It’s official: through sheer coincidence, I’m now Lazygamer’s console port reviewer. Adding Mass Effect to my list, I’ve now managed to play through three games on two platforms (the other two being Assassins’ Creed and R6:Vegas 2), which must be a testament to sheer bloody-minded stubbornness. That said, when it comes to a game like Mass Effect, I can’t really complain. When a story is this good, they eye-candy this impressive, and the sheer scope of a game this overwhelming, I don’t regret a single hour I spend in playing the same game on two platforms.
Mass Effect, the sci-fi RPG from famed developers Bioware, raised eyebrows and expectations ever since being shown off at E3 in 2005. With the release of the 360 version last year, the general consensus was that the game was a leap forward in storytelling in games. However, some technical limitations of the 360, combined with a somewhat awkward control scheme, added up to a number of people calling it a flawed masterpiece. Does the PC version address these complaints? While Mass Effect on the PC is essentially the same game released to widespread acclaim on the 360 at the end of 2007 as far as plot and characters are concerned, there have been numerous gameplay enhancements and tweaks that make the PC version much more than a simple port.
For those who managed to completely miss Mass Effect last year, allow me to briefly paint you the picture. In 2183, humanity has ventured beyond the confines of our own solar system, and we’ve found that the galaxy is a pretty busy place. Numerous alien species have co-existed for millennia before we ever put a foot on the galactic stage, and the galaxy has largely settled into an ordered society, governed by the Citadel Council. The Council, a quasi-UN like body that rules from the gigantic Citadel space station, is still struggling to integrate humanity into the larger galactic community.
The setting of the game is very well realized, and makes you feel as if the game is taking place in a fully functioning society. There’s an in-game encyclopaedia called the Codex that helps you come to grips with the vast amounts of backstory that further fleshes out the galaxy. It is a credit to the writing that the game still makes sense without you reading through all this information.
You portray Commander Shepard, representing the best and brightest the Systems Alliance military has to offer. The game starts off with a relatively simple foundation, seeing you being evaluated to become the first human to join the Spectres – the elite group of agents answerable to no law save the Citadel Council themselves. However, it escalates very quickly into a truly epic plot that puts at stake the very survival of all life in the galaxy.
I truly cannot praise the plot highly enough. This is a classic space opera, featuring a galaxy spanning plot that continually raises the stakes and slowly reveals the terrifying secret underlying the entire galactic civilization. The finale, in particular, is a stunning sequence in which a lot of subtle foreshadowing that was evident even from the start of the game pays off in big way. Even the side-quests in the game are interesting and varied. Some are as mundane as surviving an interview with the press without totally destroying our own reputation in the process, while another sees you trying to secure the release of hostages from a group of extremists.
The game features a robust character creation system, allowing you to render a virtual likeness of yourself, or any famous character you’d like to see in the top billing for this game. As an experiment, I tried to create a recognizable super-agent from popular fiction as my character for this review. Trust me when I say none of the Bond actors are easy to recreate. In the end, I settled for a Jason Bourne look alike in my playthrough – judge from the attached screenshots if I achieved any success.Â
Technically, the game is a marvel. Using the Unreal 3 engine, you are treated to an overabundance of huge and beautiful environments. The game features a lot of varied locales – from the massive Citadel station to ice-swept planets or long abandoned alien ruins. The artistic design put into the look and feel for the entire game is extremely impressive, and the engine renders them with proficiency. The character models are all very detailed and animated – take a look at your Krogan party member, Wrex, to see this in action. Bioware aimed to populate the game with so-called â€˜digital actors’ as opposed to stock characters, and they succeed to a large degree. The in-engine cutscenes remain a highlight throughout the game.
A big problem for the 360 version was the extremely noticeable amount of texture pop-in that pervaded the game. It was a common sight to see low res textures for a few seconds when entering a new area before the pretty stuff kicked in. Owing to a nearly 10 GB install, this has been almost completely eliminated, with pop-in occurring for less than a second when a new area loads, if it occurs at all. The only downside to the graphics is that your playing experience can easily turn into a slideshow if there is a lot happening onscreen. In addition, a lot of the more spectacular graphical bells and whistles will have to be deactivated if you don’t have a PC of near mythical specifications.
In the audio department, the game also excels. Featuring a score directly inspired by one of the most highly regarded sci-fi films ever (Blade Runner), it manages to fuse a sense of the futuristic with the epic, leading to an effective mix of electronic and orchestral music. The voice acting is also top notch, with each of the main characters very well represented. It definitely immerses you further into the gaming experience.
So, the plot is brilliant, and the game is technically astounding. What about the gameplay?
