SPACE PREVIEW: Mass Effect

By Jim Rossignol on April 1st, 2008 at 11:52 am.

Citizen of space, yesterday
Mass Effect is going to be out on PC on May 6th. I believe it was marketed as “action role-playing game” and that means running around murdering robots in the long pauses between dialogue. Sounds fun, eh? Well not only that, there’s a selection of blue ladies! Yeah, we gamers are all so hot for blue women. Must be something genetic.

Mass Effect, by virtue of having blue women, robots, and rocketships, about as SPACE a game as we can imagine, without really being in space very much at all. Most of the game takes place standing around on the surface of planets. And it’s an RPG that you might easily mistake for a shooter, by virtue of your standing around being routinely punctuated by hiding behind a slab as angry baddies try to kill you.

At the start of the game you take on the role of a human spaceship captain entering a galaxy of alien politics and interstellar conflict, and have to deal with fights, conversations, and miscellaneous actions, just as you might expect from Space Adventures. Ultimately the spaciest bit of the game is the fact that you can choose where your ship is going to fly in the galaxy, with consequences for the kind of adventure you’ll face, and the things you’ll discover. There’s not much actually going on in space itself, unless you count wandering around on a giant space station, or boarding some spaceships. You’re mostly doing rather terrestrial planetbound explorations. And the explorations are quite good.

Anyway, what can we expect from the game which has been out forever on the Xbox 2.0 and which has being lovingly converted to our battered old desk-boxes over the past year? Well, what wasn’t quite as good as the exploration on the dear old 360 was the combat. This was something of a big deal too, because this is about as shooty as a Bioware RPG has ever been. On a scale of One To Shooty it’s pretty high up there, maybe even an eight, especially since whole stretches of the game include no talking all, and lots of killing. In fact, Mass Effect is so shooty that there’s even a few bits where you drive around the surface of planets with a machine-gun-toting truck and shoot robots and giant sandworms. Like a vehicular combat game or something! We’re not in Baldur’s Gate anymore, Toto.

Ultimately, it turned out to be a pretty crappy shooter. I had to grind through some sections, and I never felt like there was any reason to be proud of the “infiltrator” class I had chosen, which was too weak to face most fights from the outset. Meticulous pause-screen side-kick commanding and careful use of special powers only just allowed me to scrape through some of the brawls, and I hope that’s been fiddled with a little for the PC release. It just wasn’t a great combat game, and that was a let down.

But it is filled with pleasing space-detail. Some of the encounters with alien races with amusing, others a little sinister. (The giant dudes who speak in an inflective-free monotone are absolutely inspired.) There can never be enough side missions in this kind of game, but there are plenty that captured our interest in the 360 game, and there’s no reason to suspect that they’ve gone mouldy in the cupboard, like forgotten narrative cheese, in the PC version. The paragon/renegade morality system isn’t exactly Lightside/Darkside, but it does have real implications for how characters react as the game progresses, and it’s fun to feel like you’re a completely ruthless bastard. (And in the game.) The story is, as you might expect from a Bioware game, better than the science fiction stories you wrote at primary school. There are even allusions to (gasp!) sex with a blue lady.

That said, it’s rather… empty. Mass Effect doesn’t really seem to have a significant theme or interesting message. It’s a game that could have taken a few more risks – it’s not like science fiction is a genre that’s short (or scared of) mad, savage fictions. Mass Effect is a little too soft and derivative. You sense that a Space Adventure checklist has been filled out behind the scenes. You would have hoped, as Kieron points out, that Bioware would have used the unique frontier of downloadable content and a flexible game universe to allow us to pick and choose some rather more extreme missions and stories. We all loved Battlestar Galactica’s darker themes and weirder moments, so why doesn’t this kind of thing crop up more in the equally populist Mass Effect? Why not get some small teams to great aberrant, risky missions that we could buy as cheap downloads? Why not capitalize on the “pulp-fiction” of it all?

So yes, while I was rather underwhelmed by Mass Effect’s console début, I am glad that it exists and that it’s coming to PC. The news that there’s another two games being developed to complete a trilogy can only be a good thing for games generally, especially if the cashmoney success of such a sequel encourages more folks to include some RPG stuff in their games. (The devs have even said that leftover save files from Mass Effect could have ramifications for how your game is experienced in Mass Effect 2, which is an interesting idea.)

