By the time I finished 3D Dot Game Heroes the worst of the freezing New England winter cold had passed, and my eagerness to do more with my new PC motivated me to brave the chilly basement once more. I'd been scouring through my Steam library trying to decide what game to tackle next, and I narrowed it down to either The Witcher or Mass Effect. It was a tough call because I was looking forward to both, but since I had just finished a medieval fantasy adventure (yes, I realize that you can't really equate The Witcher to 3D Dot Game Heroes, but it's still true), Mass effect won out. So, I fired up the space heater and loaded up the game that would be my... Wow, is this really my 10th review already?
The first time I ever heard of Mass Effect was during the whole Fox News scandal. If you're not familiar with the story, they had an "expert" come on the network to warn parents about the hardcore pornography contained in the game. During the show, this "expert" was asked if she had ever actually played the game, and she admitted that she hadn't, but she'd heard it was bad from somebody. This story immediately spread across gaming sites online, along with the fact that she had a book of her own on Amazon. Suddenly, her book's listing started receiving hundreds of bad reviews from upset gamers, several pointing out that they hadn't actually read the book, but heard that it was bad from somebody. It got so bad that she actually went back on the air and apologized for blatantly lying on the show, and admitted that after seeing a video of the game's questionable content, it wasn't any worse than what gets shown on network TV.
Well, all of that fun aside, I soon forgot all about the game as it was only for systems that I didn't own at the time. It wasn't until last year when Mass Effect 3 was nearing launch that friends of mine started talking about the series. By the time it was released I was really looking forward to it, so I purchased all three of the games in the series.
As I mentioned in my Space Quest review, I've been a sci-fi junkie for as long as I can remember, and this game caters to sci-fi fans in a big way. Many games have delivered solid science fiction experiences before and established detailed worlds, but Mass Effect goes beyond that and pays tribute to the genre as a whole. There are no blatant rip-off moments, but the game is filled with subtle nods to the classics, Star Wars, Star Trek, Blade Runner, Firefly, Aliens, etc. The experience is consistently both new and familiar.
The music is a cross between blockbuster movie worthy epic orchestral score and retro 80's sci-fi synth score. Imagine Blade Runner, Tron, or the first Terminator, I can't think of any other games I've ever played with that style music before. It brought a nostalgic smile to my face every time those saw waves cut through the string section.
You start the game by creating your character. Beyond customizing an avatar and choosing stats, you also get to assemble a back story from several pieces to create the type of person you want to play as. Similarly to Bioware's earlier game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, you always play with two selectable NPC companions. So, instead of trying to strategize the optimum build for the game, I'd recommend just building the type of character that you think would be the most fun to play, and then choosing companions later who's stats compliment your choices.
The game is a comfortable balance between Action Shooter and Role Playing. I was actually quite surprised by how strong the RPG elements were, in many ways up to KotOR standards. I've been told that the sequels focus more on the action and less on the RPG side, but I still have yet to play those so I can't confirm that. But, I can say that the balance in this game felt nice. You could spend hours wandering around a space colony, doing favors for random NPCs and uncovering mysteries, with the occasional shootout to break things up a bit. Then, you could spend hours shooting your way through hidden bases on distant planets, trying to take action on the information you learned earlier. I never felt lost, but I never felt like the answers were being spoon fed to me. It's a good way to feel in a game.
The story unfolds like a blockbuster movie. It sucked me in and held my attention throughout the game. The characters are dynamic with distinct personalities and well written back stories. I don't want to reveal any spoilers here, but let's just say that the main story provides plenty of twists and turns along the way. Also similar to KotOR, you are often provided with choices that greatly effect the outcome of the game. Sometimes these choices effect what missions will be available to you, and sometimes even what companions you will be able to have helping you out during future missions.
Some of those choices also lead to the source of the game's major controversy. In addition to the main story, the side stories, the side missions, and the exploration / collectibles throughout the game, there are the romance options. These are all completely optional as some gamers just don't want romance getting in the way of blasting aliens, but if you want, your character can form romantic relationships with some of the other crew members. This starts out by simply choosing the right tone of questioning during the dialog sections between missions. Later, the dialog choices start to get more intimate and the characters start to develop feelings for each other. This eventually culminates in a love scene late in the game, the scene that launched the whole FOX News scandal. As mentioned in the author's apology, it's tamer than a lot of what you see on network TV, and finally seeing it after years of hearing about it, I had to laugh at how little it takes to whip some people in to such a tantrum. These were probably included to add replay value, as you can only start a relationship with one crew member per play through. Which crew members you can try this with depends on how you create your character at the beginning of the game, and if you try to string more than one along at the same time, they will eventually corner you and make you choose between them like it's middle school or something.
The action sections play like a high quality shooter. You have up to 4 weapons of your own, each one upgradable, along with other skills which provide the sci-fi equivalent to magic in the game. Your companions each have their own weapons or skills to help out in battle. Left alone, they will fight however they think is best, but you can also give them direct orders. Overall it has a nice squad combat feel to it. Any companions killed in a fight will be revived when the battle is over, so it never feels like an escort mission. The guns use a heat up / cool down system which prevents you from simply spamming bullets throughout the missions, but also keeps you from having to scavenge for ammo for you favorite gun mid mission like you would in other shooter games such as Borderlands or Halo. It lets each shot feel like it matters as you make your way through some pretty intense fire fights, but frees you from playing resource management.
Then there are the vehicle sections. Some levels have sections where you drive around in a small tank to better explore some of the larger areas, or take out some of the larger enemies. Because of the feel of the action sequences, I initially expected these to drive like the vehicles in Halo or Borderlands, but sadly this was not the case. In those games, you aim the camera/gun with the mouse or right stick, and then when you move forward the vehicle will turn itself to point the way you are looking. In Mass Effect, the vehicles drive more like real vehicles. You steer them with the left stick or A and D keys while the gun can aim independently of the direction you are going. This seems like a good idea in theory, and it probably works out ok with an analog stick, but playing with a keyboard and mouse made a mess of this. The digital control of the A and D keys were constantly overcorrecting, causing me do drive in a zig zag pattern a lot of the time because I just couldn't get the thing to point in the right direction.
That brings up another gripe I have with this game, and with a lot of PC games. This game was first released on consoles. Consoles use gamepads. To release a game on a console, a lot of time and effort has to go into designing and implementing a control scheme that works well on a gamepad. All of this time, effort, and money has already been spent. So, when porting these console games to PC, a platform which also has a gamepad, why do so many developers strip out the gamepad support and force you to only control the game one way? Sure, if they required a gamepad to play the game it would be a mess, but so often they simply yank the gamepad support for no reason other than thinking that PC gamers don't deserve it. Mass Effect doesn't support the gamepad. I'll admit that the mouse is better for aiming during the action sections, but it really would have been nice to lean back in my chair and use a gamepad for a lot of the rest of the game.
That rant aide, I really have very few gripes about the game. It's a very solid gaming experience, and one of the examples many use to express the opinion that games are beginning to surpass movies and TV shows as a story telling medium. I'm looking forward to playing through the sequels now, and I highly recommend that anybody who hasn't played this game yet should check it out unless you just plain don't like science fiction or something. Yes, this is a great game.