choose to throw some of your foes to the ground in true Jedi style, or you can remotely sabotage a gun turret. Of course the game is paused while this selection process takes place, which kind of ruins the urgency of the real time combat, but is undoubtedly necessary.
The use of cover is also vitally important during combat, giving the game a Gears of War feel, but you never feel totally at one with the proceedings, as you do with Gears. Although the combat in Mass Effect can be very engaging, I can’t help feeling that it somehow falls between two stools – there isn’t as comprehensive a list of attacks as you’d get with a turn based system, while the real time aspect isn’t quite slick enough to satisfy a third person shooter fan. I’m not saying that the combat is badly implemented, because it’s not, just that it’s not quite as immersive as other aspects of the game.
As I said at the beginning of this review, Mass Effect is a hugely ambitious project and Bioware should be congratulated for realising that ambition on so many levels, but inevitably there are areas where the game doesn’t hit the mark. One of my biggest gripes is the vehicular combat. At certain stages in the game you’ll find yourself inside a tank, with a rotating turret, which all too often finds itself in combat situations. Unfortunately the control method for the tank is, quite simply, appalling. You’d imagine that the left stick would control movement and the right stick would control the turret, and that’s exactly how it does work, in theory. The problem is, that although the left stick controls movement of the vehicle, when you move the turret the view changes and the direction you’re travelling changes accordingly. This makes it incredibly hard to drive in one direction, while shooting in another – exactly what you’d want to do in a vehicle with a rotating turret!
Another annoyance with vehicular combat is that in order to repair your vehicle, it has to come to a complete stop and act like a sitting duck to all your enemies. OK, so that would kind of make sense in the real world, but in a game where you have three characters in a tank, you’d think that one of them could carry out repairs while another drives and another shoots. As if that wasn’t enough, my first combat scenario with the tank involved fighting a huge Dune like sand worm, which had a nasty habit of surfacing right below my tank and killing everyone outright, whether I kept moving or not – very frustrating!
While I’m on the subject of frustration, I have to mention the boss battles. Although you can liberally save your progress, there are all too many instances where you’re not allowed to save, and this is especially true before a boss battle. For instance, early on in the game I had to rescue an Asari scientist who would then become one of my party. After rescuing her I had to have a conversation with her, I then had to have a conversation with the pilot on my ship and I then had to endure a long ride on an elevator (there are way too many of these and they can’t be skipped). When I got to the top of the elevator I was then approached by a group of bad guys, who proceeded to have another conversation with me, after which a battle commenced.
Now, when I inevitably died during this conflict, do you think the game restarted from the beginning of that fight? Of course not, it threw me all the way back to the point where I rescued the scientist, leaving me to sit through multiple conversations, elevator rides and cut scenes, before I could get killed again and have to go through the whole frustrating process again and again and again…
So, whereas Bioware reckon a total playtime of around 25 hours on a linear path, you can probably double that when you take into account the amount of time you spend going over the same ground over and over.
But even with these seriously annoying shortcomings, I can’t help but like Mass Effect. Unlike a Lionhead game which promises the world while in development, only to arrive with a small fraction of those features intact, Bioware has delivered so much, that its failures can almost be forgiven.
Many games are described as space epics, but Mass Effect really does live up to that moniker. The visuals and conversation system are groundbreaking, and I defy anyone not to be impressed when they see this game running for the first time. It’s a shame that the game play is let down in some fundamental areas, but even so, I have to recommend that any Xbox 360 owner give it a try.