If your taste in games coincides at all with mine then you probably feel that we need plenty of games that sit at different gradations on the scale between RPG and straight shooter, and everything else in between. Mass Effect is firmly sat somewhere in the middle that proverbial Venn-diagram, and is consequently going to please and displease the tastes of PC gamers in equal measure. I can’t see this game coming under too much of a critical hammering on PC, but nor is it going to feel like the game we’re looking for. Eugh, was that an accidental Star Wars reference? Mass Effect is much more like Star Trek, anyway. Yes. You’re probably going to want to play it, but we’ll reserve judgment until after release and attempt to review the game based on angry official forum comment thread titles alone.

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31 Comments »

  1. Chris Evans says:

    Mmmm blue alien sex…..wait what?!

    I am mildly interested in this, if only because of the scandal it caused, but if the shooty bits were, as you said, crap in the 360 version then I seriously hope they have been improved for the PC version.

    May get it, probably won’t though!

  2. Kommissar Nicko says:

    In spite of its shortcomings, I am nonetheless excited for the PC release. And for the blue sex.

    But, what I am more excited for is to tinker with the editor. Historically, Bioware has liked to dole out development software, and that should prove interesting. I hope.

    Oh, and for Space Week: David Bowie.

  3. Taxman says:

    The shooty bits are an absolute breeze through the game if you play a solider/commando class, you tear through everything in seconds. With the AI companions being biotic and engineer (set to use their powers offensively) your pretty much unstoppable. But it does take a lot of the strategy out of combat.

  4. Feet says:

    I thought the shooty bits were average and the chatty bits were pretty much like watching a slightly interactive movie. Of the 3 options given to you, 2 of them would activate the same piece of spoken dialog. The third would activate a slightly different piece of dialog which made no difference to the outcome of the conversation. The inventory was rubbish and the weapons weedy.

    Having said that, the universe they built was brilliant. The fluff I spose you’d call it. The codex was full of really interesting stuff.

  5. Ben Abraham says:

    I agree with Taxman. There really is a single dominant strategy, which is a shame. All other aspects of the game did have a lot of depth, it’s a shame combat got the shallow end of the pool.

    Also, methinks Bioware are having trouble transitioning from 3rd person perspective to the semi-first person perspective of Mass Effect. Pausing is just not so much fun when you want to shoot the evil blue doods in teh face – just let me do it, K?

  6. matt says:

    Since it’s announced as a RPG, they should have had the “sex with blue lady” play out as a Quick-Time event :)

  7. Acosta says:

    Played, reviewed, loved it.

    Of course, my point for that is how convinced I was with the victual actor work they made, the characters looked more realistic and convincing so I cared much more for them, they had a deeper effect on me than, let´s say, Baldur´s Gate characters, that I didn’t care for (in fact in second part I used a little trick hinted in the manual to create my own group of casters and forget about Bubus and self-righteous women with big mouths). I believe that was the biggest triumph with the game (among other little details like the great OST, especially the map tune and the song at the end).

    I was disappointed than the conversation system was not so innovative as I hoped and was merely a small evolution over the traditional one. The morality system was nice, with some really touchy decisions, but Bioware still has problems to put options to allow a really evil, sinister character (the concept of Evil of the company seems to be about being an unintelligent fool.

    About combat, I enjoyed it as I was a pure biotic and I have a thing for characters that are able to mentally push stuff in a violent an satisfactory way. I missed more tactic options (any tactic option), and felt there was a lack of options to evolve the characters, it was a too simplistic range of abilities.

    So, while I agree that is not the best shooter around for a mile, I felt absolutely engaged with the story, the universe and the characters and had a very satisfactory experience (just my two cents of course, not that I want to refute Jim or anything like that).

  8. James G says:

    I’m looking forward to Mass Effect, but am slightly put off my the shooty stuff. I much prefer the less ‘actiony’ combat as seen in games like Baldur’s Gate and KOTOR. I’m currently playing Jade Empire, and feel even that is too actiony for my preferences. (Not to say that this is wrong, just that I’m personaly disapointed by the moves towards more action orientated RPGs. I’m much looking forward to Dragon Age for this reason, that and the second NWN2 expansion.)

