perjantai 17. kesäkuuta 2011

REVIEW - Mass Effect (2007)

GENRE(S): Action / RPG
RELEASED: November 2007
DEVELOPER(S): Demiurge Studios (PC), BioWare (X360)
PUBLISHER(S): Electronic Arts (PC), Microsoft Game Studios (X360)

Mass Effect is regarded as one of the finest video game franchises of all time. Off the record, a friend of mine who doesn't even like video games that much considers Mass Effect a masterpiece in science fiction - which he on the other hand loves and knows much of. The game was announced by BioWare as their first Xbox 360 game around the time the console launched in late 2005, and originally it was supposed to be an exclusive game, but eventually, the inevitable happened and the game was ported to the PC as well. Mass Effect solidified the 360's strong stature on the market, and became a huge hit among the PC community as well. For a few years, I thought Mass Effect lived on its hype and that only, but when I discovered BioWare's games, I grew intensely obsessed with trying it out. Surviving a rather bumpy beginning with the game, I must say that yeah - Mass Effect is the real deal.

The galaxy needs a Shepard

Mark Meer : Commander Shepard (Male)
Jennifer Hale : Commander Shepard (Female) / May O'Connell
Kimberly Brooks : Ashley Williams
Raphael Sbarge : Kaidan Alenko
Ali Hillis : Dr. Liara T'Soni
Liz Sroka : Tali'Zorah nar Rayya
Keith David : Captain David Anderson
Seth Green : Jeff "Joker" Moreau
Fred Tatasciore : Saren Arterius
Marina Sirtis : Matriarch Benezia

For centuries, and then even millenniums, man looked up to the skies and wondered if there were some other lifeforms out there, somewhere in space. Then, the mass effect was found - a dark energy that allowed humanity to study life beyond the Earth's solar system. Humanity was quickly overrun by several numbers of different, intelligent extraterrestrial species. With such conflicted cultures, principles and values, and desire for dominance, war was inevitable. Since the end of the final war, the dominant races of the Milky Way galaxy have formed the Citadel Council to uphold peace and justice, and are still wary of accepting humans into their ranks. You are Lt. Commander Shepard, a human soldier of the Alliance, assigned as the executive officer of Captain David Anderson of the SSV Normandy. Your mission is to protect your rare kind from being fully exterminated by an ancient evil.

Explaining the story of Mass Effect in just a few words is like running a marathon with no legs. When did you last see a simple, original science fiction story that was made to stand out from the rest? When did you last hear a simple, original backstory for a role-playing game that was made to stand out from the rest and be a new, unique experience? If you are interested in the backstory of Mass Effect and all its subplots, they will be explained to you as you make progress. I love the game's dialogue and storytelling style. Instead of long-ass, boring and confusing conversations, all the people(s) tend to keep their stories really short and comprehensible, but the dialogue sounds authentic at the same time. Honestly, for the first five hours, I had no freakin' clue of what I was doing and why. I was awestruck by several surges of confusing information through dialogue, once again I stumbled on BioWare's very awkward menu navigation system for consoles which made my gameplay experience kind of clumsy (that, and the Xbox controller which just simply does not fit into my hands), and I just could not grasp one tiny bit of fact as to why the game has been hailed as perhaps the greatest game of the 21st century. Luckily I found it intriguing enough to press on, because after those five hours, I was starting to get both the story and gameplay by just playing the game, and the length of my gaming sessions suddenly increased from one to two hours to six or seven at a time. Struggling through the menu is still a nightmare, but Mass Effect is one captivating experience that once again goes to show why BioWare is one of the best and most consistent video game studios of the modern day.

Before I started up Mass Effect for the first time, I had no idea what its story was like. It's of the very refreshing kind. Think about all science fiction games of the past and take a moment to reflect on this: how many original sci-fi games have you seen emerge that do not take the ultra-violent way out, in other words ones that aren't based on some alien invasion and a lot of senseless death? Instead of following the usual trail left behind by Contra two decades before and offering a yet another extravaganza of alien bloodlust, Mass Effect turns out to be a surprisingly political, almost serene game for long periods of time. It's far from a space opera, it's very realistic and humanity's history in the game is at least partly based on real-life historical events. I might be pissing a lot of sci-fi die-hards off with the following remark, but besides obviously reminding me of Dune in more ways than a dozen, the softer side of Mass Effect somewhat reminds me of Babylon 5. There's much time reserved for both vaporizing sentients of the wrong side and dealing with politics involving several quarreling species, and behind it all, is a key item that would grant humanity a future in a constantly changing galaxy. Yeah, it's a Babylon Dune if you ask me.

