A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, BioWare, the legendary creators of Dragon Age and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, gave gamers their first epic, multi-pathed Xbox 360 RPG with Mass Effect. Released to much fan-fare, the heralded action-rpg hybrid allowed players to guide their own customized main character (Commander Shepard) and his recruitable, multi-species crew through a sci-fi journey of galactic proportions – literally. Fast forward to present-day Earth – while the masses are once again waiting to be affected by the sequel, a select few of us that missed out on the first portion of the story (or simply want our in-game decisions to carry over to the successor) have decided to go back and try to save the original galaxy again before the day of second impact. Fortunately, while some of the creaks and cracks of yesteryear have fissured into eye sores since its original release, the old girl has still largely â€œgot it where it counts.â€
Letâ€™s start with the probably the best reason to play through the original game again: the highly shapeable story and the dialogue system on which it rests. Although BioWare fans will recognize this as the companyâ€™s MO, nearly every conversation and decision withinÂ Mass Effect allows the player to select responses that lead to major and minor consequences. Depending on whether you react to a situation with a cool-headed and diplomatic â€œParagonâ€ response or a hot-headed and likely more risky â€œRenegadeâ€ option (or anything in between), NPCs will come to either respect you or hate your guts, open up to you or shut you out, or ultimately be allowed to live or suffer a gruesome death. Although not every detail of Commander Shepardâ€™s adventures will be changed via this system – youâ€™ll still fight the same bosses, still be able to access the same shops and still have the same amount of selectable missions – itâ€™s these major choices that the player is forced to make that have become Mass Effectâ€™s true legacy. I wonâ€™t sugarcoat the situation – some of the decisions can be quite difficult, but that only reinforces the success that BioWare has had in helping players establish meaningful connections to their in-game crew and support characters. Their fate is quite literally in your controller-greased hands.
But while youâ€™ll delight in seeing the fruits of your dialogue-based decisions, chances are that the combat wonâ€™t live up to your modern-day expectations. Battles are carried out through a behind the shoulder, third-person perspective, with Shepard leading two of his fellow squadmates, all with different traits and abilities (of course) into a cover-based shooter against armies of robots, mercenaries and nogoodniks. Each character has an assortment of different guns and special abilities that allow for an amusing combination of battle tactics at your disposal – you can suspend enemies in mid-air, overload their weapons and disable their shields, all before they hit the ground. Unfortunately, the cover system, in which you try to stick as close to a wall as possible in hopes of automatically latching onto it, can only be described as serviceable at best, especially with other third-person shooters such as Gears of War setting a high bar over the past few years. And while certain character classes, such as the Soldier or Vanguard, will have little trouble disposing of the legions of seemingly crack-shot enemies despite this flawed mechanic, others will be doomed to restarting the same battles multiple times due to an over-exposed limb. Add to this a fairly crude checkpoint system, and you could find yourself repeating the same 20 minute battle over and over again, complete with unskippable cutscenes and loss of saved player settings. Suffice to say, your learning curve may vary.
Itâ€™s also surprising – again, given its release – how well Mass Effectâ€™s graphics still hold up. While it certainly doesnâ€™t represent the bleeding-edge of textures and polygons that it once was, there are still quite a few awe-inspiring moments to be found within the galaxy – especially during the last few missions. And although some may blame unsynchronized voices and mouth movements on a general lack of polish (and they might be right), I find myself more willing to stick the rather uninspired side-missions and exploration quests into that unfortunate possibility bucket. No matter what the task might be, whether itâ€™s to rescue a sibling, purchase a certain good or procure information for someone, everything revolves around either too lengthy, although admittedly well-done, conversations or raids on generic buildings, wiping out baddies for cash thatâ€™s all but worthless. With nearly every worthwhile weapon and piece of armor procured through chests along the main story arc, thereâ€™s even less reason to explore the dozens of additional planets littered throughout the galaxy, most of them empty wastelands that contain some sort of mineral or artifact, good only for cash or obsessive collection relief.
But despite the janky, unbalanced combat, the slightly outdated visuals and the largely uninteresting side-quests, Mass Effect still manages to win over the majority of players through its thoroughly engaging story and dialogue system. Itâ€™s proof-positive that giving players a greater array of choices within their game will allow them to connect more strongly to it, especially if the consequences are interesting, heartfelt and permanent. Itâ€™s very little wonder why fans are excited for the sequel – we want to see how our actions will continue to affect all of our stories, lack of polish be damned. But while the new model is right around the corner, donâ€™t hesitate to take the olâ€™ gal out for a ride if youâ€™re interested. She might not look as pretty anymore, but she still runs just fine.
Pretty much my feelings on the game. I do have one quibble: I don’t think it’s our “modern expectations” that lead one to conclude the combat system is wonky. (Remember, Gears of War came out a few weeks before ME.) It’s wonky because Bioware tried to glue together tactical RPG combat with 3rd person cover-based shooting. Like sushi dipped in chocolate, that’s just two great tastes that don’t taste great together. RPG combat will always be less visceral than it’s purely skill-based counterpart. Aggravating matters for non-soldier classes is that the player cannot switch to directly control other squad members. Still, I too found the meaningful role-playing opportunities more than made up for it.
While you do have a good point that Gears was prior to ME, games like Uncharted, Gears 2, even Army of Two or Dark Void all manage to have a much more satisfying and well put together cover-mechanic that leaves one playing ME saying “really….really?”
And as far as your sushi & chocolate comment, you might want to wait until next week before writing off that combination. Word has it that combat in ME2 has been improved to a degree where that might be one of your major sticking points for the game. We’ll see…
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