52 Weeks of Canadian Gaming - Week 12
Release Date: November 10, 2007
ESRB Rating: Mature
Reviewed by: Brian Wray
I think after 11 weeks of writing about all sorts of games, most readers have come to the conclusion that I love games, all games. Having said that, it may come as a surprise to some when I tell you that I do have a preference in gaming genre, and that is with role-playing games. This love with RPGs started with Dragon Warrior for the Nintendo console and has not faded since.
Mass Effect is the newest role playing game from the legendary RPG developer BioWare based just outside of Edmonton Alberta. BioWare’s pedigree for RPGs is un-paralleled in the industry with award winning titles such as Baldur’s Gate, Jade Empire, Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights.
The storyline of Mass Effect takes place in the year 2183. It has been several decades since humans have discovered ancient alien technology that has unlocked the vastness of the galaxy. This technology was called the Mass Effect. The device is basically a transporter that can propel a ship from one end of the galaxy to the other in just seconds. Using this device, humans were able to travel to the Citadel, the galactic version of the United Nations. The Citadel is controlled by the Council which in turn controls everything that occurs in the galaxy. The Council is responsible for galactic peace and to that end, have created an elite order of agents with special privileges called Spectres. In Mass Effect players take on the role of Commander Shepard, the first human Spectre, and must lead a crew of mixed species and classes to stop a rogue Spectre from unleashing a deadly enemy and destroying all advanced organic life in the galaxy (for reference, the game is still located in the Milky Way).
Like all good RPG, Mass Effect is all about customizing the game to suit the gamer’s preferred playing style. The first choice to make will be in creating the game's main character, Command Shepard. Shepard can either be a male or female human and that have customized facial appearance only as the game will now allow changes in height or weight (I guess no short fatties are allowed in the Alliance military). Another choice made by the player is the area of specialization of Shepard. This choice will dictate if Shepard will specialize in biotics (think magic), technology or weaponry.
Once the game actually did start, I was amazed by the extensive lush universe that was presented. The game world is vibrant and fascinating. The lead writer Drew Karpyshyn, who just also happens to be the author of the Mass Effects novels, weaved an elaborate tapestry filled with action, suspense and mystery all waiting to be discovered by the adventurous gamer.
(Click for larger image)
Controls in RPGs are not usually a huge concern. All actions are normally selected via menu options but this is not the case for Mass Effect as unlike most RPGs, Mass Effect plays from a 3rd person shooter perspective (think Gears of War) and all combat happens in real-time. Not to worry as the controls are very easy to use and very intuitive, but do come with a slight learning curve (so stick to it). The left analog stick controls the movement of the character, while the right stick controls the camera. The right trigger is used to shoot while the left trigger is used to zoom (if supported by the weapon). The left bumper allows the selection of weapons and the right bumper the selection of skills and biotics. In Mass Effect, gamers control a squad of 3 characters (Commander Sheppard and two companions) to battle the forces evil. When pressing and holding the right or left bumper, a circular menu will appear that is divided into 3 sections, one for each member of the squad, allowing the player to make selection for each member separately in one action. This allows gamers to quickly make adjustments in battle.
This gameplay mechanism has mislead many gamers, and some critics, to think that Mass Effect was a shooter and not a real RPG. Believe me when I tell you that the game is a pure RPG. Don’t believe me. I can prove it. All you need to do is to stand in front of a enemy and attempt to shoot them with an untrained weapon. After firing round after round, even at point blank distance, you will come to understand that the likelihood of hitting the target depends solely on stats and not on aiming skills. This is not to say that aiming is not important, just that perfect aim alone will not guarantee a hit.
A standard element in a role playing game is the progression of the main characters. Mass Effect allows for plenty of character advancement. As the game progresses, the party will gain experience points for various activities like completing mission, killing enemies, talking to people and/or locating items. Once enough experience points has been obtained, the character will gain a level and be provided with skill points. These skill points can be used to improved skills or biotics. This is always a though choice, should the points be spent to improve the accuracy and damage with a weapon (or the training of an untrained weapon), used it to improve the charm skills to allow more conversation options or to improve the lift biotics to allow the raising of multiple enemies? Ah choices. The proper use of character skill points is extremely important to gain the maximum enjoyment of the game. Another nice thing is that all party character level up at the same time, even if they are not used. This is important as the enemies scale in level to the current level of the player, so if a particular character is used only for specific missions they would not be very effective in battle if they are 15 levels behind everyone else.
I always had a love/hate relationship with dialog boxes in RPGs. They are essential to the development of the story, but reading dialog box after dialog box of text in countless non interactive (pressing a button to scroll the next page of text is not considered interactive) conversations methods found in a typical RPG can be downright boring. No such issues in Mass Effect. All conversations are interactive and done via a wheel system that allows the gamer to not only choose a topic of conversation but also the tone to use when delivering the question. The choice of tone is very important and can allow Shepard to avoid many confrontations or to gain additional information. These conversations are made more enjoyable as the gamer is treated with a close-up view of the character(s) and these close-ups are simply phenomenal. So detailed and realistic are the facial expressions of the characters that it is actually possible to read their reactions to questions asked. The quality of the writing in Mass Effect is most apparent when talking to other characters as the conversations sound like normal conversations (no, some one set us up the bomb here) . Finally each sentence uttered in the game is voiced by professional actors including such stars as Seth Green, Keith David and Lance Henriksen. The illusion is so strong that I had a tendency to forget that I was playing a game and not watching something on the sci-fi channel (I only knew this was the case as I do not have cableTV).
(Click for larger image)
Mass Effect is not perfect but then again, no game is. The main quest is filled with exotic locations that will provide plenty of eye candy. It is unfortunate that these superb environments only extend to the main quest, as the side quests did not get the same attention to detail or uniqueness and will quickly appear repetitive and bland in contrast. The graphics in Mass Effect are a mixed bag. I did mention that the various game characters were beautifully rendered, but they did suffer from annoying texture pop-ins. At many times, I could visually notice each layer of texture applied to a character. While it was cool to see how each layer adds to the realism of a character, it does kill the illusion of realism created by the incredible writing. The texture pop-ins occurred whenever a new area loaded as well. Game levels are huge and highly detailed. I indicated that the graphics are a mixed bag, that is because the main quest received all the love while side quest got ignored. Level design and textures in side quests are mostly bland and repetitive. On a few occasions, when the action got extremely hectic, framerate did drop, but never to a point that it became a problem, just noticeable.
Mass Effect is one of those games that will get into your head. A short game will become an extended gaming sessions as gamers must complete one last missions to gain a new level to unlock a new ability. Even long after the console has been turned off, thoughts will still be haunted by the game, formulating new strategies of the best combination of biotics and weaponry to use in particular circumstances. In fact, I was hoping to finish another play through of the game during the past week, but I fell a bit short on time, for this reason, my game for next week will now be NHL09 as this will give me time to continue playing Mass Effect to finish it once more. Now that should tell you all you need at how great this game is.
PS/ Not essential, but highly recommended, would be reading the Mass Effect novels (as mentioned before, they are authored by Drew Karpyshyn), as they further expand the Mass Effect universe