Dedicated to one, special K Mart employee
KingVenetian wrote this review on .
At the outset of the narrative, a human colony known as Eden Prime sends a distress call to the Alliance military and it's intercepted by the SSV Normandy, an Alliance stealth ship using experimental drive technology. As the main character, you are sent down to the planet to investigate the invasion of a synthetic alien race called the Geth. When it's determined that a Turian named Saren is behind the attack as well as attempting to unlock the universe's oldest and most dangerous secret, you are launched into a heroic saga and epic battle to save humanity from extinction. And that's just the opening! The rest of the review will be story-spoiler free.
The character creation menu is the very first screen that appears when starting a new campaign. Bioware cleverly masked it as accessing classified files on an Alliance database. John Shepard has been pre-created for you if you wanted to start off with a straight soldier. Those who are more familiar with the character presets should head into the custom mode to create their own. You can alter the first name, but not the last as characters will call you Shepard constantly. After choosing a male or female, facial options can be altered to give the character a unique look. I found the facial customization to be on par with other titles like Oblivion, but unfortunately without options to adjust the shape of the body.
There are six types of classes in the game, three of which are hybrid combinations. Soldiers are excellent at gunplay and get to wear heavy armor. Engineers are more about directing combat and de-buffing enemies. Adepts are biotic experts; which allows them to alter and cause damage with the environment. The last three classes are combinations of the main three classes, each with specialized benefits. The easiest hybrid class seems to be Vanguard as you get the raw power of Adept mixed with the hardened qualities of the Soldier.
The main character and six crewmates can be outfitted with a variety of weaponry and armor. Each character carries a pistol, shotgun, assault rifle and sniper rifle, but they aren't necessarily trained in the weapon. The main character also gets to carry grenades, but they are a bit unwieldy to use and slightly underpowered. Armor ranges between light, medium and heavy as well as custom builds for specific alien species. Additionally, weapons / armor can be custom fit with modifiers. For instance, you can alter the type of ammo to increase damage on organic life forms or increase the fire rate at expense of the accuracy. You can custom fit nearly every piece of equipment in the game with these modifiers.
Biotic and tech talent powers offer more entertaining styles of combat. Biotic abilities allow you to lift unsuspecting enemies high in the air or create a massive field that rips apart the evildoers. You also have an ability to provide an extra layer of protection or create stasis fields to trap enemies. Tech powers can disable enemy weapons, overload shields and hack into robotic enemies for some unlikely assistance. They are also the backbone of breaking into various encrypted devices like storage lockers and errant laptops. As long as you have someone in your squad with these abilities, you don't need to invest skill points on your main character. Also, any one biotic / tech power can be mapped to the right bumper for quick access.
As the character levels up, adding skill points in the correct places can boost damage, improve defense, add talents and open up new armor / weapon options. Skill points are awarded after gaining enough experience to level up. It's very easy to understand and Bioware included the auto-level function that was found in KOTOR. I used it frequently for managing the development of teammates. The Skill screen does an excellent job explaining the abilities and the benefits for upgrading each step of the way. Experience points and total health are also viewable here.
Opposite from the turn-based combat in KOTOR, Mass Effect is in real time and uses a variety of squad commands to direct teammates. The squad commands are very basic and are certainly nowhere near Rainbow Six: Vegas caliber. Commands consist of move, rally, target and take cover on the directional pad. The first three work well enough, but take cover seemed to be redundant if you used move correctly. The cover system works fairly well for the main character. You basically just push up against any object to hide and peek out occasionally to pop off a few shots. The sprint function is also an interesting inclusion, but becomes shorter with heavier levels of armor. It's also a bit difficult to use on a regular basis.
Due the various types of enemies, the A.I. took on different actions based on the race of the attacker. Geth attackers would use cover and attempt to fire from far away while the Krogan warriors prefer to charge directly at you. There are also a variety of zombies in the game that just kamikaze themselves toward you to explode or spew acid. Unfortunately, the enemy A.I. is vastly smarter than the friendly A.I. If you don't give squad commands immediately as well as choose talent powers for teammates to use, they will be picked off very quickly on the advanced levels of difficulty.
After killing a batch of enemies, Mass Effect uses an automatic looting system. The main problem with this setup is the menu screen for item acceptance. You only have two options, accept everything or convert 1 item at a time to omni-gel (omni-gel is used to open objects and repair the Mako). There's no option to just leave stuff behind or batch convert items to omni-gel. After accepting all looted items in too many instances, you will hit the 150 item inventory cap and be forced to spend time making room in the inventory. While it's nice to reap the moolah from the sale of inventory items, you will be receiving so many credits in the later stages of the game that it's just not worth the effort.
