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» Mass Effect - Xbox 360

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Some games start out slow and only grab your interest after you invest considerable time. Then there are games that make you think “Nice, I think I’m going to enjoy this” right off the bat. Then, there are even more impressive games that blow up in your face the moment you insert the disk into the console – games that have that special something to pull you in before you even start playing. And then there is Mass Effect, a game whose introduction can be put right next to classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey. But is a strong introduction all this game has going for it, or did Bioware prove themselves as master of RPG making yet again?

The Mass Effect

For once we humans aren’t the most advanced race in the galaxy. Neither are we the underdog who nobody respects. We are something of a combination of both. After stumbling upon some strange alien ruins on Mars approximately 200 years from now, humanity started to expand rather quickly, activating strange alien space installations known as mass relays. These structures allowed us to travel across huge distances in mere moments, so being the inquisitive and colonial creatures that we are, we quickly settled dozens of planets that had hospitable surface conditions. It goes without saying that we soon stumbled upon another race, which due to our reckless activating of mass relays didn’t have much choice but to attack us. The First Contact war didn’t last long and was thankfully ended in a diplomatic manner, but as a result none of the Council races have much love for us.

It turns out that although humanity managed to make huge leaps in technological advancement since coming upon the Mars ruins, we are still lagging behind by about 2000 years in terms of space-faring experience. What we lack in that department we however more than make up by being a pushy, insanely nosey race. In only 20 years since coming into contact with the Citadel alliance we managed to not only secure an embassy spot on the Citadel, but also become one of the most vocal and important races in the alliance. This obviously doesn’t make everybody happy, as several other races have been working for hundreds of years to achieve the same, only to fail due to various reasons. No, humans aren’t the most advanced race in the galaxy, but we are definitely one of the most feared due to our quick progression. Feared enough to be considered dangerous?

Thrown into the midst of all this, you play as Commander Shephard, a male or female (depending on your starting choice) soldier enlisted in the human Alliance space forces. Shephard is no ordinary soldier however – unlike in most RPGs you don’t start the game as a blank slate, but you aren’t forced into the shoes of somebody you don’t like either. Instead, you have complete reign over Shephard’s past (should you choose to create a custom character that is).  Has Shephard been raised on the streets of Earth, or did he spend most of his youth in space, traveling on Alliance navy vessels with his parents.  And what is the reason Shephard is a Commander and not just a grunt? Is it his/her get it done at all costs attitude, or is the Commander perhaps a survivor who is able to endure almost everything? These and other questions need to be answered  when you are creating a new character. I see some of you shaking your heads already, not convinced by the whole thing. Let me reassure you, I had the exact same thing going through my mind when I was creating my incredibly good looking female Shephard (yeah ok, don't be so quick to judge). What good is having a detailed past when you are the only one who cares about it? You’re going to have to trust me on this (for just a while longer), but you aren’t the only one who will know about Shephards past. Even the introduction where two (at the time unknown) speakers argue over you is affected by your initial choices.

Commander Shephard

Selecting your past isn’t the only thing you have control over when creating your avatar for Mass Effect. When compared to other RPGs the only limitation you will come across is that you can only create a human character. That is it however – the looks of your character are entirely up to you. Cue in the female choir RPG fans, your dreams have come true! Commander Shephard (you can select the first name, but all will call you either by your last name or station and rank) will look exactly like you want him/her to, right down to the skin wrinkles and war scars, not to mention eye shape, nose size and other major facial features. Once you are finally happy with how your character looks it is time to make perhaps the most game influencing choice – you have to select your class.

Instead of being presented with dozens of different classes that end up playing exactly the same, Mass Effect only offers you 3 base classes and 3 hybrid ones. The three base classes are all pretty standard fare in terms of names and features: The soldier is your run of the mill gun wielding, front row charging killing machine that pays little attention to himself. Almost a complete opposite, the engineer tends to stay behind cover and assist his colleagues by healing them and causing various degrees of mischief amongst enemy lines by disabling their shields and jamming their weapons. Last but not least comes the adept, Mass Effect’s version of a force user from Knights of the Old Republic. Relying only on a pistol these guys tend to throw enemies into the air for easy pickings or simply smashing them against a wall for massive damage. On paper these classes sound noticeably different, but they usually do. But while practice usually tells us otherwise, Mass Effects throws away with convention and actually plays out completely differently based on your class choice. Even the hybrid classes, a mix of two base classes have enough going for themselves that you can actually replay the game 3 times before you’ll start coming across gameplay segments that you have already experienced.

Let’s take a look at a common combat encounter. You and two other team members (each belonging to a different class type) enter a room full of space pirates whose only goal it is to add another tick on their giant black flag, hanging proudly from the mast of their spaceship (well, I’m taking it a bit far here, so suffice it to say they want you dead). A soldier’s approach would be to duck for cover, grab his high speed rifle and then jump out of cover, take a few shots at exposed enemies and then go to cover again. Then, after the enemy is worn out a bit from incoming fire (and bionic/tech abilities depending on your choice of companions) the soldier will ordinarily put away his rifle, grab a shotgun and go right into the midst of his foes to finish the job. Quick, effective and to the point. But also completely reckless! An engineer would, like the soldier, first find cover, but after that go with a completely different strategy. After boosting his shields to prevent any unneeded trouble he’ll use some of his abilities to completely incapacitate the enemies, then raise his head out of cover, take a few easy shots with his pistol and duck once again.

