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SPACE PREVIEW: Mass Effect

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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Jim Rossignol

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