When you aren't shooting down Geth, you will be in constant conversations with people in the Mass Effect universe. Conversations require a great deal of attention and choosing a response is never a hasty affair. You usually have the option of asking further questions and altering the tone of the ongoing discussion. Additionally, charm and intimidation options eventually open up as blue and red responses respectively. Often they will lead to the same goal, but the tactic is severely different. While there is an amazing amount of dialogue options, I found conversations to be somewhat lacking in the amount of humor that made KOTOR so entertaining. Still, listening to the dreary Elcor announce their emotions before speaking a sentence is utterly hilarious.
Mass Effect is very much structured like KOTOR in terms of decision making as you get points for good and bad deeds. They are referred to as Paragon & Renegade and can been seen on the character skill's page. They also open up options for further charm and intimidation conversation choices as you progress in either category. It's very easy to tell which actions / words will award the points. I was a bit disappointed with the lack of the payoff. I obtained 100% of my paragon points, but didn't receive anything for being such a goody-two-shoes. KOTOR had the luxury of offering Force benefits for 100% achievement, but there's nothing like that in Mass Effect.
Within the pause menu, you will find two excellent resources of information; the journal and the codex. The journal keeps track of the current and finished missions. Each mission description is easily accessible at any time and often helps guide the way. The codex is a shockingly vast collection of information on nearly every subject within Mass Effect. Everything you learn about alien races will be input into the codex for further review. With the multitude of planet descriptions and the data in the codex, I can't imagine the amount of time it took Bioware's writing staff to create and compile all that information. It's beyond impressive! The pause menu also contains the save function which I'm happy to report is specific to location. You never have to restart at a checkpoint.
Similar to KOTOR, the Normandy serves as a place to modify equipment and move the character subplots along. Teammates are spread all over the ship and require some investigative legwork to find them all. The Normandy also has an area to sell and purchase new supplies, Alliance military issue anyway. While the Normandy's layout is suited to science fiction's take on spaceship design, I really didn't care for riding the slowest elevator in the galaxy down to reach the loading bay. Bioware should have included a simple set of stairs. In the loading bay, you can modify your team's equipment via a locker system off to the left of the elevator. That's one of two areas of the ship that can be interacted with, the other being the map system.
When accessing the three dimensional space charts in the upper deck of the Normandy, you will be amazed how far Bioware has come from the KOTOR navigational map. You have the ability to zoom out from planet, system, cluster and eventually end up looking at the entire known galaxy. When selecting a system, the Normandy will shoot off to the new area. You can then travel to each planet, but are limited to surveying most of them. There are typically only one or two planets that can be landed upon in any given system. Additionally, the map can locate spaceships and asteroids to identify and possibly interact with.
Once you land on a planet for the first time, the Normandy enters a low trajectory drop and allows the Mako infantry vehicle, or rover, to drop onto the planet's surface. Planets all look pretty much the same in terms of structure, but offer different types of terrain like grass, lava and snow. A quick peek at the map will highlight out points of interest in the nearby area as well as any mission objectives. You have the ability to leave the rover for mining, looting damaged spacecrafts and entering structures. Occasionally, the planet will put a limit on the amount of time spent outside the rover due to poor weather conditions.
Unfortunately, visiting planets is easily the most boring aspect of the game. Perhaps it's due to the lack of visible life on the worlds, but driving around looking for rocks to mine just isn't much fun. Occasionally Geth enemies or a sandworm creature will pop out when you near an anomaly, but it's not enough to keep planet travel exciting. It's like being stuck inside Val Kilmer's Red Planet, but less entertaining and more aimless wandering. While I can appreciate the quick influx of cash / XP for mining and plundering broken equipment, I'd much rather head to the sub-story objective on the map and skip everything else. But I would like to send Bioware a giant fruit basket for putting a "Return to Normandy" option in the map screen.
The shielded, 6-wheeled Mako is outfitted with a machine gun / cannon as well as jump jets to pop out of a tough incline. The jump jets also come in handy when the rover's undercarriage gets stuck on a rock or seems to be dragging Geth bodies. The Mako handles moderately well, but becomes a little shaky at high speeds. Also, the camera angles are difficult to get a hang of when attempting to back up. My poor Mako suffered so many rocket blasts and plasma bursts because it didn't kick into reverse very easily and the camera angle didn't want to work with me.
Due to the obvious absence of multiplayer, the achievement set is designed for increasing the number of times you play though the story. Total kills are added up over a series of run-throughs and some achievements are awarded for finishing on specific difficulty levels. There are also a couple quirky achievements like completing a romance subplot or finish a run-though with more shield damage than health damage. On my first complete run through the campaign, I racked up about 300 to 400 gamerscore points. All in all, it's a solid, challenging set of tasks to complete and somewhat adds to the replay value of the title.