For the most part, Mass Effect manages to dish up a perfectly enjoyable gaming experience. However, there are some marginal issues – mostly to do with the some poor design choices- that means the gameplay does occasionally become frustrating . However, Bioware has done an excellent job of addressing almost all the concerns raised by people who played the 360 version, and the result is that the PC version features a more streamlined user interface than seen on the 360.
The game uses the standard WASD interface to move your character around the world, with the mouse serving to pan the camera. Left and right mouse button fires your weapon or lets you zoom in, respectively. Combat is very much Gears of War-lite, and takes place from an over the shoulder perspective.
However, while the 360 version featured a slightly awkward â€˜combat wheel’ that activated when pausing the game, the PC version has completely overhauled you how use your special abilities, allowing you to assign your favourites to the number keys at the top of your keyboard. The game also features a slightly more advanced squad command system, allowing you to give orders to each of your squad members individually. As, such, effective flanking is a reality in the PC version, something that wasn’t really possible on the 360. When combining the above with the cover system, the net result is that you need to pause the game far less frequently than on the 360, which does wonders for keeping the action flowing. Indeed, Mass Effect now feels far more like a 3rd person action adventure title than a pure RPG. The AI is competent and challenging, for the most part, and your team members will do an adequate job of supporting you.
The conversation system in Mass Effect is also unique. Instead of presenting you with a huge paragraph of text that represents your character’s response (which he/she will then dutifully recite, word for word, after you’ve chosen it), the developers aimed to give the cutscenes a much more cinematic feel. The dialogue wheel appears at the bottom of the screen during character interactions. The options on the wheel are rarely more than 5 words long, but give a general feel for the content of your response. As such, you’ll be able to observe the characters acting and reacting as opposed to reading through a lot of text at the bottom of the screen, lending these encounters a very natural â€˜flow.’
The inventory management system on the 360 version was easily the most problematic element of the interface. It was cumbersome to navigate, and finding the items you wanted to equip could take a long time. While the implementations of mouse controls have cut down on the time required to effectively use the inventory, the fact that items still don’t stack (when there is a 150 item limit imposed on the inventory) is still a problem in the PC version. This is the one user interface problem I feel Bioware could have done more to address.
Finally, there are portions of the game in which you drive around in a pimped out moon-buggy/Warthog knockoff called the MAKO. The controls for these sections have seen a marked improvement over those of the 360 version. However, you’ll mostly use the MAKO to explore the vast amounts of unexplored planets littered throughout the galaxy. Unfortunately, with the large quantity of explorable planets, many of them are sparsely populated, and don’t contain a lot of things to do. However, exploring these planets are entirely optional, and can be completely skipped if you wish to stick to the more content rich sections of the game.
The game offers great value for money. My first playthrough took 23 hours, but that was mostly because I knew what I was doing from playing the 360 version a lot. However, there’s a lot more to see than can be seen in one playthrough. Merely choosing different responses can dramatically alter the outcomes of a number of quests, which means the replay value is high. Considering that the first downloadable episode (already available on Xbox Live) will be entirely free for PC users as soon as it becomes available for download, Mass Effect offers a lot longevity.
In summation, I’d say that Mass Effect is indeed a huge step forward for telling stories via games. Bioware aimed to create, in their own words, Jack Bauer in space, and they definitely succeeded in doing so. Some of the choices you’ll make in the game have no easy or correct answers, and raises the question of where exactly the limits of ethical behaviour are when the stakes are unimaginably high. Combining this with a plot that references such classic sci-fi concepts as interfering with technologically inferior cultures or the development of true artificial intelligence (and what that might entail) and some truly convincing digital â€˜acting’ makes Mass Effect a winner in my book.
It’s a game that sucks you in and doesn’t let go until you reach its stunning conclusion. Even though there are some interface and design flaws, Bioware’s willingness to address these for a mere port bode well for the future of the franchise, and I’m sure they will be addressed in the inevitable sequel. As is stands, Mass Effect is an excellent game, and one I’d heartily recommend to any RPG fans, or anyone looking for a truly epic space opera in which you play the lead part.
Gameplay: 8/10 (Enjoyable, if flawed in some places)
Presentation: 9/10 (Great graphics with great artistic design. Digital â€˜actors’ work very well.)
Sound: 9/10 (Solid voice acting and atmospheric score)
Plot: 10/10 (Twists, revelations, drama, sacrifice… mind-blowingly epic.)
Value: 10/10 (The definition of longevity)
Overall: 9.2/10 (Simply astounding.)
Better than: Pretty much all western RPGs of recent years.
Worse than: Nothing I can think of.
Last Updated: June 9, 2008