    When I play FPS’s I usually end up playing on easy, I just don’t have the reactions or co-ordination for fast pace action.

  9. Dan (WR) says:

    I played though every inch of Mass Effect and enjoyed it to an extent, but it also left me underwhelmed.

    The central plot is ok. It’s better than the usual videogame fare, but that’s damning it with faint praise. When I look back at reviews that explode into hyperbolic flechettes of joy at the ‘amazing storyline’, I can’t help feeling sad at how low the bar is for storylines in games. Building a universe from scratch is a weighty task and it’s well done in Mass Effect, but the exposition ends up replacing characterisation. I guess that’s true of an awful lot of fantasy fiction and space popera too though. Chief Anderson is an enjoyable exception.

    There were two things that genuinely annoyed me though. The universe at large feels far too much like a construction set. The plethora of planets all have the same style of mountainous geography, but come in one of four colours. A small stack of props are dropped onto each planet – a probe here, a mineral deposit there, and a good proprtion of the sidequests consist of finding these and performing a QTE. There are four types of structure, and each structure type has exactly the same layout (i.e. there are only four internal layouts to re-xplore), but contains different positionings of crates.

    I’m not expecting every planet to be fully realised, but the bland homogeneity is all you have to look forward to outside the main mission.

    The other element that annoyed me is the traditional dialogue options of ‘the good, the bland and the greedy’, which I’ve become well and truly sick of by now. It’s exacberated by the dialgoue wheel only providing you with an indication of Shepard’s dialogue, which often left me rolling my eyes at my own character. You can act ‘good’ without being a holier-than-thou dick.

    It’s still an enjoyable game, but it struck me as being all too conservative. The truth is that I believe there’s not really much progress between this and KOTOR.

  10. sigma83 says:

    I absolutely loved the fact that part of the marketing when they ported to PC was ‘fully customizable control schemes’ like this was something new to us.

  11. Acosta says:

    Agree with Dan (WR) about the way the universe is built, it was probably my biggest disappointment but I decided that my dream of having a fully realized portion of galaxy where I can navigate with my own ship is more a personal dream based on my experience with spacial games that something necesary for Mass Effect. There are some good touches like seeing the earth from moon (brilliant), but I missed more variety and lamented myself for every planet I couldn´t explore.

  12. Chaz says:

    I quite enjoyed my play through with the Vanguard class. Once his biotic powers were substantially powered up, it was the closest I’ve felt a game has come to having cool Jedi like super powers. Sending three enemies flying across a room to crash in a mangled heap with throw, or sending a charging Krogon warrior helplessly flying over your head with lift, never lost its entertainment value. Coupled with my one shot kill shotgun and boosted shields, I felt like a real unstoppable badass towards the end. The combat in confined areas wasn’t too bad and quite enjoyable. Anything at long range though in the big open areas was quite lacklustre by comparison. The main mission set pieces were very good fun and the story was quite entertaining. In fact I thought the whole Mass Effect universe was pretty damn good, albeit it was rather generic sci-fi stuff.

    On the down side though the game felt like an RPG lite. There just weren’t enough bits and bobs to tweak to keep it interesting; it really did feel very shallow in that respect. There just wasn’t enough diversity in the loot. Weapons and armour, and upgrades for them, was all loot that there was. It just didn’t seem to make sense that looting a crashed probe would give you weapons and ammo upgrades. The side missions on the planets soon became more of a repetitive chore and driving around in that “moon buggy” just wasn’t fun, especially when dealing with the “giant space worms”. And the conversation system, whilst OK, did not live up to the hype. What happened to all those tough moral decision’s we were supposed to be making?

    Overall though I really enjoyed the game, but then I am a fan of the sci-fi genre, so for me it made a welcome change from the usual elves and pixies malarkey. I just hope that they fatten it out for the sequel.

  13. dhex says:

    The other element that annoyed me is the traditional dialogue options of ‘the good, the bland and the greedy’, which I’ve become well and truly sick of by now.

    i call it “the good, the bad and the neutral” but it seems to be the only way bioware – and other rpg devs are guilty of this as well – can write interactive dialogue.

