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Mass Effect (PC) Retrospective
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Author:HiveFleetBehemoth
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Date: 06/09/11 08:06
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Thanks to everyone for taking the time to read this. Enjoy!

 

 

Mass Effect Retrospective Review

After hearing for a year straight just how excellent Mass Effect 2 was, and getting a

chance to play the demo during the summer of 2010, I knew that I had to get a

piece of the Mass Effect franchise. And so, when both Mass Effect games went on

a Steam sale this past winter, I picked them both up.

Now, Mass Effect 2 is a game that has been reviewed to death, so I don’t really think it

needs another review from me. However, I did want to talk about the first game

in the series. Really, the first thing to know about Mass Effect 1 is that it’s

just not as good as Mass Effect 2. But even so, there are some things about

Mass Effect 1 that Mass Effect 2 desperately lacks, something I noticed through

two different playthroughs of both games back to back.

The first character I traveled through both games with was the standard male Shepard.

Damn all those Jennifer Hale fans, I wanted to play as a Calvin Klein model

with a buzz cut and a charismatic, commanding voice that could even convince a

child to give away its candy! Besides, the male Shepard was the poster boy, and

I wanted an authentic Mass Effect experience the first time around. And

I wanted to be sneaky, so I decided to go with infiltrator for my first

run-through of both games. The second time around, I played as a female Adept,

and got a chance to find a couple of things I had missed the first time around.

With that in mind, let us proceed to the review.


The ultimate Mass Effect experience: models with buzzcuts, women with painfully oversized breasts, and weird aliens

 

 

 

The Good: Great dialogue wheel, innovative combat, solid RPG elements, interaction with squadmates, best plot ever.

The Bad: The mako, repetitive level design, bad side missions, bland visuals, and the mako.

What the Heck: The mako.

 

Story and Presentation

One thing that a lot of people rave about when it comes to Mass Effect 2 is the story.

Yes, Mass Effect 2 had an excellent, deeply personal story, but it kinda sucked

compared to the first Mass Effect’s story. The problem is that Mass Effect 2’s

story always felt a bit episodic compared to Mass Effect 1’s pitch-perfect

narrative, not to mention aimless beyond each individual mission, as there was

little to tie all of your squad mates’ stories together. But boy, does Mass

Effect 1 have an awesome story.

Bioware utilizes two different tricks in order to involve you into Mass Effect’s story.

The first is the use of cut scenes. While cut scenes are pretty much bread and

butter for every RPG, Bioware ensures that theirs are articulately designed and

completely immaculate in regard to every detail. Bioware’s judicious use of cut

scenes in the main storyline serves to augment and punctuate the thrilling

moments of Mass Effect’s main storyline.

What do you get when you have four jerks in the same room?

 

 

The second, yet most innovative addition to the main storyline is the dialogue

wheel. It’s by far the coolest thing about Mass Effect, and is not just a sign

of great organization on Bioware’s part, but also a product of excellent game

design that strengthens the narrative in multiple ways. I could try to explain

the ingenious organization of the dialogue wheel myself, but I’ll allow the

Mass Effect wiki to do the talking for me:

Instead of the traditional dialogue choices, which show you every word of your response

verbatim, you are presented with paraphrases of your available dialogue options on a

"conversation wheel". For example, one choice may appear as "Don't try to study me,"

while the actual spoken line is "I'm not some artifact you can take back to your lab, doctor."


Thankfully, none of the Mass Effect characters suck as much as this guy

 

 

Just being able to make a verbal decision from scanning a short list of paraphrased

reactions streamlines the game’s extensive dialogue system, allowing the player

to maintain immersion in a conversation. By not forcing players to read through

multiple full lines of text, Bioware ensures that it’s able to offer the player

a wider variety of response options. Personally, I’m not always against

scanning full lines of dialogue choices; I think it worked well in Dragon Age:

Origins, but the dialogue wheel is excellent in Mass Effect and really hums

along nicely with the game’s sci-fi feel and pacing.

