STAFF REVIEW of Mass Effect (Xbox 360)

Saturday, November 24, 2007.
by Stacy Code

Mass Effect Box art It?s been many, many months since the first glimpses of Mass Effect in action were seen, and the level of expectation was set staggeringly high. The promotional clips, videos, and trailers showed a role-playing game huge in scope, lifelike in its depiction, and as engaging in its combat as rival third-person shooters. Mass Effect has arrived, and it doesn?t disappoint, although in the cold light of day after a year of anxious expectation, there are a few points of patience within the game. Still it has the breadth and depth to appeal to a range of role-playing styles and interests, and enough galaxy for you to run around in to keep you amused through the long, cold coming winter.

The game puts you in the boots of Commander Shepard, an elite agent tasked with crisscrossing the galaxy in the prototype frigate Normandy. In your travels, you?ll initially visit planets giving aid to human colonies under attack from an alien mechanical race, but as you progress through the early stages of the story you?ll discover that much larger events are taking place and you will eventually find yourself swept up into Machiavellian intrigues on a literal galactic scale.

For gamers who are new to RPG games, Mass Effect is very accessible and close in style to the shooter and action games that they may already play. The gameplay essentially takes place in three ways ? travel and exploration, dialogue and negotiation, and of course, combat for when all of the previous aren?t options. Players will create their own version of Commander Shepard at the beginning of the game, male or female, with a complete physical appearance designed by the player. Patient gamers can actually recreate their role-playing alter-ego to resemble themselves ? I sculpted my character to look like myself, and it was initially eerie to watch myself on screen interacting with aliens, diplomats, soldiers, and the co-cast of characters within the game. The quality of the writing within the game is such that players will actually find the various characters they encounter within the game reacting to them based on the character history they create at the beginning of the game.With the degree of realism in the facial animation and expression, plus the quality of the voice acting, players will feel as though they?ve stumbled at times into a high-quality CG animated movie. The player has their own supporting cast, with a handpicked squad of various characters met in the initial act of the game, and at any point in time, Commander Shepard can be accompanied by two other squadmates who include, among others, a tough young human soldier whose life you saved, a mysterious Quarian nomad girl whose face you never see, and a centuries-old seven-hundred pound reptile with some unresolved anger issues.

Movement through the world of Mass Effect can be intimidating, and even confusing for a player initially. Navigation on foot is simple enough ? the game is mostly played in a third-person view like most action games, with easy camera control (necessary for exploration and navigation in Mass Effects sometimes large environments) and simple controls ? most of the things and people you can interact with only require the push of a single button. Still, some alien environments can be open and featureless by nature, and some indoor environments, such as the ?home base? or ?hub? of the game, the Citadel, are somewhat antiseptic and repetitive in places ? more unique identifying marks, landmarks, or architectural variation would help a novice player navigate the huge spaces of Mass Effect. There is a map in the game with placeable waypoint markers to help (invaluable on alien worlds), and within the Citadel a public transit system is ready to deposit you pretty much anywhere you?d need or like to go anyway. Nontheless, patient exploration is key, and with the amount of repeated crisscrossing of a given city or area that most role playing games involves, the knowledge of local geography will go a long way. The game is populated with a large, richly-storied cast of various alien races and characters, and the first five hours of game time for the player may be a little dizzying as they come to learn the history of the galaxy and how the human race came to take its role of responsibility in the galactic community. The amount of initial information overload plus the task of learning the actual play of the game may be too intimidating for some more casual gamers, but for those who are patient enough to play through to hour ten or so will find the game all the more rich for it, and there?s enough combat thrown in all over the place to keep things really moving.

