Platform: Xbox 360
Developer – Bioware
Publisher - Microsoft Game Studios
HDTV 720p/1080i/ 1080p
Bioware’s last Xbox title was the huge cult favourite Star Wars: The Knights of the Old Republic, a game that was an instant favorite for tons of Star Wars junkies all over. For those unaware Bioware is also known for hits like Baldurs Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Fans of the gifted developer have been anxiously awaiting their next big title, Mass Effect. I remember hearing of Mass Effect before the Xbox 360 was even released and the game has been one of the most anticipated games to be developed for the Xbox 360 platform. Mass Effect is an epic sci-fi action RPG with a deep immersive storyline, huge levels, and high production values. Players assume the role of an elite human Spectre agent, Commander Shepard. Shepard’s job is to police and maintain law and order throughout the galaxy and during his adventure he uncovers a threat that could wipeout. Given there are so many titles out at this time of year; I must admit that the premise of Mass Effect was very intriguing, and after receiving my review copy I would have to say that this RPG is going to see a of playtime.
I found Mass Effect by and large a beautiful game, but it seemed like my Xbox 360 was having a hell of a hard time loading the textures. When I came across such things as a new environment, a new room, or even a new walkway, I could hear the 360 struggling (working extra hard) to draw in everything on screen. I really don’t think that this is a hardware issue though as perhaps the game suffers from having to be completely accessed from the game disc, but whatever the reason Mass Effect makes a lot of noise in the disc drive even in my 360 Elite.
Mass Effect has been in development for sometime, but in some ways it feels like it was rushed out the door visually speaking. What struck me was that every new area I'd enter I had to wait several seconds for the bland polygonal structures to be "painted" with textures. In the beginning this was quite annoying to the point of pulling me out of the games excellent story. If I can compare it to anything it would have to be Halo 2's cut-scenes on the original Xbox. There was always a delay in the textrues drawing on the objects as the scene unfolded in front of you. However, even given this issue Mass Effect's visuals in the later levels are really a sight to behold and provide some of the most impressive environments the 360 has ever seen. There are still moments where the framerate would stutter but it does get better as the game goes on and didn't affect the gameplay. On an even more positive note I found that the problems with the texture draw-in and minor framerate stuttering were kept to a mininmum while I interacted with other characters. During these moments in the story the game was able to go from character to character, face to face talking with nary any hiccups. It was like watching a program on TV in high definition.
I hate to focus on the negative, but given that this game has been so hyped, and its long development, I thought that the graphical issues would be kept to a minimum. However, beyond what I have already touched on there are still isses that stood out. Mass Effect did have a fair amount of clipping, espeaclly around large objects. There were also times that I got stuck in walls and had trouble navigating around tight spaces. This somewhat perplexed me the developers have had a lot of time to work out these kinds of kinks, but yet they were still there.
Something that really wowed me in this game was the characters in the game, including those in your party to the NPC’s that you interact with during the game. Everyone one of these characters is really a sight to behold. I was astounded with how many different races of characters there were and how they looked so different. Each one was exquisitely detailed from the texture of their skin to the outfits that they wore. I can’t count the number of times that I was so amazed with how lifelike each character was. Small details such as the eye movements of each individual to the small mannerisms that each character had were just incredible. It is this level of detail that really brings one into both the story and the world that it occurs. Kudos to Bioware for the effort they made in this department.
Every character in Mass Effect has something to say and if you’re willing to look deep enough there is a huge amount of detailed history that the various characters will discuss with you if you ask the right questions. With just a few flicks of the controller you can access a great deal of information by asking. This is what sets this game apart from any other RPG. The voice-acting is absolutely top-notch and in my opinion has set a new standard for voice and character interaction in videogames. The fluidity of the conversations is that of cinematic quality as characters are extremely well developed with a tremendous amount of detail. I also have to give some huge props to Bioware for having enlisted several Hollywood actors that assisted with the project. If there is any nitpicking in the voice over department it is that the lip-syncing could be better but this is a very minor detail and something that you have to look closely at to find.
The rest of the sound effects compliment the already great voice work. I could clearly hear the constant drone of the Normandy in the background (Shepard’s ship) as I engaged in conversations on all the different decks that I explored. The guns and various weapons are also well accounted for and add that sci-fi feel to the game. Mass Effect supports Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound and it is really the only way to enjoy all the audio offered. My subwoofer rumbled throughout the game and I also was able to notice fantastic separation through out all my speakers. In one instance I had enemies behind me firing, and the sound of their weapons came from the rear, transitioned past me and into my front speakers. This is the way great games should be played. Overall, the sound in Mass Effect fully adds to the gameplay experience and Bioware did and incredible job in this area.
Mass Effect's press material says that in your adventure you will determine the fate of mankind as you lead an elite tactical strike force as an epic galaxy-wide conflict unfolds. It will take you into new depths of an action-role-playing game, with choice-based gameplay. I have to say that the press material is the easiest and most concise way to describe your experience. The game begins pretty quickly with an introduction to the main character, Commander Shepard. Here you can start with the default Shepard that has been already created for the game or you can choose to custom make him by altering basic features such as facial, race or class should you desire. The class or character you choose will determine the style of play and where they will gain experience. Some classes include combat orientated individuals (e.g. soldiers) or technology-focused individuals (e.g. engineer) and there are a lot more to choose from. The choices you make here directly impacts how the story plays out, with certain characters responding differently to situations later on in the game. After creating your character the game briefly fills you in on what Shepard is like as an individual you then start the game in the Eden Prime colony. This first mission feels like a training tutorial as you investigate an invasion by a race called the Geth. It is very effective, teaching you the rudimentary weapon controls, how to use the games on screen menus, and how to control other people in your party.
