Game: Mass Effect
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: EA
Year: 2008
Reviewed: 2008
Platform: PC
Genre: Action RPG
Game Version: Unpatched
Reviewer: ValkyrDeath

Looking at the ratings people had given Mass Effect on Amazon.co.uk on release date, you could end up coming to the conclusion that it’s a terrible game. That is until you remember that they can’t have even played it if the reviews are already there on release date, and the majority of the people leaving these reviews on Amazon are complete morons anyway. Reading the reviews, most of them are moaning about the copy protection system, usually with ill-informed outdated opinions about it. Thankfully, the copy protection system is completely unnoticeable in practice and the game installed perfectly first time and ran straight away with no hitches, not even needing the disc in the drive. So let all the idiots refuse to buy the game because of the copy protection, and the rest of us can have a laugh at their expensive while we play one of the best games around. Although it’s not that funny, because it’s these same idiots who lead to game developers saying that no-one is buying PC games and using it as an excuse to focus on consoles.

Mass Effect Staring
When aliens enter, staring contests can be very tough.

Anyway, on to the actual game. As you’ve guessed from my rant, it’s absolutely fantastic. Which is pretty much expected from any RPG to come from Bioware. It’s a return to science fiction which they did so well with in Knights of the Old Republic, but this time it is set in a universe of their own devising rather than the world of Star Wars. And it’s a darker, more complex setting this time around. You play Commander Shepard of the Systems Alliance, soon to be in charge of the most powerful ship in the fleet. I don’t want to give any of the actual plot away, but it’s another of Bioware’s brilliant storylines which ends up developing in unexpected directions, so you never know quite how things are going to end up. But due to the setting, there are more complex politics at work than in previous games. Humans are actually the newcomers to space exploration in a galaxy full of other established species, and they’re not particularly well respected. Decisions in the galaxy are made by a council of members from the three main species, and anyone else has a hard time getting a hearing with them. Depending on how you play the game, you might get a chance to change their opinion of you, one way or the other.

The morality system that has played such a major role in their previous RPGs has been slightly redesigned to create a more versatile way of dealing with your actions. There’s no longer a single sliding scale, moving one way when you do good actions and the other when you do bad ones. Gone with it is the need to make all your actions fit one of the extremes, creating a complete saint who can do no wrong or an ultra evil villain who would slaughter puppies and wipe out civilisations for fun. Now you get two separate scales labelled “paragon” and “renegade”, and each one only moves in the upwards direction. Loosely, good actions increase the paragon scale and bad actions increase the renegade scale, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Renegade doesn’t necessarily mean being evil, but rebellious actions or actions that don’t quite follow the normal rules of conduct will increase your renegade points. Thanks to the two scales and the fact that you never lose points you’ve gained, it’s perfectly possible to create a more balanced and far more interesting character. It allowed me to create the sort of character I would have liked in the other games, someone who is ultimately good, but does things their own way. And it’s a lot more fun than role-playing as Jesus’ kinder brother.

Mass Effect Hacking
I didn’t know hacking was quite that dangerous.

Also helping to create a more interesting lead character is the fact that your character now has full voice acting. It adds some personality to them, where in earlier games they didn’t actually seem like characters in their own right but just puppets for your actions. The new conversation system also helps to make the game a bit more cinematic. Like with the morality system, it’s not a completely revolutionary change to their previous games, but rather a refinement that changes things just enough to improve the experience. Instead of waiting for someone to finish what they’re saying, and then having a selection of dialogue choices appear for you to choose from, the choices now appear in a small wheel that you move your selector around to pick one. Rather than being the entire line of dialogue, it just shows the general topic or attitude of the response for you to select. This, along with the fact that the dialogue options pop up a few seconds before the previous person has finished speaking, means you can pick your response quickly and the conversation flows seamlessly with no long pauses while you read and select your next line of speech. It’s surprising just how much this adds to the game, making the conversations feel far more believable and making the cutscenes and conversations feel a lot more like an interactive movie.

The biggest change from KOTOR is how the combat works. Where before you had the usual simple point and click turn-based combat presented as real time, now you have full control over the action. This means that when you get into a fight, you’re basically controlling it as you would in a third-person shooter. The stats still come into things, since you can increase your skill in various weapons to make combat easier, but you need to actually aim properly too, making you feel more involved. You also get to learn various Biotic powers, if you’re of an appropriate class for them at least. These are basically force powers for the non-Star Wars universe, and can be very useful when facing large groups of enemies. And as with KOTOR, you can take two of your crew along with you at any time. Holding down the spacebar pauses the game and brings up a menu for you to give a few basic orders to the other members of your team, such as ordering them to hold their ground or to advance, or getting them to use their various skills. It’s entirely optional though, and if you don’t want to bother using it your crew is generally intelligent enough to take care of themselves well enough during combat. If there’s one minor problem, it’s the one common with RPGs: the combat is harder at the start when you don’t have many skills than it is later on in the game, leading to a sort of inverse difficulty spike. While as you level up, the enemies get tougher, they don’t cause you as many problems when you have several biotic powers to help disable them and have bought the most powerful weapons and become fully trained in their use. At these levels, even a shotgun can become a lethally accurate long range weapon. Although really, it’s nice to feel that your character is actually improving as they level up, and a game becoming easy isn’t a problem for me. It’s better than the far too large number of games that ramp the difficulty level up to near impossible levels right at the end.

