An Old-School Adventure Masquerading as a Role-Playing Game
If Halo 3 was Microsoft's star performance, BioWare's Mass Effect is this holiday season's encore. Mass Effect is probably the most anticipated role-playing game of the year by anyone who dug the company's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and/or Jade Empire. In any case, I expect the Xbox 360 to take the silver in hardware sales (though by a relatively narrow margin over Sony) and the gold by a handsome margin in holiday software sales. Mass Effect--Platform: Xbox 360; Developer: BioWare; Publisher: Microsoft; ESRB Rating: Mature; PCW Score: 60. --Matt Peckham
The Fate of Everything Depends on . . . Your Chitchat Skills?
Stop me if you've heard this one. In another wild and wooly future-verse, you're a military up-and-comer on an experimental stealth ship and improbably catapulted into the role of intergalactic savior and crack squad leader. As stories go, Mass Effect's rates better than Halo 3's, but--just to keep us honest--it's still, at best, like the work of sci-fi writers M. John Harrison, Robert Charles Wilson, or Gene Wolfe on training wheels. That's too bad, because wandering and wondering (out loud) form the core of Mass Effect's overbearingly garrulous game play. Pared down to a handful of stats, talents, weapons, and upgrades, the game's role-playing components interplay more like background noise than meaningful story-shaping elements. It's as if BioWare is hoping to return gaming to the days when bounding between locales and talking signposts subbed in for thinking and doing, and threw in the character-development aspects only begrudgingly to appease fans of their older, better RPGs like Baldur's Gate II and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
Released Too Soon?
Whether it's the stuttering frame rate or the awkward load-ins that unexpectedly (and frequently) halt the game entirely for several seconds, Mass Effect has some bizarre bugs. Occasional weirdness like different voice actors (or voice modulation effects) employed for the same characters during a single conversation draw attention to themselves, pulling you out of the moment. In one sequence, a timer bar for a self-destruct sequence remained obstructively onscreen until I stopped, saved, and reloaded the game. It's even possible to confound the narrative logistics by entering areas one way, say via mass transit, and then exiting by elevator before engaging the area's plot imperative. At this point, your teammates comment about events that haven't yet happened. Speaking of elevators, it's not a bug, but never before in a game have they moved so preposterously (and needlessly) slow. Whoever decided it was smart to make lifts move at the speed of an inebriated snail deserves to ride on one every day he or she goes to work.
Less Shoot-'Em-Up, More Interactive Cinema
Strip away the graphics and generally well-played voice acting, and Mass Effect still tells the second best sci-fi story you'll experience in a video game this year (BioShock is the first). If you have $60 and a couple dozen hours to kill, you might find Mass Effect curiously engaging--if only to compare its gritty austerity with the cartoony esotericism of Halo 3. On the other hand, save for the old "multiple-different-endings" shtick developers have been trotting out like a reward for enduring linear gameplay for decades, choosing different responses in Mass Effect merely unlocks alternative dialogue choices that shape the narrative tone but virtually none of the game mechanics. Play Mass Effect more than once and, while you can unlock tougher difficulty settings that make the abbreviated action sequences more punitive, you'll still have the same story experience, start to finish.
Just Imagine the Whiteboard Dialogue Trees
This summer at the big GCDC games conference in Leipzig, Germany, I attended a session where design vets Ken Ralston and Bob Bates talked storytelling in games. When Ralston said that he hated the way game stories tease deeper subtext, and then fail to pay off on all the choices, I wanted to stand up and cheer. This is a problem in Mass Effect, where talky sections unfold like dull, flat sine waves, punctuated by sawtooth-style segments of manic action. On the one hand, the system's been nicely refined to allow more natural pacing by letting you choose a conversational approach before someone else finishes speaking. But it's still like playing the weird descendent of an old choose-your-own-adventure book, with spurts of action inelegantly sandwiched between exhaustive dialogue trees that don't change the game to speak of. Smoothly paced or no, your conversations don't shape your experience in Mass Effect so much as shuffle you along like a weirdly glib FedEx operative.
Roam (and Jump) If You Want To
To paraphrase historian J.M. Roberts, Mass Effect's universe is like an interstellar desert swarming with superficialities. Yes, you can travel to dozens of systems with dozens more planets, but you can only effectively land on a handful, and only a fraction of those have meaningful locations to visit. The rest are populated with generic artifacts, outposts, dig sites, and debris. You'll explore these with the Mako, which looks like a six-wheeled rover with a cannon and turret on top and which can "hop" a couple meters straight up, using button-triggered jets. As you bump and shimmy over the repetitiously rugged terrain looking for stuff to salvage, you'll occasionally encounter wormy creatures that pop out of the ground and attack, leading to one of the game's sillier mechanics, where the Mako jumps like a certain infamous Italian plumber to avoid incoming projectiles.
The Character of Its Convictions
Nothing about Mass Effect gets second looks like its visual engine. But, while it does an acceptable job rendering cold, clinical interiors and light on the insides of spaceships or from alien stars with the sort of exotic lens flare that directors like John Carpenter celebrate in movies like "The Thing," its exteriors are often generic to the point of ugly. You can tell where the design team's gameplay emphasis was, when the character models are this highly developed, and it certainly makes sense when the camera spends most of its time zoomed on chatty heads. While not as brilliantly articulated and emotive as Andy Serkis's directorial work on Heavenly Sword for the PS3, the character models in Mass Effect are something to behold when motionless.
