Thursday, January 12, 2012

GOT 'IM - Mass Effect

This is my first "target" game I'm crossing off on my gaming goals list, and it's turned me into a series fanboy. BioWare does that to me, I guess. Massive Mass Effect ramblereview ahead.

So, Mass Effect. I think BioWare has themselves in a pretty good position right now. They're concentrating a ton of resources into three franchises: Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and The Old Republic. That's a huge original science fiction shooter RPG, a huge original traditional fantasy action RPG, and a huge MMORPG based on the Star Wars franchise. Sure, it's demanding and BioWare has to be busier than ever, but this is an enviable position as a developer. Two franchises with totally original lore and characters developing massive followings, and THE Star Wars game that people are playing. BioWare has more esteem and clout than ever.

I loved Dragon Age: Origins and liked the less-popular Dragon Age 2, but I was hesitant to try out Mass Effect. I've only recently become a fan of 1st- and 3rd-person shooters, and generally fantasy settings appeal to me more than science fiction settings. Also, I had heard mixed reviews. Those negative thoughts changed when A) I've gotten much more into shooters in the past 18 months B) I've become a born-again BioWare fan and C) Mass Effect 2 received incredible praise, often called one of the best RPGs of the past decade. I picked up the original Mass Effect on Steam some time ago and resolved to buy the PS3 version of Mass Effect 2 if I liked the original well enough. Mass Effect 2's in the mail.

Mass Effect's greatest strength is its lore. The talented men and women of BioWare have written several novels worth of background information and dialogue that create a vivid, interesting science fiction universe set in the 2180s. The game's codex menu has hundreds of pages of optional content that players can read at their leisure, and the game has about as much dialog as you can expect from a BioWare title - a lot, and not only that it's actually pretty good. The world of Mass Effect spans most of the Milky Way galaxy, and creates detailed histories surrounding about a dozen alien races and at least a hundred planets.

Once the game's exposition is complete, your player character, Commander Shepard, gets his own ship and crew and travels the galaxy righting (or exploiting) wrongs as you see fit. You can survey planets for minerals, explore hospitable planets in an armed all-terrain vehicle or on foot, and advance the interests of both the human Alliance and the multi-species intergalactic Council. Along the way, six companions join your team as party members with a variety of skills and powers. Not coincidentally, those six teammates each roughly correspond to one of the six classes that players choose for Shepard before the game's beginning.

The game's overall character customization and action systems revolve around three different fields: Combat, Biotics, and Tech. Combat governs weapon use, armor strength, and health. Combat-heavy characters will typically be weapon specialists with heavy armor and health fit for a tank. Tech concerns manipulating all technology, including vehicles, computers, electronic locks, kinetic shields, and first aid packs. Tech skills will toss out proximity mines as well as interfere with enemy weapons, armor, shields, and synthetics. Biotics use otherworldly telekinetic abilities that are native for some species (Asari in particular) and require implants in others. Biotic skills will manipulate enemy position on the battlefield by lifting, shoving, and tearing objects or placing barriers and gravity wells.

Shepard's six classes are essentially pure Combat, pure Biotics, pure Tech, and three hybrids of two concentrations. Since this is a BioWare game and not a Diablo clone, I reckoned I'd like all of the playstyles for different reasons (true for Dragon Age) and chose the Combat/Biotic class, Vanguard. It was a (shotgun) blast: I would toss around enemies with biotic powers and then boomstick the hell out of their stunned bodies. The lack of Tech caused me to miss some early loot, but I got over it; I'll just roll a Tech class next time. Bottom line: each of these classes seems pretty fun and mixing up different Shepard classes with different teammates creates some pretty interesting combinations. Biotics is probably not always necessary, but any team will ALWAYS need at least a decent combat and tech presence.

Really, though, the core of the game is balancing gunplay with special skills. Here's where I had difficulties - this is excellent in theory and probably works great for most people, but I need a controller to properly enjoy it. Playing on a PC keyboard, I use WASD for movement and hotkeys and the mouse for guns and camera. Hotkeys include weapon switching (very important in this game, as every character can and should use multiple weapon types) and powers (of which I had several), so my left hand was all over the place and struggling. Very similar to my Jade Empire playthrough, if I had a controller for this, it would be much, much better. I did fine with guns, but there's a reason why I'm definitely getting ME2 on my PS3, even if it means giving up the mouse for aiming.

