Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Massively Effecting My Indifference

Having finally gotten around to playing 2007's heralded Mass Effect, I'm now prepared to speak my mind about BioWare's science-fiction action/adventure/alien-copulation simulator/role-playing-game.  There are a lot of things to be said about ME, some of which might be praise, or maybe criticism, or perhaps just downright nitpicking.  Suffice it to say, my experience with ME was mixed, leaving me with little other choice but to say "meh."  The game's been out for like a decade or something, and even your grandmother's book club has played it by now, so this may be old news to some of you, but it's new to ME.

Continue to the full article for the rest of the verdict.

Since the omniscience of the internet is already well aware of ME's acclamation, let's get the praise out of the way, first, and get to the complaints later.

[The Praise]

One of the first things a new player notices about ME is that the aesthetics are really quite good.  There's a consistent style to the visual design that makes the game look and feel unique, even in a market saturated with space marines who shoot things. When I first set foot on the Citadel--the game's hub of civilization--I looked to the horizon and was very pleased to see it disappearing upward; evidence that I was standing on the inside edge of a rotating circle, like actual space stations might be (see Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey for what I mean).  It therefore felt inspired and rich, unlike many other claustrophobic, generic space stations I've strolled through.  The color palette adds some nice variety to the scenery, as well; we're not stuck with shades of gunmetal gray.  Wandering around the Citadel exposes you lush, green vegetation, pale blue skies, deep blue lakes, and so forth. Some areas are more tranquil and subdued, befitting of the environment, while some of the main-missions planets, like Virmire, look like veritable paradises.  The grand effect is that the visuals are all very pleasing to the eye.

Interior shot of the Citadel.  Notice the curvature.
The next thing that stands out is the writing and the voice acting.  ME pays a lot of attention to its dialogue sequences, with the player sometimes in conversations for 20 minutes at a time, so of course you'd expect it to be good.  The way characters talk (both in terms of the content, as well as how they say it) feels and flows like natural conversations.  It's easy to read characters' emotions "between the lines"---they don't have to ham it up to make subtle emotions clear to the player. Conversations are highly interactive, allowing you to pick different responses or to ask questions as you see fit, which helps to keep them engaging. There's also a certain depth to the way conversations and relationships develop throughout the course of the game, as you'd come to expect from BioWare, thus making even idle conversation feel wholesome and rewarding because you know that it's ultimately going somewhere.  It might just mean learning more about one of your teammates, but other times it will unlock extra side-quests.  Or grant you access to full frontal nudity and player-directed intercourse. (Disclaimer: not really.  It's just a romance option that eventually lets you make PG-13 love with your partner.)

I really liked the way the morality system played out in ME.  BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic had the problem with its Light/Dark slider kind of forcing you to play entirely good or entirely bad, and punishing you for acting out of character once you established an alignment.  While allegedly offering player choice, I felt like it actually limited your choices, because once you arbitrarily picked one side, you felt compelled to stick with it or risk missing out on the rewards.  ME, however, puts them on separate scales and lets you raise them separately, with the idea being that you don't lose progress in one for acting in the other.  This kind of works out, because like any real human being, it lets you behave differently in different situations. I was able to kind and considerate with friends/squad-mates, and impatient and commanding with strangers/adversaries. But I especially liked that the "Renegade" choices (the "bad" or "dark" choices) didn't amount to heartless murder and being a self-obsessed emo jerk.  The "dark" options in ME are usually qualified by objective justifications, and carry a tone of firmness and efficiency, which is far more realistic than most other morality systems I've encountered.

Mass Effect also takes a more uncommon stance in its galactic depiction of the human race.  In ME, we humans are basically second-class citizens without the same rights as "Council Species" (those represented by a sort of galactic authority that manages and protects the well-being of the galaxy).  We're basically late-comers to the party, vying with other species for a spot on the council.  Others respect our determination and tenacity, while others look down on us as stubborn and selfish. These perspectives form a nice balance between the natural qualities of humanity, which I'm highly appreciative of.  Especially after Jim Cameron's "Avatar" depicted humanity like a bunch of thick-headed, militaristic, selfish, jerk-wadded a-holes.  (But I guess "Avatar" came out after ME so maybe that comparison isn't directed accurately.)  It's also nice that we're not completely at the bottom of the food chain, so to speak, fighting for our rights to survive in the galaxy.  I just find it a very plausible scenario that BioWare trod very deftly.