At first glance, Mass Effect is an absolutely stunning example of the raw graphical power of the Xbox 360. Similar to Gears of War, the sheer level of detail will impress anyone within visual range of the high definition television it's being displayed upon. The facial appearance, especially on the aliens, is top notch and brings each character vividly to life. The lighting effects for the biotic powers are brilliant and illuminate the area with gorgeous purple plasma power. The character animations are absolutely fluid and react appropriately with rag doll physics to changes in the environment.
There is a downside to pushing the 360 to these limits though. The frame rate can slow to a chug during the large scale battles, especially with lots of talent powers flying around. It's enough to affect the gameplay and become annoying during a fight. It also can happen when you turn your character around too fast. The game pauses for a few seconds to load before you can continue. When you move too fast though an area or conversation, textures won't load quickly enough and you may be staring at a blur until it finishes. I also had problems with the rover land vehicle on planets and the last few levels. Specifically when taken off a steep jump, the front hull of the rover would become embedded in the ground and I couldn't move or exit the vehicle. I can't imagine it's designed to force reloading an old save, so it must be a problem with the hit detection system.
Interestingly, Bioware gives you the option to turn off the film grain and the motion blur effect. On a high definition display, the film grain really makes the image pop with realism. I found turning off the film grain brings out the flaws in the facial visuals, namely sections around the mouth and eyes that become spotty. Turning off the motion blur wasn't as big of a difference, but it will make the visuals appear more like a video game rather than a 23-hour science fiction movie. It does help the troubled framerate though.
I can't rave enough about the ensemble of voice actors that have been put together to bring the characters to life. Most of you have recognized Keith David's (Saints Row, Halo 3) voice as the captain from the trailers, but you will also find celebrities and KOTOR nods in the mix as well. Star Trek: TNG actress Marina Sirtis does an excellent job portraying Saren's second in command and Raphael Sbarge, who many of you will recognize at the voice of Carth in KOTOR, does a solid job for the voice of Kaiden; a crew member on the Normandy. One aspect of the voice cast that's highly under-utilized in the game would be Seth Green (the Normandy's pilot). His comical jabs would have been perfect beyond the ship and the number of his recorded lines is far and few between. I'm not much of a Seth Green fan, but his character portrayal of Joker is dead on. Overall, the sheer amount of recorded audio is enough to make your head spin and Bioware deserved major kudos for pulling together such a fantastic cast.
The musical score is tremendously expansive and accurately matches the broad nature of the narrative. There are moments that crescendo to an absolute frenzied pace, much of which is due to the moving orchestral tracks during the major plot points in the game. The epic quality of the score reminded me very much of the music in Wrath of Khan or, to a lesser extent, Serenity. The melodies invoke real emotion from the cinematic portions and it translates incredibly well via the video game medium. The sound effects all match the space theme and seem to portray their designated actions correctly. This is a title begging for a directional sound system if you don't already have one.
I was surprised to find such a high level of commentary on bigotry and racism within the game. Many times, the main character is asked their opinion concerning the relationship of humanity to all the alien races in the world. There is even a political party rally towards the end of the game that wants Shepard to endorse their "pro humanity, anti-alien" candidate. Don't get me wrong, it's never preachy, overbearing or attempting to establish a correlation with current times. It's just an ongoing debate on the direction humanity should take. I found it to be a refreshing, highly intelligent aspect of the story that's rarely, if ever, seen in a video game.
I completed the single player game on a combination of Normal and Hard difficulty at character level 42 in a little over 23 hours. I'd imagine folks could possibly blow through the single player story in 12 to 15 hours if they avoided all the side missions, but they would miss out an enormous amount of entertaining material. For those who are wondering about the possible trilogy aspect, be assured that you will receive a clear, decisive ending to this portion of the tale. It's extremely satisfying and still does a great job of setting up a sequel.
With a mass of achievements still waiting for me, I've already started working on my "evil" character, which is much more of a Biotic talent junkie. I am saddened to find out most of the character responses are exactly the same on the opposite end of the conversation spectrum, but it has opened up a couple new side-story options. Also, I'm very intrigued to change the main storyline choices that I made to discover the various, different endings.
Mass Effect certainly has flaws, but it's easily the most enthralling space adventure that's ever been created for a video game platform. It honestly makes the Halo narrative look like amateur hour. Much of the credit goes to a writing staff that incredibly created this world with nothing more than pure imagination. While Mass Effect isn't a revolutionary step for Bioware, it's certainly evolutionary. Combining the elements that made KOTOR so entertaining with a combat system that's much more accessible to the teeming masses of shooter fans will make for a highly successful combination on the Xbox 360. I can't imagine anyone being without a copy of Mass Effect this holiday season.