For his next wave he’ll use another set of abilities, or perhaps detonate some barrels next to his enemies (an easy feat since he is safely out of range). What about the adept? He’ll most likely combine the two approaches – after assessing the situation he’ll probably throw the nearest group of enemies halfway across the room and then lift the remaining enemies into the air, where his team will easily deal with them. Now, just as the first group is getting back on their feet the adept will put one of them into stasis and have his team deal with the rest, leaving the frozen foe for last. The hybrid classes will obviously use a mixture of the above tactics, but usually combined in a unique enough manner that they don’t feel like cheap combinations of the base approaches.

You probably know by now that the combat in Mass Effect closely resembles the duck and cover system Gears of Wars uses. Experienced from a third person view, players will try to stay out of line of sights most of the time, since except for the soldier based classes (and even then not all) health has a nasty habit of dropping extremely fast when under fire. Quite often the battles will play out like exact clones of encounters from GoW, with you and your team pressed against walls and barricades, trading shots with enemies who are doing much the same. To my biggest surprise, enemies will often leave their cover and start coming straight for you. I am not sure if this is due to some advanced AI who just knows I’m low on shields and health and can’t survive a direct firefight or due to the lack of any kind of AI, but whatever the reason is, it makes combat quite dynamic. And well it should, since otherwise the combat wouldn’t be much fun.

You see, despite being fairly polished , the combat still feels vastly inferior to what GoW threw at us. It’s hard to put into words, but the moment you will take your first shot it will be clear as day that this game is an RPG first, shooter second. Don’t get me wrong, even on its own the shooting portions of the game make a solid experience, but you’d probably skim right over it. Some of this is because of glaring bugs in the combat system – you, your team mates and enemies alike will often get stuck on geometry or, even worse, outside of the game world. It doesn’t happen too often to make you hate the game, but unfortunately often enough for you to resent the game at least a bit. Even more so because of the sadistic save system. We have all grown used to the fact that in Bioware games you can’t save in the middle of combat. But when the auto-save feature tends to its job only every few hours and you stumble upon a hard fight without any warning, resulting in losing a good hour or so of playing… well, you’re going to hate the game at least for a while.

Good cop, bad cop

But enough about combat. It might not be perfect, but that is only because it plays second violin to the RPG parts. And this is where Mass Effect really shines.  Sure, if you break it down to its individual components the system is still the same as it was a few years back with Knights of the Old Republic. But last I checked, we don’t play the individual parts of a game, but the game as a whole, and like it or not, Mass Effect is by far the most polished RPG with every bit and piece doing its work to ensure the game as a whole works as indented.

Let’s take a look at the statistics and leveling up for example. The system gives you free reign over how you specialize your character. Depending on your initial class choice you’ll have several skills available to upgrade. They range from how adept you are with a certain kind of weapon (pistols, rifles, shotguns and sniper rifles) and which bionic powers you can use (and how powerful they are) all the way to more pacifistic stuff, like how charismatic or intimidating you are. You can leave it up to the game to level you up, but any true RPG fan will not only do it manually, but fine tune all of his companions as well. Combat isn’t as greatly affected by these stats, simply because all of the foes you take on level up dynamically based on how strong your character is. You still get new abilities as you progress, but the game provides a constant challenge all the way through. Oblivion has shown us that people tend not to like this, but it actually help make Mass Effect truly non-linear.

Now that we’ve dealt with the more boring aspect of the RPG heritage, let’s discuss the fun part – playing the role of Commander Shephard. With previous games Bioware have shown us that they can present a good story in a fairly non-linear casing, but despite all the choices that were put before us we always felt kind of shackled. Each conversation put a few choices between us, and while they usually varied greatly between one another, we were still forced to select one. Mass Effect doesn’t do away with that, but it makes conversations a lot more dynamic. Instead of presenting you with a list of available answers, you instead select the general tone and attitude of your reply. So, when confronted with a heated situation you will be able to select “Calm down” as you reply, and Shephard will try and avoid confrontation. Likewise you can select “Bring it on” and Shephard will try and provoke whoever he is talking to. The great thing about this system that you never really have to read lines and lines of text to decide on how to reply – instead you just skim over the selection, push the analog stick in the direction of what is closest to how you want to react and see Shephard do the rest of the work. This way the conversations are a lot more fluent, since you can usually select a reply even before the other person stops talking. It might seem like a minor detail, but going back to Knights of the Old Republic made me cringe at how stiff the conversations were before Mass Effect.