  14. Dan (WR) says:

    I call it the Good, the Bland and the Greedy because you often end up doing something good as RPG plots tend to thump your square evil peg into a round do-gooder hole.

    Oo-oer missus.

    So you don’t really get to make that much of a choice that helps defines you as good, neutral or evil. Instead it tends to end up on a patronising payscale, where you

    a) Give up a potential reward (because teh goodness is it’s own reward!)
    b) Say yes and accept a nominal fee
    c) Say yes…. but I want more money and…. you smell of wee! Muhahahaha!

    It’s not always like that of course, but there’s too much reward incentivising in games for my liking. Being Good usually results in a roundabout reward (often better in the long run). I’d rather it was left up to a player’s own feelings.

    In the context of Mass Effect it’s less nonsensical than other games though, as ME has already given you a relatively strict character to play with. The closest you can get to evil is being a bit ruthless and greedy.

    Also, “The Good, The Bland and the Greedy” has a nice ring to it. Zing!

  15. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    There are even allusions to (gasp!) sex with two blue ladies.

    Fixed.

    I’m not expecting every planet to be fully realised, but the bland homogeneity is all you have to look forward to outside the main mission.

    I largely agree with you that the identikit planets draw most of the fun out of the exploration (also, the abysmal rover) but there are some decent nuggets, namely the Cerberus sub-plot missions.

    Overall it’s a good game, but the action isn’t quite there (it’s better as a Support class though, I find) and while the universe as a whole has some interesting aspects to it a lot of it is a bit too derivative (that said, I love the Aliens pastiche that is Noveria). That I’m suffering from Bioware fatigue doesn’t really help my enjoyment of the game either.

  16. Alarik says:

    QTE sex could be great, yes. Possibly more entertaining than that bloody knifing…

  17. Flint says:

    I absolutely loved the fact that part of the marketing when they ported to PC was ‘fully customizable control schemes’ like this was something new to us.

    You can’t take stuff like that for granted when it comes to console -> PC ports.

  18. Phil H says:

    Early May huh? I might be slightly less buried in games by then. Sadly, with everything I’ve seen for the game, its probably the character creator that has me most interested, apparently being something quite customizable.

    @Alarik
    If you dig around enough, I’m sure there must be more than a few QTE sex games in Japan…

    On dialogue trees, I long for another game with the depth offered by Arcanum’s monstrously deep system :(

  19. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    Fahrenheit had rhythm action sex, involving timed mouse thrusts to initiate increasingly frenetic pelvic thrusts. Sadly the zombie sex scene didn’t feature any QTE or rhythm component.

  20. Noc says:

    The Sex-Time Event (see what I did there?) in God of War generated some interesting moments.

    “. . . ”
    “What are you doing?”
    “He’s having sex.”
    “. . . ”
    “This is stupid.”
    “I’m doing it for the orbs!”

    Also: STE? More like STD! Hot damn, I’m on a roll today.

  21. Down Rodeo says:

    I quite liked Jade Empire. I felt that in that it fell into a “Good/Bad/Greedy” sort of choice, in that you could be nice (help them for free), attempt to extort people for more money (I helped you now PAY ME!) or not help them in the first instance and murder them.

    Trying not to spoil anything (probably failing so look away now) the endings AFAIR fell into those categories as well. Though in the game as in the ending the Greedy is somewhat evil.

  22. Cradok says:

    I’m looking forward to actually getting to play this without having it freeze every sixty seconds and/or whenever I save…

    The 360 is a wonderful beast, when it’s not being deeply shit…

  23. etho says:

    Mass Effect is a pretty damn good game, but the trick is to not get too worked up about it. Prior to it’s console release, it was being treated like the second coming of, i dunno, Star Wars? Something like that? Anyway, it came out and it was good, but not perfect and was therefore consider a disappointment. But it is good. And, having the 360 backlash to temper expectations I bet it gets a reasonably fair shake when released on the PC.

    A disclaimer: I liked the combat. I think I’m the only one, but then, I’m the only one that hated the combat in KOTOR, so there you go.

  24. Vexor says:

    Beginning of May? I’ll be waist deep in GTAIV. With that said I’ve played through Mass Effect on the highest difficulty setting with no aim adjustment and was still disappointed in the “challenge”. The game was just to damn easy. I don’t think the story was terrible, certainly better then a few (*cough Crysis*).