A Modicum of Class and Talent
Spend as much time as you like molding facial features at the outset, then shape your character by spending experience-driven "talent" points on your avatar, and eventually several squad mates. Like prior BioWare games, you build a posse after "unlocking" playable characters that you'll meet along the way. Choose two at a time to watch your back like an away team in a given area or mission. Six character classes fold three skill tracks (Combat, Tech, and Biotic talents) into either pure or hybrid multiclass options. The Combat track, as you might guess, is all about improving accuracy and damage with weapons like pistols, shotguns, rifles, augmenting armor, and eventually developing special abilities that increase health and skill potency. Tech lets you fiddle with stuff like the explosion radius of your mines, suppress enemy tech abilities, and override security systems, while Biotics are the game's "magic" powers, allowing you to lift or throw objects (or enemies off cliffs) and create anomalies that generate damage or absorb weapons fire.
AI Stands for Artificially Inept
Mass Effect's real-time combat system employs BioWare's "kill-everything-in-an-area, then downed-party-members-automatically-resuscitate" gimmick. Which means that whether you're issuing orders effectively using the game's well-designed tactics wheel (accessed with a simple button press that pauses combat) or letting the AI drive itself, you'll end up finishing combat by yourself most of the time, at which point your comrades goofily revive and rejoin you. The AI on both sides tends to be pretty bad at all difficulty levels, with enemies walking stupidly into the open and your own teammates stepping out of cover (or using it very poorly) and getting killed despite your best hands-on nursing.
Watered-Down Tactical Shooter?
When I call the combat "simplistic," don't mistake that for reference to what's often called "run-and-gun" in a game like Halo 3. Mass Effect's encounters derive more from Ubisoft's Rainbow Six: Vegas squad-driven aesthetic than Microsoft's gung-ho solo sci-fi epic. Still, Mass Effect plays like a kid sibling to Ubisoft's sophisticated tactical shooter, with simpler, clumsier moves and less interesting "move here" or "target there" tactical options. It employs Gears of War's clumsy "sticks-to" mechanism for staying in cover (contrast with Rainbow Six's brilliant "hold-a-button" option). Mass Effect also gives you teammates so incompetent that you're either ignoring the pleasures of lifting and flinging enemies with powers like "lift" and "throw" because you're too busy babysitting, or desperately fighting solo because your tragically ineffectual squad's temporarily "dead." Worse, it's actually possible in some areas to run in and out of load-in areas too slowly, and unrealistically whittle away at cadres of bad guys who are apparently too stupid (or developmentally hamstrung) to follow.
A Lexical Jungle
You'll spend a remarkable amount of time just reading journal and codex (think encyclopedia) entries about people, places, and creatures (like the one in this shot) as a kind of game-within-a-game reward for chatting up NPCs or clicking on random objects and computer stations. For all the lovely optional background detail, though, it's a great example of where Mass Effect violates its own grammar by telling instead of showing. Since when did reading flat scrolling text become its own gameplay mechanics? It's even more disappointing when you're scanning non-interactive planets that amount to little more than blocks of descriptive text. It all makes Mass Effect's universe feel more like something into which BioWare simply poured its design docs for a pencil and paper RPG, where the descriptions might have actually mattered.
It's hard not to fall under Mass Effect's visual spell, with its grainy film effects and creepy original take on conventional sci-fi tropes (like this unfortunate fellow, the biological victim of one species' disturbing machinations). If you're not offended by the sloppy action sequences or brittle RPG elements, Mass Effect tells a perfectly decent adventure story with several filmic elements bolstered by an excellent sense for techniques like 180- and 30-degree continuity editing during dialogue or scene transitions that other developers simply ignore.
A Reasonable Range of Alien Antics
Different species employ unique tactics: Some effectively stick to cover; others simply attempt to maintain a ranged distance and pop snipe shots. Still, they all tend to suffer from the "too-stupid-to-live" syndrome, whether you're crafting advanced strategies involving your Biotic or Tech talents to flush out crouchers, or simply pointing a pistol and patiently head-popping.
Booty Clog Up
Instead of cursoring over dead bodies for loot, Mass Effect automatically tallies booty in your equipment screen. The problem with that is that it only lets you "take all" or elect to convert each item, one at a time, to a substance called "omni-gel" (used to repair the Mako or unlock containers). Where's the "leave" option? "Take this" object, but not that one? It's pretty ridiculous by the later stages of the game, where your 150 inventory maximum becomes a management time sink (not to mention the fact that you'll be so rich toward the end that having to deal with items in general becomes time wasted).
Evolution or Devolution?
Don't mistake Mass Effect for the next phase in the development of BioWare's trademark story-driven approach. It's not, and while it's certainly a visual sight to behold, Mass Effect doesn't mark the play-driven step in evolution over Knights of the Old Republic that BioWare said it would be. In an effort to simplify the gameplay and presumably engage a broader audience with an admittedly first-rate story, it trades tactical complexity for simplified real-time combat that's as dull as what the average blaster battle looks like in some B-movie equivalent. The action is endlessly interrupted. Scripted break-ins might as well be ripping the controller out of your hand, forcing you down this or that plot chute with nothing to do but react to your newfound circumstances. Even archetypically parallel developers like Square Enix know enough to include dozens of mini-games and superior tactical combat to break up the monotony of running and talking and relentless handholding.
Bottom Line: Overhyped
If you're easily swayed by visual beauty or still get a kick out of old-school conversation-driven adventure games, or you're simply nostalgic to the point of myopia, Mass Effect has maybe a dozen hours to offer of main story and a dozen more in side quests. But calling it a disappointingly overhyped encore to Microsoft's main holiday act, Halo 3, isn't much of a stretch after you've tallied time bouncing ceaselessly between glorified (albeit pretty) talking heads.
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