Finally, there's the degree of polishing and streamlining of the content.  ME is very easy to play and not at all tedious.  Mostly.  The player always knows where to go or what to do next, thanks to the journal system and the Galaxy Map, and there's usually always a variety of side-quests available if you want a change of pace.  But even the main content of the game is varied well enough that it doesn't bog down. For example, the game alternates between linear combat sections, visiting hubs and doing odd jobs for citizens, exploring the surface of planets in a land-rover buggy, and longer dialogue sequences with main characters and your squad-mates.  Unlike some other games, where you play for an hour and feel like you need to take a break, you can play for hours on end in ME and not get tired of it, simply because of the variety of how the content is streamlined to you.

With all of that said, there are reasons I'm left with an indecisive feeling of "meh." Some things about ME aren't inherently bad, but they're just average or not worth writing home about, while a few other things begin to feel shallow or repetitive.  So here are some of my criticisms.

[The Criticism]

I'm not sure what to say about the combat.  It's functional and it gets the job done, but almost in a compulsory way.  These days, any game that's supposed to appeal to the masses effectively has to have combat.  With limited exceptions (see Portal). So ME goes with the tried-and-somewhat-true motif of third-person shooting with cover systems.  It's kind of exciting (as well as strategic) in the beginning, but after a while I got tired of having my face against a wall. Popping out from behind a wall to fire for a few seconds, every few seconds, also got a little repetitive.  Around the 20 hour mark, I started to meet combat with a sigh, instead of welcome appreciation. It's like instead of the combat system and I sitting for amicable tea, the combat arrived at my doorstop as scheduled, I poured the tea, and then I turned the TV on and watched crime drama reruns while the combat prattled on and on until it was time to leave.  I stopped feeling involved and engaged with it long before the game finished.

Depending on your class, you'll get a variety of skills to use in combat.  However, they don't really develop or add new elements to the gameplay as you go on.  You unlock skills the first time you put a point in that field, but then every subsequent point just upgrades the stats of the skill without changing it any significant way. Consequently, you can unlock all of your basic skills early on and then see no dynamic change in the combat for the rest of the game.  It feels largely the same from beginning to end.  And it doesn't help that you spend most of the game fighting the same gun-shooting humanoids, either.  It came to a point where I was strong enough, and frustrated enough with the combat, that I was able to just toggle all of my buffs and run out into the open shooting everything until it died, with no strategy or tact, all in an effort to get it over with faster.

The feeling of combat is also hampered from the fact that enemies seem to scale in level with you.  No matter what level you are or what your stage of the game is, enemies seem programmed to do a certain amount of damage, to have a certain amount of health, and to yield a certain amount of experience based on your level. Which leaves a blemish on the whole experience, because it ultimately means it doesn't matter the order in which you do quests or visit planets.  It's not like doing side-quests early will make you more prepared for the main missions, or that you can tackle harder assignments for higher experience or rewards. Instead of the player feeling like he's climbing a ladder, making progress throughout the game, the scaling makes it feel like you're just kind of treading water in the same spot for hours and hours. 

If the combat gets to feel repetitive and shallow, then the exploration and side-quests are even worse.  Side-quests are usually picked up by NPCs in the Citadel, or via transmission when you first arrive in a star system.  However, virtually every single side-quest plays out the same.  Riding in your buggy, you land on the surface of a planet, which looks exactly the same as every other planet except with a different texture, and scout the map for anomalies, minerals, and whatever else.  You then go to the quest marker, which usually involves going into a building or sub-structure on foot.  Most of these buildings are copy n' pasted floorplans which slight variations inside.  You kill things working your way to the back of the building before either talking to someone, killing someone, or pressing "action" on something in the environment.  Local quests that stay inside a town/hub are more varied, and they do more to invest you in the characters' situations, but anything that involves traveling to another star system gets to be incredibly repetitive.

Planet surfaces.  Barren wastelands and repeated textures. 

As you explore all of these planets and complete quests, you'll of course run into a lot of weapons and armor to use on you and your squad-mates.  These, however, also suffer from the level-scaling.  There are a dozen different types of weapons and armor and upgrades out there, but they're all suffixed with a Roman numeral indicating its "level."  So at level 1-10, everything you find will have have I, II, or III next to it, and by the time you're level 40-50 everything will have a VIII, IX, or X next to it.  You can't go out of your way to find strong weapons early, or get much real satisfaction out of the loot system because of how heavily it scales to your level. There's also an arbitrary limit to how many items you can carry, despite there being virtually no inventory screen or inventory management, so it gets very tedious having to clean your inventory out after every mission.  The inventory screen doesn't have custom options for sorting things, which makes this task even more of a chore. Stores rarely sell anything better than what you find out in your questing, so there's very little use for money.  Oh, and there's even a cap on how much money you can carry, so that whole aspect of the game really is worthless---you're either not spending your money on anything, or it's just vanishing into thin air as you earn it. Usually both.