The dialogue wheel and cut scenes, however, are only mechanics that drive along an

excellent story. Mass Effect’s main storyline is the best I’ve ever seen in any

game so far. Each bit is well tuned and crafted; you get an epic speech near

the beginning to pump you up and get into the feel of being a commander, and

the ending is awe-inspiring, to say the least. The best part about the

storyline, the thing that differentiates Mass Effect from the hordes of other

RPG’s out there, is the massive amount of choice. Because each and every

decision you make has far-reaching consequences in the sequels, you’ll be

biting your nails every time you’re presented with two tough choices and no

escape. Though Mass Effect’s choices may be marginally less nail biting than

some of the choices it inspired in later games like Dragon Age: Origins, Mass

Effect 2, and The Witcher 2, it’s still a game whose story mechanics have more

than stood the test of time.


 

 

 

The choices you make in these dialogue scenes are reflected by mutually independent

paragon and renegade bars. Bioware tried to do something different from KotOR

by splitting the paragon and renegade paths from each other, but KotOR’s design

influence lingers on, simply because the Paragon or Renegade points you acquire

from a single conversation are linked. So essentially, if you speak lines in a

dialogue sequence that give you ten renegade points and five paragon points,

you would actually receive only five renegade points, and nothing else.

Essentially, the game penalizes player’s choices simply for not being uniform

during a conversation. Personally, I’d rather get points for each item of

dialogue I speak and not have my points depend on an arbitrary verbal

collective. Thankfully, however, I didn’t find myself getting penalized so

much, as my character wouldn’t naturally change tact in the middle of a

conversation. Still, when I felt it necessary to change my attitude midway

through a conversation, the system’s shortcomings did irritate me.

But where Mass Effect truly does break away from KotOR (in the Paragon/renegade system,

anyway) is that Mass Effect’s Paragon/renegade system isn’t a morality system,

like KotOR’s Light/Dark system was; it’s more of a choice between means to a

given end, that end being saving the galaxy. This means Shepard is a much more

interesting character, as choosing how to accomplish Shepard’s goals is a much

more intriguing task than the pointless conflict between an obviously moral

choice and an obviously immoral choice. Even so, Mass Effect does fall into the

trap of occasionally just making the Paragon an idiot, and the Renegade nothing

but a total douchebag. In some ways, this is good because it incentivizes the

player to choose something in between a stark Renegade or Paragon, and not to

be dogmatic about one arbitrary point system over the other. Of course, you

always have the choice of just being a total douchebag or idiot for your own

twisted amusement.

The only weak thing about Mass Effect’s story, though, has to be its side quests. While

most are individually interesting, a few are not, and all of them feel like

nothing more than distractions to the main quest. Still, they do give the game

a large amount of interesting exploration in the Mako and on foot that really

fleshes out the flavor of the Mass Effect universe. Besides, you get to listen

to Lance Henriksson assign you side-quests, which is certainly no bad thing.


Get used to entering twenty thousand compounds that look exactly like this one, both inside and out, on every world you visit in order to complete a side quest

 

Sound

Lance Henriksson is only one of a number of excellent voice actors crewed to act out

the excellent story. Though I found some of the characters to be annoying,

(Ashley) I never disliked the voice acting for any of them. In particular,

Keith Richards as Captain Anderson, and Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale as the male

and female Shepards definitely stand out for me. Richards manages to affect a

fatherly radio voice without making Captain Anderson appear unnecessarily

patronly. Mark Meer turns in a staple performance with the perfect leader’s

voice, one that commands instant respect. Jennifer Hale delivers an admirable

performance, managing to characterize her Shepard as a hard-bitten veteran, as

opposed to throwing out the ubiquitous female bitch archetype. Regardless of my

personal preference for Hale, both Meer and Hale add immensely to Shepard’s

interminable character strength, and thus set Mass Effect apart from its peers.

The sound design team also did a fantastic job in designing the sound. The most basic

effects across the span of the galaxy, from gunfire sounds to activating

machines, sound solidly futuristic. However, at times things can sound a bit cartoonier

than they really should, causing the game to feel immature at times. The

soundtrack is locked in a similar place, it being a contrast between distinctly

futuristic music and some rather off-kilter pitches. The good bits of the

soundtrack allow the game to set itself apart, especially with the catchy

galaxy map tune that plays while you’re exploring the galaxy in your ship.