    As etho points out, if you don’t get “over-hyped” the game is pretty solid. Even my gf played through it (4 times!).

  25. Butler` says:

    etho, absolute mirror of you there.

    I expected a mediocre experience and got a damn fine one that gripped me through to the end (rare – i still haven’t completed bioshock tbh).

    I also enjoyed the action-orientated RPG combat, and found it far more enjoyable than the KOTOR system.

    No chance of playing it on PC though, as Mr Vexor points out, there’s a certain city that needs to be liberated around that time…

  26. Pidesco says:

    This is the only Bioware RPG I haven’t played, and I have to say that if it is more of the same from Bioware as I infer from the article I might just give this a pass. Which would be a first since NWN’s expansions. I mean, NWN’s OC was blandness in RPG form, ditto for KOTOR (apart from the setting, that is), and JE, while not completely bland, the combat system was stupidly simple.

    Where has the daring Bioware gone, I wonder? It better be working on Dragon Age.

  27. Stromko says:

    I actually liked the fighting. Near the end of my first playthrough I’d kitted out my sniper rifle to be a high-explosive CANNON. It was quite possibly better than the Mako cannon. They would’ve done well to make the more interesting upgrades such as that available earlier on, in my opinion. The only reason I even got access to stuff like that on my first playthrough was that I’d exhausted all the side stories and achieved a pretty high level.

    Certain classes were definitely disadvantaged in combat and especially frustrating. I played through as a straight soldier my first time, a shooty character with heavy armor and durability is ‘easy’ mode and focused Biotic / Tech users are just necessary support classes. Nice to have them as your allies, but as your allies lack the aggression necessary to be proper shooty-types, it’s best to fill out that role yourself unless you’re looking for a particularly challenging playthrough.

    You could also drift into especially hard missions without any warning. They’re between a rock and a hard place on that one, they can’t very well make every class as good at combat or someone will complain they’re all the same, and they can’t make every fight equally challenging per your level or it’ll take the same heat Elder Scrolls: Oblivion did.

    Just for the record, not everyone likes Battlestar Galactica. I find it relentlessly depressing, a universe I /don’t/ want to visit. Perhaps I’m just in it for escapism rather than a reflection of our own, disturbing times. Guilty as charged, bring me more blue women!

  28. Stromko says:

    Sorry for the double post but I was too late to add to my first. I would like to point out I largely agree with JR’s post, the dearth of downloadable content has been disappointing and long stretches of gameplay in Mass Effect lack narrative and feeling(are “empty”).

    Those narratively empty sections are almost entirely optional, side stories. Some side missions don’t reach a satisfying conclusion. The “Bring Down the Sky” downloadable content left me cold, apparently they only brought in the original voice actor for the two Shepards (male/female) and no one else, so don’t expect to spend some more quality time with your Krogan buddy or that wonderfully dorky Quarian chick.

    I think it’s a good game but it’s definitely not the second coming. It has some excellent moments but it’s not the best open-world RPG ever. Their focus on making a trilogy has seemingly aborted any real effort toward expansions.

  29. Jody Macgregor says:

    I’m the other one who hates the combat in KOTOR.

  30. Vagabond says:

    Whilst Jade Empire did tend to be more evil = rude greedy arrogant jerk, that is at least a kung-fu movie stereotype and it gets much better towards the end of the game.

    *** MASSIVE JADE EMPIRE SPOILERS ***

    If you follow the evil path and manage to take control of Death’s Hand you have the option of mind raping er, spirit binding your followers that disagree with your decision, making them fully aware of the actions they are taking but unable to do anything that you don’t want them to do.

    That seemed pretty “actually” evil to me.

    *** SPOILERS END ***

    My main gripe with Mass Effect is that the good and ruthless paths are so similar I gave up early into my second playthrough, because I wasn’t seeing anything different.

    Should’ve gone ruthless first playthrough I guess.

  31. Lambo says:

    Did You know that as well as Mass effect coming out on may the 6th that is also the day Bertie Ahern, the irish Taoiseach, resigns from his position?

    …..Well now you do!

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