BioWare has created some monster role-playing games in the past. Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic—if these names don’t mean anything to you then perhaps you should get out a little less often. With a track record like that it would be stupid not to get hyped over the next-gen RPG from BioWare for the 360, Mass Effect. There’s just one little catch: past performance does not guarantee future results.
BioWare’s greatest successes have come from games based on familiar stories, specifically Star Wars and Forgotten Realms. However like their last game, Jade Empire, Mass Effect is an original work of fiction, and a very accomplished space opera at that. You take on the role of a human military officer who must hunt down a rogue operative after an attack on a colony and is ultimately faced with thwarting a threat to the entire galaxy. It may sound a little cliché, and there are some very familiar elements like an established galactic council of aliens wary of humanity’s recent arrival, but the story contains plenty of fresh characters, terrific dialog, and enough intrigue to power through any feelings of deja vu.
As far as the minute to minute gameplay goes, Mass Effect stretches the definition of role-playing game, playing much more like a third person action game most of the time, though success or failure in any encounter is as much the result of your character’s equipment and abilities as your controller-jockey proficiency. While you control your main character directly, command of two squad mates, whom you chose from a pool of six with an array of different abilities, is limited to very simple go-to, take cover, attack-my-target types of actions, which while minimally acceptable falls well short of any kind of true tactical interface. Likewise the ability to pause the game to access your team’s special powers works okay, though it is considerably less satisfying than the tools we’ve been given in previous BioWare games.
The core of Mass Effect is made up of half a dozen planets that form the main story, and for the most part they are very good, if rather linear. Those hoping for areas densely packed with quests like previous BioWare games are sure to be disappointed, as there is only one true “city” in the game that features that kind of setting, and the rest of is mostly action with a smattering of that excellent dialog sprinkled liberally along the way. It takes somewhere between ten and twenty hours to get through the main line of the plot, and with all the different character, party, dialog, and plot options the incentive to replay a few times is palpable. There are also a lot of side missions and planets to explore in pseudo-open-world style, but they seem more like the output of a random mission generator or RPG Mad Libs than skillfully crafted content from RPG masters, and effectively they are little more than glorified filler. What story is present is often trite and poorly resolved, giving little cause for them other than to pad the total hour count.
And then there is the crime against nature that is Mass Effect’s inventory system. Like items don’t stack, sorting options are non-existant, and the menus are horrifyingly slow moving, making a chore out of intelligently gearing up your crew. Much of the loot is uninteresting anyway, minute variations on weapon stats with very little tangible game effect, but you’ll be inundated with it nevertheless and forced to clear it away lest you hit the item maximum and miss out on something you really do want. Items drop in strict level bands and scale in some weird ways, it’s just really odd all around. What should be a joy in any RPG, finding new and awesome stuff to kick ass with, becomes a total drag, and shame on BioWare for either not realizing it was a problem or judging it not bad enough to prioritize fixing.
There’s also the matter of the mind numbing press-the-button-as-it-appears-onscreen mini-game that you’re forced to play every time you interact with anything in the world. Open a locked door? Stupid mini-game. Open a crate? Stupid mini-game. Salvage an artifact? Stupid mini-game. Survey a mineral deposit? Yeah, you guessed it, stupid mini-game. Over and over and over, and the only way it changes for the dozens of hours of gameplay is sometimes you have to press more buttons. It’s enough to drive a person insane. Thankfully when you finally become wealthy you can use an expendable resource to skip the button pressing, but until then it will greatly try your patience. Whoever thought this was a good idea deserves a suplex.
Graphically the overall presentation of Mass Effect is wonderful, bordering at times on spectacular, though it comes at a price. The character models look amazing, with unparalleled detail in their body language and facial expressions, and the environments of the main story areas do their job at setting the scene remarkably well. The other side of the coin, however, is that there is a lot of texture popping that goes on, and some slow-down can even rear its ugly head in more chaotic battles, particularly when a lot of physics altering powers are being tossed around. On the plus side, every single line of dialog in the game is spoken, and the voice acting is top notch. There are a handful of name brand actors on the cast, but the real all-stars are the people who give voice to your character and your party members. They are truly outstanding, and their efforts are one of the real highlights of the game.
Mass Effect is the epitome of a double-edged sword. It’s good enough to be worth playing, but you must be willing to accept the fact that while it gives with one hand it takes away with the other. Then it pats you on the head, scratches behind your ear, and pokes you in the eye. You just can’t go any significant length of time without being annoyed by something, and it really sucks because there are parts of this game that are so good they’ll make you cry. The story is immersive, the dialog, and the spirited reading of that dialog, is superlative, the main game areas are solid, and everything else ranges from filler to irritation. You want to play more and more, but the more you play the more annoying the annoyances become. Whatever the reasons—technical, economic, philosophical, whatever—BioWare has lost their first battle against next-gen game development. Put it up on the board: Xbox 360 1, BioWare 0. It is a tribute to how good they are at what they do that their worst winds up being better than most developers’ best. Mass Effect ends up being very good, nearly great, and worthy of recommendation even if this is probably BioWare’s weakest game to date.