When not moving through the world of Mass Effect on foot, players will explore the galaxy from the bridge of the Normandy, a small, fast vessel with a crew of perhaps two dozen. Navigating the galaxy can be tricky ? it?s a big place, and the large, holographic galaxy map on board the bridge of the Normandy can be a little confusing initially, as you zoom in and out through various levels of scale to look for the planet or system that you want to travel to. Once you?ve flown to your destination of choice, either the Normandy lands (if it?s a nice, civilized planet with appropriate parking) or else your squad can be airdropped onto the surface in the Mako, a six-wheel armoured personnel character that is more fun to drive than any radio controlled toy you ever got for Christmas. The Mako is quite literally uncrashable, with the most stable suspension and low centre of gravity of any vehicle, so the driving/exploring interludes in the Mako are almost a off-road ATV minigame. The Mako packs punch, however, with a mounted cannon and machine gun, and can level a Geth fortified camp singlehanded.

The heart of any Bioware role playing game is the story, and Mass Effect doesn?t disappoint here at all. The plot that the character follows is grand, galactic in scale, and at its heart is the future course and survival of the human race in the alien galactic community, and what role it is to play. As well as the main story, anywhere you go within the game you will find smaller characters in more minor roles, all with issues to be resolved, missions to be fulfilled, tasks to help with. The story is moved forward in many ways, but the most engaging is the dialogue system, which is the most natural and cinematic of any game to date. Talking with other characters in the game is smooth and intuitive ? while listening to someone speak, a list of possible responses is shown at the bottom of the screen, usually in a clear shorthand suggesting the tone of your response. ?Go Away? might result in ?You?d better move yourself along if you don?t want to get hurt?, or ?What?s this?? might deliver ?I?ve never seen an alien technology like this before. Got any insight as to why it might be in a place like this?? Characters who invest their experience earned on skills like Charm or Intimidate will open up even more dialogue options with characters they meet, and can tailor their interaction to suit their play style. Shepard earns Paragon or Renegade points depending on how positively or negatively he interacts with the world around him, and this further affects how people in the world react to him, in ways both blunt and subtle ? a shopkeeper that refuses to sell his wares, or even a seductive smile from a helpful informant. The game can be played through in a brisk twenty or thirty hours, but the richness of the worlds and story are such that players will want to roam, investigate, and explore the full breadth and depth of Mass Effect in a more generous timeframe. As said earlier, the story doesn?t even get seriously rolling until 5-10 hours in, so there?s a lot of things in the world to absorb.

Combat in the game may also initially frustrate the typical shooter player or casual gamer, but once the player gets over an initial hump of learning how the combat in Mass Effect really works, they?ll find it almost limiting to play a classic shooter again. The combat in the game is fully in real-time, in third person, over-the-shoulder camera mode like Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter or Gears of War, and the combat controls are relatively simple, too ? trigger to shoot, bumper to cycle through weapons, Y button to heal self and squad, and a series of squad commands mapped to the d-pad. Combat will be quick, difficult and often lethal, though, until players understand that Mass Effect is an RPG, and in games such as this, there are more variables at play in the combat than where you pointed the reticle and when you pulled the trigger. A character?s level of skill with a given weapon or biotic power directly effects how accurate, effective, or harmful it is, and players will learn to invest their ability points earned from experience to improve the skills they rely on in combat the most. At this point, the combat becomes much more tactical and satisfying, as the player realizes that it?s not just their skill of play that?s improving, but the character himself. Enhancing your characters with improved equipment picked up in the field is essential, and this means navigating an inventory management system that is like your email inbox ? maintain and clean it regularly, deleting stuff you don?t (or won?t) use, or you?ll find yourself with a massive housekeeping chore later. As well, combat is tactical in an RPG ? you can?t simply walk into a room and blast everything that is hostile. Retreat, heal your teammates, plan your attacks, pick your opponents selectively ? mow down the weaker enemies who are still shooting, saving the big enemies for when you?re fresh and ready for the fight ? and you?ll find the combat much more satisfying.