[The Conclusion]

A lot of my criticisms may seem like I'm nitpicking, or it may seem like ME just isn't my kind of game.  And that may all be true.  Or it might be that BioWare tried so hard to make this game appeal to as wide of an audience as possible that it sacrificed a lot of things that could've made the experience even better.  Playing through it from start to finish, I just never got a sense that I had much of an influence on the way the game played, as if a lot of the choices I made didn't have any real impact on anything.  This is especially evident with the dialogue; multiple response options come up, but once you've picked something, the actual response is broad enough to encompass all of the possibilities, as if it didn't matter what you picked.  

Leveling-up, investing skill points, exploring, completing side-quests, upgrading my equipment, shooting enemies.... all of that felt really shallow and pointless in the grand scheme of things. Mass Effect is definitely not a bad game; it does some nice things, and perhaps the biggest praise I can give for it is that it's pretty fluid to play and that it presents itself well. However, it also feels like it's missing a lot of great potential.  Everything you do in the game could've felt far more substantial if side-quests had been less cookie-cut, and if enemies and content didn't scale with you whatever you did.  Ultimately, I'm still left with a kind of "meh" feeling about it.  I could easily recommend Mass Effect as something worth playing, but I probably wouldn't put it on a pedestal as an icon of what games should strive for.

Of course, this may all change with Mass Effect 2: The Sequel, so we'll see how things develop.  Although most of you have probably already seen how.


  1. Nice review. Sadly the sequel is worst removing so much elements it become like gears of war with a dialogue wheel and some powers..

  2. Try Mass Effect 2. It's not a very good game, but if you approach it as an FPS with some sparse RPG elements, it can be very fun.

    I say this because BioWare tried to make ME2 more "streamlined" than ME1 by removing all the annoying aspects that were present in ME1. Namely, the planet exploration, Mako, omnigel, copious dialogue, and weapon overheat system. With all of this stuff gone, you're left with a linear FPS with good production quality (well hey, it's BioWare after all) and random streaks of witty writing.

    If you haven't played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, then you should look into it if you're looking for a more solid BioWare "space opera" RPG. SW:KOTOR has its fair share of problems as well, but it's a much better game. The pacing, specifically, doesn't go from "HEY! THIS IS AN INTRO SEQUENCE! YEAH! YOU KIND OF SUCK RIGHT NOW!" to "oh, uh... right... do whatever you want, the game doesn't change much past this point."

    1. I've played KOTOR, and I'd say it's probably my favorite BioWare game (I still need to get around to Baldur's Gate, not as interested in NWN or Jade Empire), though I actually prefer KOTOR 2 by Obsidian.

    2. You should definitely give BG2 a try. I didn't like the game at first few attempts, but eventually i discovered that there really is a reason why it still has a cult following despite the generic high fantasy setting and "typical" fantasy party adventures. Id even go as far as saying its among the very best that cRPGs have to offer, along with PS:T, Fallout and such.

    3. Well, I personally liked Jade Empire about as much as KotOR 1, all of NWN 2 was done by Obsidian, and NWN is actually Bioware's most played game ever (mostly multiplayer, but one GOG review mentioned that the second expansion pack offers a remarkable single-player campaign); on the other hand, the first Baldur's Gate was about as long and boring as Oblivion, and I've read the second one is very similar to Dragon Age.

      Just trying to, you know, make you consider the other side of the coin as well :). It might just be best to skip Bioware games altogether - for some reason, they all started to feel pretty much the same to me after the second one. Start as no one, gather a party, discover some amazing plot twist, then become the ruler of the universe. Or whatever.

  3. Huh. If you have some time later, can you explain why you prefer KOTOR2 over KOTOR1?

    Baldur's Gate is pretty much on the same level that KOTOR1 is, in my opinion. It has some slightly better dialogue, though. And waaaaay more mods, if you like it enough to look into those.

    1. It's been many years since I've played either game, so I can't go into much detail. What I remember is that the story, characters, and mechanics felt more nuanced/complex in KOTOR2. I liked the overall darker atmosphere and the more personal story, and KOTOR2 had a few really nice gameplay improvements with things like crafting. I liked that the moral decisions were a little less black/white (ie, when you give a beggar a few credits, he gets beat up/murdered shortly after), and Kreia's whole character made me think about what I was doing a lot more than any character in KOTOR1.

      A lot of people say the story in KOTOR1 is better because it's more "epic," but I tend to find such "epic" storylines cliche and less interesting. Of course, KOTOR2 has that craptastic ending because Obsidian ran out of time/money and had to throw something together at the last minute, but I hear there's a fan patch/mod that tries to restore the ending to the way it was originally intended -- I'll have to replay KOTOR2 sometime to see it.

  4. Final picture - what's that planet called? Magic Eye? I haven't seen such horrible repeated textures since Sonic Adventure!