Mass Effect's plot is pretty good, but at the end it feels like setup for Mass Effect 2. For most of the game you're pursuing a Council agent gone rogue named Saren, who has a mysterious agenda surrounding the unknown fate of two ancient extinct(?) alien races - the Protheans and the Reapers. As you piece together Saren's plan and catch up to him, you discover exactly what happened to the Protheans and a few upcoming conflicts of Mass Effect 2 and 3 are revealed (or at least I think they are), but there is more foreshadowing of a looming threat than real resolution. Mass Effect's plot isn't bad, and the length is actually solid (20-plus hours not including at least a dozen hours more of optional quests and exploration), but the completion of one story arc doesn't make up for the much larger ones obviously on the horizon.

The game's characters and NPCs are all pretty good, but not really for their personalities. The characters I used the most were probably Tali and Wrex, and while I think their personal histories and alien races are fascinating (both Quarians and Krogans have gone through some hard times to say the least), they behave more like embodiments of their races than individual characters, especially Tali. Don't get me wrong, I like both of them, but they're defined by their pasts and don't stand out during conversations. I can't say that about all of the characters, but I'd rank the cast of Mass Effect well behind that of Dragon Age: Origins, ahead of Jade Empire's, and juuust ahead of Dragon Age 2's.

The other annoying part of Mass Effect was customization. Over-customization. There is a shitton of it. I don't mind putting points into character skills - I'll mess with those all day long - but when every character uses at least five equipment slots (one armor plus various weapons) and Shepard uses six to eight, that's a lot of loot to mess with. Add in each item including one to three mod slots and item management and customization gets a little silly, especially when I sell more than half of any loot I find anyway. Item management and equipment customization are two things I know are simplified in Mass Effect 2, and I'm sure it's for the better.

One other weakness to Mass Effect is its sidequests. It's not a quantity problem, but rather how they're organized. There are at least a hundred planets in the Mass Effect universe, with around ten to twenty percent of them being habitable. You can scan empty planets for minerals for a large ongoing collection quest and explore uncharted habitable ones in your Mako all-terrain vehicle; each of those has at least one dungeon or sidequest present. Some of the sidequests have interesting situations or dialog, but ultimately they're almost all the same - either make it through three rooms full of crates and armed guards to the relic at the end or meet with a belligerent resident and use a dialog check to resolve his aggression. There are a lot of them and they don't *suck*, but they really run together and I'd just assume not do so many (I gave up on them after the story's endgame was in sight).

Oh, and there's those vehicle sequences. All of the mandatory Mako segments would have been better on foot, but its heavy cannons (for large enemies) and superior speed necessitate using it. Mako battles are long slogs through canyons gunning down guards to get to the next checkpoint. The Mako's driving is a little cumbersome at times, and every fight is the same: use your guns and cannons focusing on one enemy at a time, spurting forward and backward to dodge slow-moving missiles. I would have preferred more cover-based firefights with superpowers and less mandatory driving.

One thing that Mass Effect did that very much impresses me is adding value to Achievements. Normally those are just meaningless digital badges, but in Mass Effect Achievements unlock bonuses in-game. If that weren't enough, certain ones give you bonus skills in new playthroughs of the game. Engineer that can use shotguns better? Soldier that can use biotic powers? Vanguard that can open electronic locks? All possible if you get the right achievement. It's not a New Game Plus (Mass Effect has those, too), but it's really, really nice. I'd like to see that kind of thing in more games.

Overall, I liked Mass Effect quite a bit. Enough to write 1700 fuckin' words about it at least. Sure, it has its flaws, not the least of which were over-customization, too much empty space and mindless exploration, and weak optional quests, but I definitely enjoyed it. I am considering a replay of this game and will definitely play Mass Effect 2 soon; hopefully ME2 streamlines and improves upon the original as much as I've heard it does.

Games Beaten: 2012 Edition

1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
3. Mass Effect

Targets: 1/12


That's one target down and eleven to go! Right now I'm not playing anything in particular, so I'll probably pick one more target game from my list (probably one of the PS2 games) and play that alongside Mass Effect 2 or a replay of Mass Effect. Yeah, I kind of want to try a Tech class for its skills, or maybe a Soldier so I can focus on rifles.

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