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Mass Effect review

August 4, 2013

Having beaten the game for the umpteenth time yesterday, this is a good place to do a review. I originally got the game a few months after it came out. I was a fan of the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games, and I figured that was more or less what I was in for with Mass Effect. It wasn’t, but it turned out to be much better than I’d imagined.

Right from the start, you can see the dedication that went into making the game. The title screen alone sucks you in, especially with this music. The track is called Vigil’s Theme, by the way. (The music for ME1 was composed by Jack Wall, and he did a very good job with it. Vigil’s Theme was the highlight, however – a lovely, haunting piece.) Then when you go in to create a new file, they do it in a clever way, with you “logging in” the Alliance Command. The character creation itself is strictly OK – nothing too special.

The opening cutscene, of the Normandy going through a mass relay, is very cool, and gives a sense of the power of the setting. Eden Prime is an excellent tutorial mission, simple, straightforward, and with nothing too tough thrown at you. It lets you get a handle on the gameplay (which I’ll talk more about later), and sets up the most basic conflict of the game. But the bit that really drew me into the game – the thing that made me a fan – was this. That is just a gorgeous bit of cinematography.

So that’s what drew me in, but that hardly explains why I stuck with it. So let’s get into the details.

First up, the voice acting. It’s excellent. With very few exceptions, the voice actors all do a great job. Special credit has to go to Jennifer Hale as the female Shepard, Seth Green as Joker, Keith David as David Anderson, and Fred Tatasciore as Saren. I’m one of those people who has no problem with Mark Meer as the male Shepard. It’s true that he’s not as emotive as Hale, but I think he gets across the point. And I think he actually does Renegade better than Hale – his dry delivery works great for sarcastic responses. I enjoy both of them, though. FemShep gets the edge as far as the voice acting goes, though I give MaleShep the edge for romances later on. (A topic for another time, however.)

Beyond that, there’s a horde of voice actors doing fine work. Steve Barr’s wonderfully dry as Wrex, and while Liz Sroka gets to a bit of a rough start as Tali, with her accent slipping a lot, by later in the game, she’s got it down. The weakest one, I would say, is Marina Sirtis as Benezia. She just doesn’t do a great job, and the fact that the visuals can’t really match human expressiveness doesn’t help. Still, by and large, the voice acting is one of the biggest draws of the game. Too many games have mediocre voice acting. This one takes it much more seriously.

The graphics are pretty good by 2007 standards – not spectacular, but good. There’s a lot of frame rate issues, and as I said, the characters don’t look particularly expressive. Conversations tend to have a lot of fixed camera angles – from you to the other person to you to the other person, without much movement. It can get a bit dull. There’s also a weird tendency for conversations to end with the person you’re talking to looking to their right, and then moving to walk away.

The visual design, however, is great. All the areas you’re running around are gorgeous. The Citadel gives a real sense of its huge scale. The planets you go to mostly look good. Spaceships have interesting designs. There is a lot of repetitive design in sidequest planets, and that can get very tiring very fast. There are only so many mountains terrains you can look at before you start frothing at the mouth. In general, the sidequests are the weakest part of the game. They’re really repetitive, and tend to repeat themselves repetitiously. You get the picture. But they mostly follow the same format: Drop down to a mountainous planet, go into one of a handful of stock bases, kill a bunch of people, and you win. Occasionally, it’ll be a space ship or station, all of which have the exact same design, with only the placement of a few crates difference. There are 3 or 4 different layouts of bases, and the lack of variety can get tiring very, very quickly.

The gameplay doesn’t help with this. The truth is, the gameplay is nothing special. There’s an artificial difficulty to it. It’s not that the game is actually difficult, it’s just that enemies take a lot of damage. They don’t really use much in the way of strategy – they’ll either stand still or run around, and take a while to die. There’s no ammo system, which makes combat itself easier – all you need to worry about is your gun overheating, and if it does, you just need to wait for it to cool down. And eventually, overheating becomes much less of a problem. Assault Rifles, in particular, eventually reach the point where they’re practically impossible to overheat. The system means combat isn’t a challenge, it’s a slog.

There are some really neat Talents, however. Tech Talents are good as debuffs – you can keep opponents from using their weapons and talents, and you can damage their shields. Against geth, Tech Talents are nasty. But even better are Biotics. The fact that they can be used against any enemy makes them horrendously overpowered. Talents like Lift and Singularity will make enemies completely helpless. Even Throw can give some breathing room. Either way, Talents can be a lot of fun to use, and do add a cool twist to combat.

Speaking of the geth, BioWare did a phenomenal job with the world-building. They populated the galaxy with interesting alien races, all with distinctive personalities. None of them felt cliched, even the asari, who were designed as “green-skinned space babes.” They came up with biology, cultures, histories, politics, even military doctrines for most of the races. The Codex gives immense amounts of information on all the races, as well as the technology, which was also really interesting. They added one thing – Element Zero – and then built all the technology around that one thing, trying to make it all make sense. The level of detail they put into the world-building is simply awe-inspiring, and goes a long way towards what makes Mass Effect such a fantastic franchise. ME does a particularly good job introducing players to the setting. Better, I would say, than ME2 does, though It’s possible I’m saying that because I played ME1 first. But I think it’s more because you can talk to representatives of the various races, and get their viewpoints on things. You learn about the elcor straight from an elcor, with the Codex giving additional details. The early portions of the game are designed for you to explore, to learn about the setting.

And then they used this setting to tell a great story. Which is, of course, the final important element. It follows the BioWare formula pretty loyally, but it’s a very well-told story. There’s some really good twists that throw off our entire understanding of events, and make us reevaluate everything we thought we knew. The big revelation builds logically, with plenty of foreshadowing. By the time it comes, it feels less like a surprise, and more a confirmation, but that’s not a bad thing. It turns the guy you’ve hated throughout the game to that point, and makes him oddly sympathetic. And it raises the stakes a great deal.

Mass Effect has problems. Plenty of them. But at its heart, it’s a wonderful epic space opera, with an incredible setting, great characters, great acting, and a great storyline. I’ve enjoyed revisiting it all.

From → Mass Effect

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