It is precisely because of these conversations that you will want to play Mass Effect. Completing optional quests was never as fun or rewarding as following the main story line, but here the voices and digital acting of the characters will literally make you do them. It is easy saying no to a bunch of code, but when the person/alien who is asking you has so much vibrancy in its look, its movement you can’t ignore it. Yes, Bioware finally did away with the stiff looking conversations from their past games. The digital actors will now frown, lean towards you, pull out weapons when needed and do all kinds of other stuff during conversations. The same goes for Shephard, who is completely voiced over in this game. This is a noticeable change from before and it makes the main character a lot more lovable/hate-able (depending on how you play).

Obviously the amount of depth each character has is directly proportional to how important his role is to the game. As such, all of your companions have very well written background stories, making them seem like persons made out of flesh and bone. Some of these stories develop out into full fledged side quests, while others are there simply for the experience. What they showcase is however that Mass Effect strays away from the typical good/evil alignment previous Bioware games touted. Since you end up playing the savior of the galaxy it wouldn’t do you being evil to the core. Instead, your choices are more along the lines of being a good or a bad cop. As an example, you can try to convince a retired general to stop harassing a girl he is in love with (failing miserably with his wooing), or you can simply slam him against a wall and make him stop. You obviously did a good thing in either case, but your approach in the second example wasn’t nearly as kind of diplomatic as in the first one.

So, once one of the NPCs breaks your heart with its plight for help, what will you end up doing? You can break down the possible outcomes to two simple kinds of quests. The first kind will have you talk to people, trying to either convince somebody to do something or something along those lines. The other kind is the exploration/combat kind, where you travel to distant planets/moons/space stations and do your bit for humanity and the Citadel races. The second kind unfortunately ends up being a bit repetitive – the galaxy of Mass Effect is huge, but most of the planets are nothing more than charts of data you can read, and even the few exportable planets are nothing else than barren ranges of hills and valleys covered in different textures, sprinkled sparsely with bases, ruins and anomalies. Exploring them is still fun, as you often end up entering bunkers and bases where all hell breaks loose. Like it or not however, only the main quest-line has unique planets, bases that aren’t just mirror copies of one another and really in depth conversations. I am being a bit hard on Mass Effect here, because even these seemingly low-profile quests are still a lot better than what other games offer in terms of side quests. It is just that with the bulk of the game so well done, one expects the same amount of effort put into everything else as well.

If only it used a hard drive

The game is a technical masterpiece. Well, most of the time anyway. From the way characters move to how realistic their facial expressions are, Mass Effect is one of the prettiest games out right now. The combat effects are spectacular, as are most of the environmental effects and the locales you visit. Long forgotten ruins, high tech space stations, you name it – it all looks great… once the game has finished loading the scene. In order to avoid minute long loading times Bioware decided to use streaming technology. The result are frequent pauses as you run around, 30 seconds long elevator rides as the game prepares the next area and most annoyingly – texture pop in. You probably saw this phenomenon in Gears of War or other Unreal based games – the game loads the basic geometry of the level and then applies high resolution textures on the fly. The result is ugly ass looking levels for the first few seconds after loading a map or instant travelling there. Sure, a few seconds doesn’t sound like much, but when you add that to the constant hitching and framerate drops the picture is all but nice.

At least the audio front makes up for the issues. It seems that Bioware hired a small nation to do the voiceovers for this game – every single conversation you have has its unique voiceover, and even more importantly, the speakers don’t tend to repeat themselves. You will never stumble upon a merchant who has the same (or very similar) voice to another merchant you met a few minutes back – no sir, every one of the hundreds of NPCs sounds unique. To top it off, they all sound real and the lip-synching is perfect. The music is great also. It is reminiscent of 80s synth pieces which made movies like Blade Runner and Terminator so great. There are obviously some more dramatic pieces in there as well, but for the better part of the game the music has that futuristic sound that we all love.

Conclusion

I might have led you to believe that Mass Effect isn’t a good game. If I have, I’d like to apologize. Mass Effect is a great game. One of the best released this year in fact. But it is not perfect. From various technical difficulties to the slightly lacking combat system, the game could do with another few months of development time. But all of the issues are quickly overshadowed by the amazing experience Bioware managed to deliver. The galaxy is huge and as a result the amount of things to do borders on infinite. As for the core of the game – the story and quests and combat that go with it, the game is top notch, a work of love and dedication. If you are into RPGs even slightly or can the other way when it comes to some of the issues with the combat, you are going to love this game. Just try not to lose yourself in the vastness of space.

Gameplay
88/100
You could say that this is the pinnacle of RPG games, but that wouldn’t be quite true. The action parts mar the otherwise perfect experience.
Graphics
88/100
It looks stunning, but technical glitches and the unstable framerate make the experience slightly less enjoyable.
Audio
94/100
If perfection has a form, this has to be it. The synth music brings back memories while the perfect voice acting makes you feel the characters.
Value
95/100
Just the main quest line takes over 15 hours to complete. Add the countless side quests and you can clock over 40 hours should you want to.
Overall
(not an average)
91/100
It’s not the best RPG ever created, but it is amongst the finest and it will surely end up on the list of everlasting classics.



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