20 January 2010

Mass Effect – a highly-belated review

This is pretty much typical me: a computer game comes out which is way too advanced for my hardware, so I file it away in my brain that I want to play it someday. Then, somewhere down the line, a new game which reminds me of the older game that I wanted to play pops up, and I go out and get the older game which, miraculously, my current system can handle with ease. In this case, Mass Effect 2 comes out in five days, and I’ve just finished playing the first installment, which was released over two years ago.

Mass Effect is Knights of the Old Republic in the Unreal engine. Seriously. It’s got a tremendously similar storyline – the main quest is for the player character, Cdr Shepard of the human Systems Alliance Navy to save the galaxy from a shadowy external threat whose nature is never made really clear even by the end, by following a previous hero (Spectre, or Special Tactics and Reconnaisance Agent of the Citadel – roughly a galactic version of the UN) who has apparently turned traitor and allied himself with a race of evil machines (‘geth’) which look suspiciously like the Advanced Sith Droids of the original Knights, having the same curving ‘heads’ and single robotic eye.


The story is a bit more satisfying than Knights, since the game isn’t wrapped up in so much of Lucas’ extended Star Wars universe – you kind of get the feeling that this is the story BioWare wanted to do with Knights. It’s certainly better at creating this sense of cosmic dread with various doomsayers and indoctrinated cultists placed appropriately throughout the game. Ultimately, though they are completely insane, they are proven right, since just beyond the galaxy (in ‘dark space’) are a race of immensely long-lived dystheistic Lovecraftian ‘reapers’ who – for reasons unknown to the rest of us – build up organic space-faring civilisations with advanced technology and then completely and brutally annihilate them every few hundred thousand years or so before retreating back into dark space. The Sith, though they did have the entire ‘destroyer of worlds’ thing down pretty much pat through their first incarnation in the Star Wars movies, are still very much human-scale villains. When you’re facing down a massive Cthulhu-faced monster-ship parked outside, reveling in the power to twist minds and bodies beyond recognition, it becomes a bit of a different ball game.

End spoilers

The plot is pretty straightforwardly linear, but there’s a lot of freedom to explore dozens of ‘uncharted’ worlds in your tank (which handles like a hippopotamus on a skating rink). A lot of locations are variations on the same three or four maps, but I suppose the excuse in-game is that colonial equipment and buildings are pretty much prefabricated, and most ships of the same class look the same inside. That said, there’s still a lot of creativity put into this game – the graphics are polished and the environments beautiful. The Citadel (kind of a home base after the introductory mission) is immense and elaborate, and (without the rapid transit) really difficult to navigate the first time through.

Combat is where the game at once satisfies and frustrates. It’s purely shooter territory (despite being mostly in third-person), but there’s still a ‘pause’ screen and you can still issue orders. Your allies, however, prefer to think of your orders more as guidelines, since generally they just follow you around. Enemies also, for some reason, just randomly charge in at you despite being fired at from three sides and you can only tell friend from ally by using the targeting HUD, which leaves me in complete agreement with Ben Croshaw (Zero Punctuation) when he claimed with regard to the combat that ‘the word “clusterf**k” ceases to be adequate’.

I disagree with Mr Croshaw on the issue of dialogue, though – his main gripe being that Mass Effect’s dialogue is needlessly excessive. He does point out that a lot of the dialogue and codex entries are skippable (and I thank him for that), but generally I found there was less conversation per actual gameplay in Mass Effect than in Knights; that might be, however, because I actually did play all the sidequests. Mostly, the sidequests summed up are: the Systems Alliance Navy is too busy bickering with their frenemies in the Citadel to actually do anything about their problems, so your ship turns out to be The Only Ship In The Sector and you personally are saddled with the responsibility of settling all these problems – all of which take place, as said previously, on the same three or four maps.

Speaking of sidequests, &c., one of Mass Effect’s big selling points was the romance subplot, which was apparently enough to earn it an ‘M’ rating. Honestly, folks – nothing here you won’t see on prime-time television. True, Knights just had the fade-to-black, but when the ESRB says ‘Partial Nudity’ and ‘Sexual Themes’, they mean about fifteen tastefully-done seconds of bare thighs and flanks, and some more bare shoulder with the pillow-talk, but that’s pretty much it, really. My version of Cdr Shepard ended up romancing the blue alien scientist, albeit with a bit more discretion than Capt Kirk.

Voice talent features some pretty familiar names: Jennifer Hale, Raphael Sbarge and Kimberly Brooks from Knights, Lance Henriksen from The Terminator, Marina Sirtis of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame and Seth Green from Family Guy and The Italian Job.

Not much more to say, other than that it was an enjoyable ARPG and that I’m looking forward to the sequel.


  1. I hated it because it was too much like Knights, and Knights is the original. Plus, I'm immersed in the SW EU to a point of no return.- Shika.

  2. Rob, I appreciate the loyalty to Knights! That old gem will always have a special place in my hard drive. It's definitely true that Cdr Shepard is no Darth Revan characterwise. But on its own merits, Mass Effect really isn't a bad game.