The Mass Effect Way
Just when you thought good RPGs had to have elves, swords, and magic, BioWare threw gamers an original idea called Mass Effect. Originally created for the Xbox 360, Mass Effect puts players in the shoes of Commander Shepard, the story’s protagonist, during mankind’s struggle to become accepted in an arena of intergalactic politics and war. For the PC version, all the bits and pieces of the story are essentially the same, but that doesn’t mean BioWare didn’t make any changes.
The player begins by creating their version of Shepard. The character’s back story, eye color, specialization, and even gender are all customizable from the start. As soon as that is finished, the game begins with some cutscenes, a little background on the current situation, and then lets the player loose. Most of the differences between the two versions aren’t apparent until after the initial character creation.
One difference between the two versions is how the player navigates the plethora of menus. Everything from inventory management to the galactic map used to travel between major locations has been tweaked and redesigned. What used to take several steps to do on the console version has been easily reduced to one. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a triumph of the game’s programming but rather the capabilities of a mouse/keyboard combination. Nevertheless, Mass Effect’s redesigned menus far exceed what most PC gamers have come to expect from console-to-PC ports.
Combat with the mouse is smooth and easy to learn from any PC gamer’s perspective. While BioWare didn’t take the time to incorporate a first-person style camera option, the attention to handling first-person controls in a third-person environment is considerable. Unfortunately, the lack of the ability to jump makes for a sometimes frustrating gameplay experience. For example, there are several areas in the game that require you to walk up a not-so-tall catwalk to retrieve a hidden create full of armor, weapons, and upgrades. Once you spend between 1-2 minutes running to get the crate, you’ll find yourself making a very repetitious return down the same path again. These trips become particularly annoying when your vehicle is just a couple feet below and you wish you could just hop over the railing and get going. To Mass Effect’s credit, the Xbox 360 version didn’t allow players to jump either, which is a detail BioWare probably left out on purpose.
Although character movement is mostly perfect, the same cannot be said for the vehicle movement and controls, which is odd considering all the time players spend going from point A to point B on each planet they encounter. For starters, the Mako’s (land vehicle) forward, left, right, and reverse functions are all controlled by WASD, which makes complete sense except when A and S not only turn the vehicle, but make it accelerate at the same time. This can become frustrating when attempting to make sharper turns because holding W and then A or S results in a much slower turn. Luckily, players will spend so much time driving the rover/tank hybrid that managing these issues becomes second nature, and, eventually, barely noticeable.
Additionally, while having the skill to handle the Mako is good, most of the outdoor fights are rather lackluster. Instead of having tense and adrenaline pumping chases, most of the combat amounts to seeing the enemy; the enemy firing a slow-moving burst; hitting a key to jump over the burst; and finally shooting the enemy. The number of times the player repeats this step depends on how big the target is. For some reason, it would appear the enemies in Mass Effect learned nothing from Star Wars… slow moving tanks with legs just aren’t that great.
Another oddity to Mass Effect’s movement controls is the player cannot sprint outside of combat. By the time a player finishes the game, they’ve had their character practically running a marathon, which can be tedious when the only time you can speed yourself up is during combat. When not in combat, the normal sprint key just locks the camera behind Shepard in a kind of cinematic mode. While the subject of travel time is still on the table, it is important to note that BioWare has apparently sped up the notoriously slow-moving elevators that were the talk of many irritated Xbox 360 users.
Mass Effect certainly comes with a variety of graphical issues and bugs, many of which appear to be the result of its conversion to the PC. For example, there are several times during the cutscenes where Shepard’s cheeks seem to completely disappear while talking. Oddly enough, this particular glitch seems to occur sparingly and at random, making it easily forgettable. Of all the graphical issues in the PC version, the shaders seem to be the biggest trouble, sometimes appearing not to work at all. Occasionally, when the player catches a glimpse of their own shadow on a wall, they’ll notice that either their head has vampirism or there is a definite glitch.
Regardless of these visual glitches, Mass Effect still maintains the same beautiful visuals of its console counterpart. And, with the help of ever-evolving PC hardware, it looks even better. Everything from the harsh, snow-blasted planet terrains to the rustic interior halls of human vessels is vivid and colorful. This is definitely one next-generation title that isn’t drowning in the brownish and dark-tinted pool of “realistic” visuals.
The music, ambience, and sound effects are all down very well-there really isn’t much room for criticism here. The voice acting is exactly the same as the Xbox 360 version, boasting such talents as Lance Henriksen and Keith David, which is to say that it is very good when stacked against most video games. Unfortunately, what they are saying isn’t always as impressive, which has more to do with the writing than anything. Nevertheless, most of the corny lines seem to be delivered by specific characters, making the player question whether it is, in fact, bad writing or just a bad character. The character development really depends on the player, but the ability to learn more about each character is given to the player from the start. If a particular character didn’t have enough back-story, the player probably just didn’t talk to him or her enough.
As a whole, the main plotline makes for a decent “save-the-galaxy-from-a-terrible-and-seemingly-invincible-threat” story. On its own, the main narrative probably wouldn’t amount to much, but fused with the side missions and background stories of all the characters, it just works. The only weak element to the main narrative is how short it is. Someone can complete all the side mission and the main plotline in roughly 25 hours. However, only a small fraction of time is actually dedicated to the main missions. Therefore, if the player decides to skip most of the side missions, the game’s story may not seem as deep.
While the player gets to make most of the critical decisions, which affect how the story plays out, a lot of the narrative is told through short cutscenes. Generally, the cut scenes make for immersive entertainment, especially coupled with dialogue decisions that take place within them. However, there are brief moments where these cutscenes lack an extra bit of something that makes it fall slightly short of amazing. All things considered, Mass Effect’s story is one just about anyone can enjoy, whether you’re a ruthless enforcer who doesn’t care about the rules or a vanguard for law and justice.
One of the only drawbacks to Mass Effect is, while having a “do whatever you want” feel, it lacks a definitive open world. For example, each planet feels more like a giant, circular level rather than a connected part of a galaxy. Most of the interiors of stations, planet bases, and starships seem like they are all generated by a few templates, which makes them feel less intimate. This isn’t to say Mass Effect lacks attention to detail, but the detail was given to other areas instead. Therefore, unlike games like Oblivion, which gets its replay value from that open world, Mass Effect attempts to draw its replay value from the myriad decisions made by the player. Unfortunately, the player may find it hard to justify replaying the entire game just to see a slightly different outcome because of linear elements. On the other hand, the idea of playing through a second time to see a love scene between a female Shepard and a not female or male alien counterpart may just be too much to pass up.
Despite some of the minor problems, the free downloadable content provided directly by BioWare, the free patches to enhance gameplay, and the new tweaks for the PC platform make Mass Effect a must-buy for those who just couldn’t pony-up the dough for an Xbox 360 when it was first released.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
Aside from some minor shading issues, the great visuals remind us that realistic doesn’t have to be dark shades of brown. 4.0 Control
Seamless character and menu controls are only hindered by shaky vehicle controls. 4.3 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Epic music, great voice talent, and decent sound effects drown out the occasional bits of corny dialogue. 4.5 Play Value
It’s a perfect example of a game doing most things right and being a sum of its parts. 4.2 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown. Update: The writer modified the score of this review. The game was initially scored lower due to a missunderstanding of CCC’s Review Rating System.