A lot of you really, truly dug Bioware's Mass Effect. I didn't. That is, I didn't dig it as enthusiastically. In fact I scored it 60 points on PC World's 100 point scale, which translates as "slightly better than average." Not a bad score. Certainly not a negative review. Regardless, it incited 1,823 "no" votes against just 202 "yes" votes in our admittedly easily skewed thumbs-up-or-down recommendation system.
The lone response reads as follows:
The reviewer is clearly a person who despises RPGs. [W]ould he rather Bioware had skipped the story elements completely and put all their resources into making Mass Effect yet another Halo 3 clone? Why such a person is allowed to review a game in a genre he so clearly dislikes is beyond me.
Warning, dead horse about to be flogged: I realize some readers can't reconcile a 50% to a C average, and that even then some gamers endorse conventional graduate rules, i.e. anything below an A-minus equals "fail," but it doesn't make that response any less dead wrong. Since we use the absolute scale, a 50 is our median, i.e. neither better than average nor substandard.
I don't expect that defense to sway the emphatically entrenched, but if you're more open-minded, it's worth recalling the next time you see a 60 or 70 percent, before spooling up invective about a reviewer despising something. "Despise" is one of those extreme-end censorious descriptors reserved for execrable games like American McGee's Bad Day L.A. or Custer's Revenge. On a 100 point scale, "despising" would actually be a flat 0, or at best, a highly generous 10.
For the record, I love computer RPGs. Have since the days of Ultima and The Bard's Tale and SSI's Gold Box series. They're actually my favorite genre, which may explain my tepid response to Mass Effect. The latter's not a bad game, but I'm also not entirely convinced it's an RPG (to level set, I think a game like Bioware's Baldur's Gate 2 is).
Oh, Mass Effect's got character stats you can tinker with, and panels stacked to the hilt with source lore. But it's all structured like window dressing around an inflexible and mediocre story interspersed with clumsy third-person shooter sections (compare with the works of real masters like Gene Wolfe or China Mieville or Iain M. Banks, and why shouldn't we expect as much?).
Here's how I described some of that in my review:
...in Mass Effect...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.
I won't reiterate my laundry list of supplementary issues. Everyone knows about the poky elevators and general mission bugs. No one seems to have minded the monotonous dialogue or inelastic story with its superficially "alternative" endings. And I guess we're supposed to blink past the offensively generic planet-side reconnoitering, even if the Mario Bros vehicle-jumping shtick was downright shameful.
Was the allied and enemy A.I. heinously featherbrained? "So what," replied a majority of critics as well as players. Ditto for the shallow shooter elements that worked out to about one-fifth of Rainbow Six Vegas's tactical complexity.
Instead, "The graphics are lie-down-and-thank-your-maker unbelievable!" describes most of the reviews sufficiently. My problem? I stopped caring about visual muscularity years ago. Give me perfectly simulated reality and I wouldn't increase my review score by so much as one tenth of one percent.
Enter Mass Effect 2 for Xbox 360 and Windows, just announced yesterday, coming in "early 2010." Here's what EA typed up for the echo engine.
The Mass Effect trilogy is a masterful science fiction adventure set in a vast universe filled with dangerous alien life forms and mysterious uncharted planets. In this dark second chapter, Saren's evil army of Geth soldiers has just been defeated, and humans, who are still struggling to make their mark on the galactic stage, are now faced with an even greater peril…
"We're going to surpass the extraordinary gaming experience we brought our fans in Mass Effect by delivering intensified combat and expanded weapon options as well as increased depth of planet exploration, all while delivering a powerful, emotionally engaging story," said Dr. Ray Muzyka, General Manager and CEO, BioWare and General Manager and Vice President, EA. "Mass Effect 2 is shaping up to be an unforgettable RPG-shooter experience, taking players on a non-stop roller-coaster ride filled with stunning plot twists and no-holds-barred action."
And here's the teaser trailer.
I like that Bioware's drilling on planet exploration. The planets in Mass Effect were boring and forgettable and totally wrecked my inclination to wander off-path.
I'm down with the "emotionally engaging story" claim too, though I'm expecting it'll be told more naturally and not, as in the original, by trotting the protagonist between obsequiously conversational bipedal signposts (i.e. all of Mass Effect's non-player characters) where every dialogue option irritatingly begins "Tell me about..." or the nearest interrogative equivalent.
Will it really be an "unforgettable...experience," and "a non-stop roller-coaster ride" with "stunning plot twists" and "no-holds-barred action"?
Matt Peckham wonders why there aren't more hardcore sci-fi RPGs in the Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke tradition. You can speculate along with him at twitter.com/game_on.