The Good: Seamless blending of 3rd person FPS and RPG. Good character advancement structure. The Bad: Poor squad AI. Irritating lock-picking minigame. The Ugly: Vehicle driving and physics are a joke. Tons of short, poorly-disguised load times.
Mass Effect is an interesting study in contrasts. Some parts of it strongly resemble some pretty darned terrific games, most notably KOTOR, in the way that it seamlessly blends a 3rd person shooter with a complex RPG model which gives characters real significant advancement paths without bogging down in dozens of fussy D&D-style stats. On the other hand there are some parts that just don’t work at all, the cruddy driving portions being the most obvious standout. The results is at times great fun and somewhat annoying, because I think they had that rare videogame greatness within their grasp and it somehow just slipped away.
The quickest way to explain what ME is about is to describe it as KOTOR with all the Star Wars stuff stripped away. In the distant future the galaxy is governed by a council consisting of the three most ancient and powerful species, the humans just a small upstart species in the grand scheme of things. When a human colony is attacked and it is discovered that a member of the council special forces, known as the Spectres, was involved, the council at first refuses to believe it. When presented with proof that it involves a race of killer androids and perhaps has something to do with the sudden and unexplained extinction of one of the precursor races, the council allows a human, a nominee to the Spectres (only the second human nominee ever) to investigate. That’s you. It’s a dramatic and well-told story, full of sneaky references to Star Trek, Alien, and other sci-fi classics, and at stake is perhaps nothing less than the safety and security of the entire universe. Sounds pretty important, right? Then why is there no urgency in your investigation? Sure, you can jump right on the plot train, but you can also decide instead to explore the galaxy and tackle a few side quests, find out why contact has been lost with some mining colony or answer a distress call, level up a little and pick up some skills. It detracts from the main plot line, trying to engross you in the dire do-or-die fight for survival of the human race while at the same time letting you piddle around accomplishing minor unrelated tasks.
Characters fit into three major categories – soldier, engineer or adept – or you can build a character that is a hybrid mix of those (Infiltrator, Sentinel, Vanguard). Soldiers excel at combat and weapons skills; engineers pick up skills like electronics or decrypting. Adepts represent something of a magic-using class, developing skills like telekinesis or projecting a stasis field. You can quickly begin the game using a stock character either male or female, or get down in the trenches and build your own. It’s not as involved as some other more RPG-ish games like Oblivion or NWN, but there are a good number of choices available to you that will allow you to generate a character that fits your style of play.
Combat is fast and fluid, very FPS-like. Hitting the space bar brings up an interface that allows you to issue commands to your two squadmates. Without your help they seemed unlikely to find cover on their own and very frequency are shot to pieces. Fear not however, that’s not a permanent condition. When combat is over they come back to life on their own. It’s not as good an interface as either Star Wars Republic Commando or Brothers in Arms, but it’s not so poor that it actually detracts from the gameplay, and it does give you more options in terms of the orders you can give than either of those games. I would have preferred however that they had more brains to keep themselves alive long enough for me to issue those orders.
When the combat is done you collect loot, experience and perhaps level up. Leveling up gives you skill points to allocate however you see fit, to either boost a skill with some weapon, allocate to some other skill, or improve your damage or defensive stats. You can tell before you allocate those points exactly what you’ll get when you spend them, and I really liked the leveling structure of the game, giving your character clear advancement paths that were satisfying and easy to map out. As you pick up special skills, like aimed shot or shield boost you can map those skills to quick keys for easy use in combat. Leveling up of your squad mates is handled in much the same way. Loot can be a weapon, armor, or an upgrade, which you can equip to either yourself or your squadmates or convert to omnigel – a bizarre catchall material that can be used to either pick a lock or repair a truck. Absolutely anything can be converted to omnigel, though it is done through a somewhat troublesome inventory interface in which each item must be selected, the “convert to omnigel” button must be pressed, and you have to confirm with yes/no buttons (note to self, hit yes). It would have been nice if I could have CTRL-multiselected items and converted items to omnigel in mass, but alas not. You can also sell loot at various markets and use those credits to buy other things – why as a military unit you can’t simply requisition the things you need without paying for them is something of a mystery.
As well as the FPS combat works, the vehicle combat and driving is a mess. The vehicle bounces around like a superball regardless of the planet gravity level. It bounces around on big balloon tires, landing on its roofs sometimes and then inexplicably, in complete ignorance of the laws of physics, kind of flops back onto its wheels again. The turret points left or right independent of the vehicle direction, but can only move vertically very slightly with respect to the vehicle level. Coming over the lip of a hill it is impossible to hit objects on the far side because your turret is pointed into the sky. You have to go over the hill onto the downslope to fire effectively, and since the crosshair seems to be just flat wrong you have to see where your shots hit to know how you’re doing. Unlocking doors, hacking computers and the like are accomplished through a minigame that is something like a circular version of frogger – you’ll understand the comparison if you try it – which is about as annoying as the waterpipe game in Bioshock. Why all these games feel the need to replace a simple die roll for success with a minigame is beyond me. You would think they would understand that anything you end up doing in a game 50+ times is going to become irritating.
Graphics are sharp and crisp, especially the movies, which are of a very high quality (in voice acting as well). Shield effects, and bullet tracers, smoke, fire, explosions – it’s all in there. Space stations, planets, caverns, and alien technology are all intricately drawn with lots of interesting little features and accents. The third-person camera gets spun around sometimes, leaving you looking at the wall or the floor, but it’s no worse than many other third-person games, and a heck of a lot better than most. Your character cannot jump, even short obstacles, and sometimes if you try you get stuck in the object forcing you to save and load to get free. The game is peppered with dozens of short loads, camouflaged (badly) with a movie of your ship cruising between stars or your vehicle landing on a planet surface, and god help me if I have to take another elevator somewhere. The music, while good, seems to sometimes desync from the action, like providing action music long after the combat has ended.
As I read over this review it comes across as pretty negative. That’s not my intent at all. The RPG FPS elements, which make up far and away the majority of the game, work really well, as you would expect a Bioware title would. The story is original, compelling, and told in a way that builds suspense. It’s the other stuff, 10% of the game tops, that Mass Effect could have done without.