Mass Effect Conversation
Who’d have thought The Weakest Link would still be running in 2183.

The first part of the game as you explore the Citadel where you meet the council plays out in the usual Bioware RPG style. You can explore the station and solve a large selection of interesting side quests alongside the main storyline. It’s a large area, but thankfully there’s a transit system that let’s you get from one location to another very quickly, so there’s less running backwards and forwards than in most RPGs. But once you get control of your ship, things play out a little differently. Many of the optional quests from then on will involve flying to various uncharted worlds and exploring them for various reasons. There’s a variety of reasons you can be sent to these, as well as choosing to explore them yourself, which can range from investigating enemy presence on the planets to checking out what has happened in research bases. You’ll also occasionally come across seemingly abandoned spaceships to investigate. Whenever you land on an uncharted planet, you get a vehicle known as the Mako to drive around in to check out various points of interest shown on the map. The side quests don’t have quite the same complexity as some of the ones in their earlier games, but they’re usually interesting and are all entirely optional if you just want to get on with the main story. The Mako itself is easy to drive around the planet, and it’s impossible to tip it over even when trying to drive it over mountains, since it always rolls itself back over again. If only real cars were like that.

And it’s the main storyline that makes Mass Effect such a great game. It’s epic science fiction that’s at least as good as Bioware’s earlier games, if not better, and has plenty of opportunities to make decisions that are a bit more intricate to the basic good/evil choices of Knights of the Old Republic. In fact, especially in the last portion of the game, the moral decisions you have to make become quite complex and you really have to think and make a judgement about what you believe is the right thing to do. Some of them have real emotional impact, and one decision in particular ranks as the most difficult choice I’ve had to make in a game.

Mass Effect Carry On Adams
The upcoming sci-fi comedy, starring the holographic recreation of Sid James as Captain Innuendo and the reanimated corpse of Kenneth Williams as Lieutenant D. Entendre.

Of course, very few games are entirely flawless, and this is no exception, although the problems that are there are very minor. One is the way hacking is handled. It’s yet another hacking minigame, which seems to be the current trend in gaming. Try to hack something and you have to solve a brief simple game that plays out like an abstract version of the classic Frogger. It takes the form of a series of circles, each with blocks spinning round them, and you have to control a different coloured block from the outer ring into the centre without being hit by the other blocks. The puzzles most other games use for hacking are a slightly better idea, although I don’t really see why they have to put completely nonsensical things like that in for hacking. Deus Ex managed to create a system of hacking that was very simple to do but felt believable, and that was eight years ago. It seems like the idea has gone downhill ever since. There was also a bug at one point where the camera got stuck in a static position whenever I tried to do a certain action, but it wasn’t a major problem and reloading a save game fixed it. The uncharted worlds can also look a bit empty, although I guess barren uncolonised worlds would do, so you can’t really fault it for that, although it could have done with a bit more variety in side quests occasionally, with perhaps a few more traditional missions later in the game similar to the sections on the Citadel earlier on. And…umm… it’s hard to think of flaws really. Oh, the trips in lifts in the Citadel can be a bit too long.

But all of these are insignificant compared to what the game does right, which is basically everything else. It’s another in Bioware’s line of consistently high quality RPGs, and I don’t expect it will be last. I certainly hope it won’t be. It also has a good ending, and plenty of scope for future sequels, which I’m definitely looking forward to. If you like RPGs, or you like your action games with a lot of storyline, this game comes highly recommended.

(And look, I went an entire review without a single “critical mass” pun!)

Save System Review: Save anywhere as long as you’re not in the middle of combat, and a quicksave button too.
Graphics: Uses the Unreal Engine 3 to great effect. The space scenes in particular look incredible but the environments and character models are also of high quality. The characters also seem to have a more versatile array of animations than is usual in RPGs.
Sound: Voice acting is of a universally high quality throughout the game, and the sound effects and music fit perfectly.
Bugs: A minor bug with the camera getting stuck in one single point in the game, but other than that I didn’t notice anything.
Gameplay: The usual array of choices keep things interesting, and the new more hands-on combat system has a massive effect on improving things over Bioware’s earlier games.
Storyline: A fantastic epic science fiction storyline with an involving game world and difficult decisions, with a few twists along the way.

Arbitrary Final Score: 4 stars

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