Mass Effect is a visual treat, and the graphics and imagery are fully up to task in depicting the scope of Citadel space and the worlds and cities within it. The Unreal 3-based engine used to drive the game draws bleak alien vistas swept by ammonia and methane storms all the way to the horizon line. The engine does suffer from the same minor flaw as Gears of War ? when entering a new area or reloading a game, the textures are all drawn in over a period of about three seconds, but this doesn?t seriously endanger your suspension of disbelief and is a tradeoff to the technological limitation of Mass Effect being playable on a console with no hard drive ? everyone and anyone with an Xbox 360 can play this one. The level of visual detail is astonishing ? characters within the game are rendered down to individual skin pores or hairs within their stubble. The animation is smooth, fluid and realistic as well ? Mass Effect has the dubious prestige of having the most realistic, motion captured strippers and lap dances in video game history to date. That amusing fact aside, characters run, fight, move through the world, and communicate with each other with a cinematic realism that pulls you out of ?game mode? and gives a cinematic flavour that will make you feel like you?ve just watched a sci-fi movie for the three or four hours you?ve played during a session.

The game?s audio should not go underrated. Behind all the action, composer Jack Wall (a favourite of mine since Myst 4) has composed a subtle, understated music score that doesn?t bulldoze the game with broad, Wagnerian Star Wars themes but instead favours a quiet appropriate approach over the loud and bombastic. The music that plays over the galaxy map area selection is of particular note ? you feel like you are a small cog in an enormous machine, and that the whole spread of the universe is yours in which to explore and play, and the combat music is tense and kicks up action without reverting to the aggressive techno punishment that most games would revert to. The other significant high point of the game?s audio is the calibre of the voice acting, which goes hand in hand with the quality of the animation ? beautifully drawn, realistic characters wouldn?t fly with ham-handed, strained overacting on the part of voice actors, and other games have shown that having top-drawer voice acting coming out of ugly geometry, poor textures and key-framed character actors just don?t work. Mass Effect?s dialogue and overall cinematic experience owe a lot to having a cast of voice actors who hit the right pitch and beats ? Seth Green (Enemy of the State, Andromeda), Keith David (Halo 3, Spawn, Pitch Black, Chronicles of Riddick), Marina Sirtis (Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Lance Henrickson (Aliens, The Terminator) include the voice cast of Mass Effect and bring a sci-fi credibility to the game that again, makes you feel like you dropped into a lengthy summer blockbuster film.

Overall, Mass Effect is a game that requires a serious investment of time to pay off ? casual arcade gamers may initially be put off by the learning curve and the amount of time that?s needed to get the story rolling. The Lord of the Rings wouldn?t have been nearly as rich if the camera had just jumped in when Frodo was on the run with a stolen ring and bad guys after him ? with the backstory of where he comes from and what he needs to do, the story is that much more urgent and impelling. So it is with Mass Effect ? when you get into the game for a few hours and roll around, meeting aliens and learning mankind?s place in the universe, you?ll discover that this is a saga that could engage you for a month or two, and the unlockable achievements reward gamers for repeated playthroughs with Long Service Medals for second and repeated playthroughs. Gamers should give the game a second go around ? played through as a hero the first time? Play it as a vicious, no-nonsense bully the second time through and indulge your inner villain, or take a different class of character. Played through as a diplomatic techie, talking your way through trouble and using smarts to solve your problems? Play as a hardcore war vet, shooting your way through trouble and not even bother to ask questions later. You?ll find on the second play that characters you?ve met and known within the game react and interact with you quite differently, as you are not the person you were. Achievements abound to pad out your gamerscore, including expected milestone awards for completing specific chapters of story as well as awards for skills used and story subplots explored(e.g. ?Assault Rifle Master ? 150 kills with assault rifle, 'Paramour' - 15 points for completing a romantic subplot). If you?ve got Halo 3 on your bookshelf to scratch your online killing itch, and Mass Effect to get you through the solo hours, you?ve got everything you need to make it through the long, dark winter.

Overall: 8.8 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 8.5 / 10


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