Mass Effect is the new(ish) RPG from Bioware, in the vein of their previous game Knights of the Old Republic. Much like that game, it offers a massive plot spanning a large world where the decisions you make actually matter. The difference here is that it all happens in a new universe created by Bioware. While KOTOR had the benefit of six movies, a million supermarket novels, and a truckload of existing Star Wars games backing up its plot, Mass Effect is a completely unfamiliar world.
Well, not completely unfamiliar. Mass Effect employs the kitchen sink mentality, throwing in a little bit of every sci-fi story ever. It has its own version of the force, cylons, forerunners, faster than light travel, muppets, and lots and lots of synth. However it rarely comes off as derivative. Mostly it’s because there’s so much there. The story is rich, and by rich I mean you may actually drown in information in the first few hours. Bring a swimming buddy.
This encyclopedic detail to the world is both the games strongest and weakest point. Games can’t always be paced the way you want. There’s no rewind button and sometimes you can’t even pause. So when a novel’s worth of information is forced on you like a download in The Matrix you may feel the need to unplug. I know I did. After some time reading the codex, a literal encyclopedia of Mass Effect tucked away in the pause menus, it started to click. Once you understand the difference between a Quarian and Salarian, you’ll be set.
The good thing about this presentation is that everyone’s motives are clear, and the overall plot is extremely solid and well defined. My only issue is the occasionally and inappropriately stilted dialogue. It’s hard to fault the game for this, since it’s about forty hours long with fully voiced dialogue, several branching conversation paths, and different replies based not only on your actions, but your character’s sex and upbringing. However, when the romance plotline comes off like a Power Point presentation, it’s a little awkward:
“Hypothesis: I am falling in love with you Shepard.”
“I’ve classified similar feelings in myself.”
In general, the dialogue is fine though. The only other hiccup in the plot is how the technology of the game tends to detract from the cutscenes. Built on Unreal Engine 3, Mass Effect suffers from many of the problems inherent in an engine apparently only capable of making space marines fight each other. The graphics are constantly caught with their pants down, textures pop in, and models gain detail before your eyes. It’s incredibly jarring to watch someone go from Play-Doh to uncanny valley in a few seconds. The graphical issues carry over to the gameplay too, with long loading times and slideshow framerates breaking up the action.
While we’re squarely in complaint territory, let me whine about the inventory system for a minute. If I had to nail it down for you, I’d say it’s kind of like Microsoft Office. Do I need to go on?
To be honest, there’s really a lot wrong with Mass Effect. I could probably go on for a while about the laundry list of poor design decisions. Most games would be easy review fodder if they had the number of issues ME has. None of it matters though, because what it does get right completely overshadows all of it. I can’t even bring myself to poke fun as much as I originally wanted because nearly every moment playing this game put a smile on my face. After all the hours I spent on it I’m already dying to finish up this review and go back for more.