 

Gameplay

Though Bioware games have a lot of story content that is all well and good, like most

games, the run and gun gameplay and galaxy exploration are the things you’ll

spend most of your time on. Let’s start with exploration, which can be divided

into two sections, the interplanet and intraplanet. The former is bland and involves nothing but aimless clicking, though

kinda cool thanks to lots of written planet details that you’ll probably only

read half of, and the latter sucks. The latter is epitomized by the dreaded

Mako, whose controls are so half-baked and unfinished that even Demiurge

Studios, the company that made the Mass Effect PC port, couldn’t even fill in

the gaping hole of code that Bioware left behind. I know that the controls on

the PC are better than those on the Xbox, but using the Mako on the PC was the

greatest headache-inducing test of mental endurance I have ever undergone.


Point and click as much as you can now, because the mako is much, much worse…

 

During my first play through, I used the mako extensively, traveling to every planet to

grab every achievement and bit of experience I could. It was the greatest

torture that I have ever experienced in a computer game, save perhaps for

getting a defective copy of Half-Life when I was nine years old that glitched

me from proceeding past the halfway point of the game. It pains me to think on

the agony that so many console players have endured at the hands of that

bumbling, glitch-built vehicle. The very basics of shooting are immaculately

problematic; you can’t fire at anything unless you’re on roughly even terrain

with your target; you can fire away with everything you have, but you’ll

experience nothing but dismay as your shots magically pass through the target with

no impact whatsoever.

However, the most glaring issue with the mako is its movement. It’s impossible to

control its direction at any given time, as a single pothole or bump will send

it into an uncontrolled spin. Ironic, considering that it’s actually meant to

be an all-terrain vehicle. It’s more like a no-terrain vehicle, as you’ll

discover when you drive it on some of the worst terrain ever. Cause the

planet environments suck. The planets in the Mass Effect universe must have

really weird chemical makeup, because the same texture is unexplainably

repeated across every square inch of the planet’s surface. I’ve also never seen

any mountain ranges on Earth with nearly the same amount of awkward crevasses

and pointed summits as there are on the giant spikefests that feature

distinctly on every planet in the Mass Effect universe. The random

spike-mountains protruding from the ground definitely do not relieve the dully

textured terrain by delivering any sort of originality or art quality, making intra-planet

exploration even more of a drag than it is already.

Somehow, the mako is not an entirely awful, soulless vehicle. Somehow, despite the lack

of effort on Bioware’s part, fights in the mako are actually somewhat

interesting. For one, the geth you’ll fight pack a real punch and can take a

lot of hits before going down. The zoom function in combination with the dual

weapon system also helps to make fights more interesting and decision based.

Plus, the ability to jump, which is usually a massive hindrance considering the

poor controls and terrain, can actually be put to good use in combat. It’s only

in combat that the mako’s semi-unique concepts (in combination with Demiurge’s

excellent bug-fixing) manage to shine through the terrible controls.


Similar experiences have only been found in dental offices

 

 

Though getting somewhere in the mako resembles getting teeth pulled, things liven up a

bit once you actually get to your destination. I’ve never had as much fun or

difficulty in assaulting a compound as I did in Mass Effect. This is simply

because Mass Effect has an interesting, nuanced combat system. It appears, at

first glance, to be a common shooter, but with the pause button in combination

with the numerous powers for each class, the game actually plays like a

turn-based strategy game without any turns. Adding to this uniqueness is the

ammo mechanic, overheating, which removes the tedium associated with conserving

ammo while still retaining a distinct level of urgency in firefights. If your

gun overheats, you’re in a spot of trouble. The overheat mechanic also tangoes

well with related abilities and equipment that affects the number of shots you

can take before overheating. But Mass Effect is, first and foremost, a cover

game. And really, it has a great cover system. You just have to run up to a

piece of cover and Shepard will automatically hide behind it. While it

occasionally does have some issues, such as a bug with zooming your weapon, I

found the controls to be much more manageable than Mass Effect 2’s unalterably

terrible controls. The health system is also a very nice hybrid between

regenerating health and health packs. While you can get abilities and armor

that will allow your team to regenerate health at a decent rate over time, you

also will have to use health packs during fire fights to stay alive. On top of

that, you have shields, which regenerate fairly quickly if you hide behind

cover. You need to keep track of both health and shields during a firefight and

regulate your abilities that bolster each in order to stay alive. Health is

just another way that Mass Effect places an emphasis on strategy. You can

certainly try to play Mass Effect like a twitch shooter, but you’ll only get

massacred.


