An almost pitch perfect hybrid of Japanese and Western RPG values resulting in a truly magnificent achievement
Fanning110 wrote this review on .
In more traditional Japanese RPGs, like Final Fantasy, the choice was made for you by the game's writers and this technique, whilst fantastic for the purpose of telling a grand storyline and creating characters that you cared for deeply (who among you didn't shed a tear at the death of Aeris in FF VII?) was always something of a setback in more individualistic cultures such as the US and the UK, where gamers were hungry to do things their way and with an avatar that they felt truly represented them. This thirst for an experience defined by your own desires could not be satiated by becoming Cloud or Squall, gamers wanted to be themselves in the situations presented by the game.
It is somewhat fitting, then, that Bioware, the firm that brought us the game experience shaped by our own decisions, are also the people upon whose shoulders lay the responsibility for furthering the RPG genre with Mass Effect.
Their earlier attempts to create a hybrid of Japanese story values and Western individualistic ideals through the acclaimed Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic met with both critical and public acclaim. The ability to go through this already magnificent universe making your own decision whether to persuade or fight, whether to do good or evil, coupled with characters for whom you felt genuine, if not hugely powerful, affection came off marvellously but gamers were left wanting more; more choice, more options but importantly bigger and more moving storylines and characters to love. Mass Effect, the end product of years of careful development and none too few innovative technical devices represents the peak of RPG achievement. To have created their own unique Intellectual Property, a galaxy populated with entirely new races, cultures, technology and concepts is no mean achievement and this world in itself, if placed at the centre of a 'traditional' RPG where you are given a character and no real choices, would certainly have made a fantastic game that many thousands would have loved.
But that was not enough for Bioware, they wanted to push the genre further, they wanted to maintain the choices and custom character creation that served them so well in Baldur's Gate but combine them with a grander story and more developed characters and in Mass Effect they have truly achieved this.
From the moment you select 'New Career' from the main menu everything that happens is down to you, the player. You shape both the face and history of Cmdr. Shepard, your avatar, in any image you choose. Through a detailed series of sliders covering everything from hair style and colour, face shape and complexion, right down to any scars you feel need to blemish your visage and, more importantly, you make key decisions about who Shepard is and where he or she has come from. You choose whether they were an Earthborn alley rat who developed into a ruthless military executor who does anything to get the job done or a spaceborn stargazer whose entire life has been a history of clean morals and heroic actions or, through a mix and match or simple neutral options, just a soldier who displays extraordinary skill. The available classes also offer you the option to focus on one of the game's mechanics, shooting, tech skills or biotics (Mass Effect's sci fi form of magic) or whether to pick a balance between any two.
Unlike the tradition in both kinds of RPGs, (I'm looking at FF X and Baldur's Gate II in particular here,) Mass Effect doesn't then dump you straight into the fighting, hoping to hook you with the battles and feed you the story once you're in, instead it gives you a chance to explore the Normandy, the top of the line Human Alliance warship that will be your home for at least the next twenty hours, and speak to her crew. Right from the off you're making choices about how you want to intereact with those around you. Your first direct game input will be to decide whether to chastise your pilot's semi-racist dislike of an onboard alien observer or whether to play chummy with the prejudices of your crewmates. These interactions are nothing new, KOTOR enabled you to talk to your crewmates and shape relationships, but Mass Effect makes good on it's promise of a more 'cinematic' style through the game's major innovation: the Conversation Wheel. This device enables you to pick your response before the other parties in the conversation have finished talking, but after you've got the gist of what they're saying, so that there are never those awkward gaps in conversation that typified RPGs like Oblivion. These fluid character interactions made conversations feel much more like the interactive cutscenes that made Resident Evil 4 stand out so far above the rest. This device, combined with a finely crafted story dynamic, creates a fluid story that constantly grips and never bores, you never feel like you're wasting time watching a cutscene or having a conversation and the quality of the writing rarely drops below magnificent.
To go with this fluid character interaction dynamic is an overhauled combat system. Still based on Bioware's standard "behind the scenes" stat mechanic wherein your and your enemies' stats determine how much damage any given attack will do, the game goes even further into the realms of action with a fully functioning third person shooter dynamic and a cover system much akin to that of previous 360 hit Gears Of War. Whilst there is the standard "pause and think" Bioware system for the selection and employment of special powers. this faster-paced action-oriented combat goes hand in hand with the fast moving story in providing a polished and exceptional gameplay experience.
Perhaps the downfall of Mass Effect's triad of gameplay elements is the third aspect: that of 'exploration'. Once the story opens up in order to allow you to travel around the galaxy you are given access to what at first appears to be a vast number of star systems, surely packed to the brim with exciting secondary adventures, thrilling space chases and surly bar-room shootouts with disgruntled pirates and real characters.
Unfortunatly this is not the case. There are perhaps a dozen star clusters on the galaxy map, all of which are clustered to the 'east' of your navigational display. Whilst this is understandable from a storyline point of view, (The game's action is focused on a politically charged and militarily contested reagion in that particular part of the galaxy,) it actually leaves what should be a full and vibrant galaxy looking rather sparse indeed. This impression is magnified when you zoom in on a cluster to discover that there's only one or two systems to visit. The most populous cluster has four systems to visit, a number which should ideally have been the bare minimum, not the poor maximum.
And whilst the main story is thick with characters who will constantly enage, you'll fully support Captain Anderson as he attempts to get the job done despite the meddling of humanity's ambassador and you'll feel genuine sympathy for Beneziah as she chokes out an admission that she has been manipulated with her final breath, these characters are nowhere to be found in the majority of sidequests. With the notable exception of the sidequests you encounter during the main storyline, Asari high-class hookers and Krogan bounty hunters making a colourful distraction from the rather monotone Geth enemies, the sidequest characters you encounter out in the uncharted systems are normally cookie-cutter pirates or slavers, many of whom don't even stop for the pleasantries of conversation and the collection sidequests are normally just a case of "find planet, find artifact, interact with artifact, done."
But these shortcomings are far more a matter of my own lust for further gaming and even more of what Mass Effect has to offer than they are a flaw with the game itself. In truth Mass Effect is just what it says at the head of this review: an almost pitch perfect hybrid of Japanese and Western RPG values resulting in a truly magnificent achievement that everyone should experience all the way through at least once. Bring on the sequels, Bioware, and maybe lash on some extra content, for you've achieved the ultimate goal of any piece of art:;leave them wanting more, now all you have to do is deliver.