First impressions: Mass Effect

When Bioware released Knights of the Old Republic, I was thrilled to experience the Star Wars universe in a way for the first time all over again, so fresh it was when compared to the bloated movie prequel trilogy. However, I kept feeling like they were being held back by the licence. From what you can derive from their newborn, Mass Effect, being freed from the imagination of others has served them well. With this in mind, their fantasy-RPG on the PC, Dragon Age, could be something very special after their already memorable treks in the Dungeons & Dragons world of Forgotten Realms.

Mass Effect is proper science fiction. It’s a prime example of the new space opera genre, or post-human (transhuman) space opera. There is none of that Star Wars lightshow on offer – it’s a very clinical, hard-edged affair. I was instantly in love.

The K18 rating in Finland (essentially “M” in US standards) is well-judged. The first violence you encounter in the game is far from Star Trek conventions, and the nightclubs are something you will not find in Star Wars. It doesn’t feel forced in any way.

I’ve played for two sessions so far and only seen two star systems – there are many more to visit. So far, the gameplay consists of exploring, talking and fighting. These are all very well handled. The talking you’ll do first. This is the finest conversation method I’ve seen in a videogame. You don’t actually choose your lines during a conversation, rather, you choose what you think to yourself before acting. It may also result in something other than talking, depending on the situation. All of the conversation I’ve seen is magnificently written. It sounds natural and usually there have been so many ways I could’ve gone about a situation. The choices are not binary, either, there’s just this wide gray area you stumble through. I’ve found myself tending towards a “renegade” on the game’s morality scale, as opposed to the “paragon” end. And I do not feel like an “evil character”: I feel like a human being. Thus far the game has not once made me do or say anything that would have felt out of character. As a result, I actually feel like I’m roleplaying my character, something I find very rarely in videogames.

The fighting exceeds my expectations by a wide margin. It’s no Halo, but it’s just tactical enough and more importantly, swift and cinematic. Thus the action plays the role of action in a movie, say: it adds excitement. Also, it’s dangerous. The guns are not blasters – they’re basically modern firearms with sci-fi tuneups, and people and aliens die with a few well-placed shots, unless they’re sporting heavy armor or shields. Looting is completely automatic, which I like – you don’t go around searching fallen enemies and endless crates: credits, medi-gel and omni-gel just appear in your inventory along with new gear.

The exploration, too, is much better than could have been predicted. My first task (which I chose myself, out of several leads) involved finding someone from the galaxy. I only have the last star system she’s been to. When I arrive there in my ship, I don’t get an automatic target to the person: rather, I need to investigate each individual planetary body, surveying some, landing to explore some, finding lots of interesting stuff much before actually finding my target. The exploration is done partly in menu screens, partly in my Mako vehicle (owing a lot to Aliens) and partly on foot. The driving is a little awkward, though. I think they’ve struck an interesting balance here between involving the player in the actual searching the galaxy for stuff and bypassing the unimportant matters.

The visual design is beautiful. It doesn’t maybe set you on fire in screenshots, but you gotta dig the cool military functionalism of the body armor and weapons. All of the aliens and human models are spot-on, too. You can also tune your character’s appearance to entirely your liking. This isn’t something I usually enjoy, but found the effort worthwhile here. At the risk of sounding like nitpicking, with the amount of attention to animation and modeling, it’s a little weird that there’s no hair animation in place. Hair is like a plastic wig. If the Playstation 2 can handle good-looking hair (Final Fantasy XII, for instance), so should the Xbox 360.

Based on the first eight hours or so, despite this being perhaps the highest ranking videogame year ever, this is game of the year material. Science fiction and/or RPG fans should not miss Mass Effect. The Xbox 360’s software line-up is starting to look intimidating indeed.

(Sorry about waiting this long before posting the preview, the online embargo was in effect until this evening. Also, this is the first time I’ve felt bad about reading the review guidelines, as some of the spoilers I’m not supposed to mention were major and I hadn’t seen them in the game yet. Oh well.)

4 Comments

  1. Having playing Mass Effect for, uh, I think about nine hours now (unfortunately, because of deadlines, I had to take a break to play TimeShift for a couple of evenings; honestly, it was a little like tasting the most delicious cake in the world and then having to eat a pile of rusty nails, dug freshly from the very bowels of Satan himself — not that it’s a terrible game, you understand, but the contrast was pretty staggering), and I’m pretty impressed. I’ll agree with just about everything you said about the storytelling. Another aspect that really pleases me: the way the character’s body language makes each bit of dialogue look all that much more convincing — the way the character look at the guy who’s speaking, glance at each other at key points, move around a little, track each other with their eyes… it’s subtle stuff, for the most part, and it really makes even the most mundane conversations interesting.

    It’s a fun game, but it’s not without its issues. The load times can be ridiculous, and trying to mask them with interminable elevator rides or putting in doors that the player has to open manually (which handily stops the player and thus gives the game more time to load what’s coming next…). More importantly, the user interface for changing equipment and whatnot is just a mess. I’m not having any fun using it, and it seems that I need to pay an inordinate amount of attention to what I’m doing, even though all I want to do is change a weapon.

    But so what? I mean, sure, I find these issues annoying, because they really have a pretty concrete impact on the gameplay and frankly, at this point, I’d expect a lot better from Bioware. It’s a weak show.

    But that said, the good parts are just so good that I don’t care. It’s like getting an unexpected inheritance for fifty million dollars and then finding out that you need to pay a hefty inheritance tax. Okay, that’s a bummer, but so what?

    You’re still a millionaire.

  2. “Having playing”. YES INTERNET I CAN COMMUNICATIATE!!?

  3. joonas.laakso

    Last night the inventory management, such as it is, got a little much for me. It really feels like they had paid it absolutely no attention and suddenly found out they were shipping the same night and had to kick it out as it is – barely functional.

    It doesn’t break the game, but makes the basic upgrading a painful process.

    And my god, why could they not ship a proper manual with the game. Like one that explains at least some of the many mysteries I’m wondering about, like ally non-combat skill use, grenade regeneration, melee attacks… There’s this sad button layout chart and not much else. (I have the retail version.) Again, feels like a month or so of development time was suddenly cut or never budgeted. I’m certain I’d feel (even) better about the game if I started afresh now that I’ve stumbled through most of the initial gameplay mysteries.

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