You can only get away with this on Easy

 

 

Put simply, its gameplay design is nothing short of genius in principle. However,

its execution can occasionally be a bit bland. The class system, composed of

the three archetypes, biotic, tech, soldier and their hybrids, is inventive,

disposing of the warrior/rogue/mage types entirely. Even the powers available

to each class are interesting and powerful in themselves. However, it’s the

distinguishments between each class that feel a bit sterilized. For example,

vanguards are exact copies of one half of the soldier class and one half of the

adept class. There’s not much variation, save for the weapons that each class

is restricted to. But really, how much variety can you get from mixing up four

weapons? Not much. I suppose, however, that the hybrid system works well

enough, in the same way that tube-fed mush works. Still, considering the

uninspired way that some of the classes in Mass Effect 2 were redesigned, I’d

rather eat tube-fed mush than live off of milk duds. I suppose that’s something

for Mass Effect 3 to get right. Even so, all of the skills and equipment you

use in combat is strongly directed by a RPG-driven inventory and experience

system.

Bioware does manage to spice things up with an excellent skill system. Many of the

skills are well layered to provide prerequisites for others, and each skill is

very useful and well balanced, meaning that where you place your points is

going to carry a lot of weight. This extra layer of strategy rewards players

who place thought into the system, ultimately making Mass Effect a better game

for it.


The soldier is the one with the shallowest skill tree- the adept has tons more abilities

 

 

The inventory system is likewise deep. Inside each of the four gun types: assault

rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, and pistols, you have a lot of variety between

models, each of which are characterized by three traits: the number of shots

each weapon can take before overheating, accuracy, and damage. And each

individual model has a good deal of customization in its own right. Each gun

can hold an ammo type and up to two additional attachments. These attachments

and ammo types range from freezing your enemies and increasing the cooldowns on

their powers, to heat sinks that allows you to fire your weapon for a much

longer time. Mastering how to mix and match your attachments with your guns is

an essential skill for survival on the harder levels. It’s just another way

that Bioware rewards smart players. And none of it is difficult to understand.

The inventory system is intuitive and very simple to use.


The visuals in this game are far worse than these screens would have you believe


Visuals

Running on the Unreal Engine 3, Mass Effect looks great, but not excellent. This isn’t

helped by the omnipresent re-used, bland character models. While at times the

game is framed well, it’s still just such a step below recent games. The only

word that I can consistently use to describe the visuals is sterilized. They’re

certainly not bland, but the engine and art style are just too primal to be

awe-inspiring. At least the art style manages to give the game a very

distinctive feel that builds upon the setting quite well.

 


 Distinctive feel, sterile character models

 

Lasting Appeal:

With two different paths, paragon and renegade, and three class archetypes, soldier,

adept, and tech, to pursue, you have at least two playthroughs just for the

story, and realistically up to three for the gameplay. Considering that each run

through is about thirty hours, that’s not a bad value. Most likely, though,

you’ll end up only playing the game twice. However, the best thing about

playing the game is that you’ll get to import your save into Mass Effect 2, and

see the impact of all your choices.


Two sequels later, and this guy is still hurting from driving the mako

 

 

Final Verdict

Mass Effect is a game chock full of RPG elements, excellent storytelling,

and varied gameplay that with keep you interested for hours. Contrary to the

hand-holding and shallow mechanics that plague its sequel and other recent

Bioware games, Mass Effect is a game that proves a game can be both strategic

and accessible. And while Mass Effect is often overlooked by its younger,

shinier brother, it’s a game that really shouldn’t ever be forgotten,

especially as Mass Effect 3 glitters over the horizon.

 

Presentation and Story 9/10- Memorable story for years to come,

accessible, but has side quest issues.

 

Sound 6/10- Distinctive, but not very good.

 

Gameplay 8/10- Despite some blandness and repetitive level design,

very intense and tactical combat.

 

Graphics 7/10- Good and themed, but somewhat sterilized.

 

Lasting Appeal 8/10- Good lasting appeal for a RPG

 

Overall: 8/10

 

Go get it, people!

 


 

 


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