At the grass roots level Mass Effect is more then an RPG. It employs a real-time, squad based, tactical combat system where you are immersed in intense, challenging and exciting combat. As I began playing the game it felt like a pure action title, but as I got further along I began to realize it is more about the role-playing than just about the shooting. As you progress through the storyline, you will meet other characters that you can add to your party. Each of these individuals has their own special attributes which contribute to the squad. You and your crew will level up with each battle and you can adjust how the points are divvied up or have the game decide for you. You will also find weapons or armour through out the game which you can swap for better ones for your entire party or you can sell them off for money. I found that the money in the game was bit of a moot point; you don’t need to use a lot of it during your adventure.
There is a feature in Mass Effect that I found somewhat cool. This feature is the ability to melt down any or all weapons and turn them into omni gel packs. These are basically like life giving pills, upping the health of you or anyone in the party. Sadly once you reach your 150 limit you’ll have to convert every new item you pick up into omni-gel. You can't even switch back to your inventory to dump some old equipment when this happens and you have no choice but to get rid of the new stuff, good or bad.
The attributes of all your characters get better as experience levels move up. Your main character is able to carry all types of weapons, including assault rifles, snipers and shotguns, but to use each type of weapon effectively you’ll need to train each character in that particular area. For example, in one battle I began using a simple handgun and I decided to switch to a shotgun. I had zero experience with a shotgun and I found that I had all kinds of problems aiming and shooting it. After this first battle I began to level up and gain experience points with the shotty, and it became a much more effective weapon.
Along with weapon skills there are literally tons of other talents available to you; depending on which class you choose to be at the game start. Your ability to override locks on computers or locked doors is one such talent. This takes timing, as you are required to push a random button code to unlock such obstacles. Be aware if you aren’t able to open certain items on the first try you’ll be required to give up some of your health packs to get them open. It is a bit of a crapshoot from there as you may need to get into the locked area, but to give up health gel packs is a risky venture. I think it is well worth building up someone your party to do this job. It is gameplay like that that makes Mass Effect a deep RPG.
Bioware's major innovation with Mass Effect is the fusion of third person shooting with RPG combat mechanics. It's an interesting amalgamation, because while the combat looks and plays like a shooter, the actual effects of the player's actions are based on RPG statistics, it’s a good marriage. In terms of the battles I found that I had some trouble with the combat system. The opening game tutorial covers the basics but leaves you to figure out the nuts and bolts of the scheme. Once you have seen your enemy and you are in close vicinity you automatically switch to a combat stance. From there you aim and shoot with the right trigger while using the left trigger to zoom in slightly on your target. While the triangle reticule can be useful I found trying to aim and hit the enemy right square in the chest a difficult proposition as the enemies never stand still. I needed to adjust the sensitivity on the finer aiming mechanism. This helped me adjust to the reticule over time and thus enabling faster more efficient kills. Cycling through your weapons and using your party’s specialties is either the left and right bumpers respectively. It is also how you access the power wheel. This wheel is a heads up display of weapons you can choose on the fly. The game pauses temporarily as you make your decision and with some practice you can keep the pauses to a minimum making it very useful in intense combat. It also allows for an interesting use of the talent wheel; when selecting your talent of choice, you can still move around your aim. This means that if you have a talent that’s a projectile, you can literally pause with the right bumper, take your time to aim carefully at the enemy, and then fire for an almost guaranteed damage hit. I found it most useful if my weapon was overheating and it needed swapping out for another one quickly.
Frustratingly I found my squad members had bouts of poor AI. This is partly due to the commands needed to order them around. Strangely there is no way to order each squad member around separately. If one has to move they both do. I also found their response to my commands a bit funny as sometimes they would move insanely slow to my prompts. I would have to stop at times and reissue their orders, only to find them stuck on a box or rock etc. This would result in me having to go back and lead them around whatever was blocking their progress. On other occasions they would cross right in front of my line of fire or block my view. All of these things were very frustrating. It is only a minor gripe though, and doesn’t happen that often, but it did have me wondering aloud a few times as I couldn't understand whey they were doing these things.
Combat is only one part of Mass Effect and it’s not the part that most gamers will remember it for. Bioware has created an in-depth and compelling narrative that is built on a solid deep back-story and appealing characters. I found the lead character (Shepard) an extremely likeable figure in the virtual world of Mass Effect. When he speaks, people listen. The dialogue reminded me of some very old school games like Snatcher or In Hell which also both created a very intense game driven by a fantastic story. In Mass Effect almost every conversation or question directly affects outcome of the game which I found quite cool. You will have think about every move you make and ask or answer every question as the effect of your behaviour could be detrimental to your adventure. I really liked how being too aggressive with your line of questioning could make you look like a hothead with no clue; you could actually feel the embarrassment. On the flip side, concise controlled questioning makes you look like the world class leader you are touted to be. Intimidating or charming, it is your choice which direction you want to go.
Mass Effect's gameplay is enriched by such a robust and engaging storyline; you can tell right from the get go a great deal of work has been put into the script. The story is well told and put together. The multiple endings are based on certain decisions made during the game, so replay value is high here. The main game is around 20-30 hours long. However, there are also around 20 hours worth of mini missions where, in addition to the main story arc of the game, you can visit a large number of uncharted, unexplored planets which are not directly tied to the main story.
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