The sky is mine...
Although the game centers on Shepard, who you can build up to be just about the kind of guy or gal you want him or her to be just like in any good RPG, the supporting cast is also surprisingly interesting, because most of them are of different species. There are three humans in your whole squad; you, your right-hand man Kaidan Alenko who suffers from very light mental problems due to his biotic implants (these problems seem to only make him a better fighter, though), and Ashley Williams, who's a little too hot to serve the Alliance in my opinion. Not complaining about her presence, though - on the contrary. Urdnot Wrex is a Krogan mercenary, and not only does he share the violent tendencies of his species and ignorance of what the word "negotiation" means; he also has a sharp, sarcastic tongue which definitely works for me. Tali'Zorah nar Rayya is a Quarian woman with great interest in cutting edge technology; I think she's the most boring character out of the whole bunch, her rants seem to go on forever too, whereas others indeed keep their conversations relatively short and simple. Garrus Vakarian is a Turian agent, a cop if you will, a very cool character but perhaps a little underutilized one. Finally, Dr. Liara T'Soni is an Asari scientist whose mother works for the bad guys - a very hot scientist, at that, but it's a little disturbing that her species do not have genders. So, she's basically an intergalactic hermaphrodite. Who cares, (s)he's still hot.

In addition to humans, Krogans, Quarians, Turians and Asaris, there are many other species in Mass Effect's version of the Milky Way galaxy. The world of Mass Effect is very immersive and interesting, and I believe there are some people who go to the length of reading each and every Codex file in this game. After all, I know a guy who read all of the Codexes in Dragon Age: Origins, and it had even more of those files. Before I begin the actual review, since we're already talking about Dragon Age: Origins, I must say that I'm seeing a lot of connections between the two franchises behind the initial curtain; sometimes it even feels like the events of the two games take place in the same universe, in a different point of time. Upon (optionally) saving a scientist in the beginning of the game prompts her to yell out "Thank the Maker!". Also, I'm seeing some resemblances between the different species in Mass Effect and different races in Dragon Age. For example, the Asari in Mass Effect and the Qunari in Dragon Age are somewhat alike, except for the fact that the Asari have different personalities, whereas all Qunari speak only when they feel the need to, and are constantly on the edge. There's just something I can't really point out besides their close relation to humans and weird sexual habits, you'll have to judge for yourselves.

The game has great graphics which make it a stand-out title in BioWare's altogether incredible resume. However, investing such a great deal in audiovisual bootlicking takes its toll towards the end of the game, as you first realize that the game's surprisingly captivating story is surprisingly short and secondly: if you took the time to conquer a majority of those sidequests (you can't do 'em all, I dare say), you must've noticed that you've explored dozens of identical buildings and abandoned starships. Like I said, though, the graphics are technically great: I had no idea someone could pull off something like this for the 360 back in 2007, especially BioWare who have made the conscious choice to minimalize looks even more recently. The well-publicized texture loading problems don't bother me much. Compared to the newer Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect looks like a CGI movie. I won't even mention Dragon Age II in this context, since as most of you know, that game runs on the Mass Effect engine.

The music's off the charts when it comes to the modern RPG scene. Very atmospheric stuff, reportedly most influenced by Blade Runner and Dune - I'll sign what they said about Blade Runner, and Dune has already been mentioned a few times as an obvious influence. I probably wouldn't have come up with the Blade Runner comparison myself, but since they said it, I must admit that it is quite valid. The music only gets better towards the end and it's actually memorable unlike in many RPG's that use cued music that's almost unnoticeable behind all the tension. I love the song in the final credits ("M4 Part 2", performed by the electronic rock outfit Faunts), it's actually playing on loop on YouTube as I'm writing this review. The original score was written by a group of four led by Jack Wall, most known for his work on the debated Myst franchise (hence the atmosphere) and Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow.

An intergalactic strip club for those who don't
You wouldn't believe how much more I get out of a great game when the main character actually speaks instead of just grunting (Grand Theft Auto III and Dead Space), or mutely using a precise dialogue choice you made from a list (just about every modern RPG). Commander Shepard has a voice; Mark Meer does the male one, and voiceover staple Jennifer Hale does the female one, regardless of what you make your Shepard look like. You use an innovative dialogue disc in the game, which allows you to choose a quick follow-up comment before the NPC has finished talking - which means there are no awkward pauses during which you're trying to figure out your response, the conversation is very fluid. The choices on the left side of the disc take the conversation further in both better and worse rep-wise, while the choices on the right side bring the conversation closer to an end. Shepard never says exactly what you choose to say; the short and simple sentences provide you with a choice of tone. It's all up to what kind of a person you want Shepard to be. For example, two choices: on the top, we have "Yes.", on the bottom, we have "No.". If you choose "Yes", then Shepard might say something like "I'd be happy to help." If you choose "No", he might say "I don't have time to run errands for the likes of you. Get the hell out of my face". Shepard can be real nice, or a real jerk. It's amazing how much say you have in it, and the character editor is even more amazing. No matter how much you tinker with Shepard's face, he/she looks very real throughout the game. The facial reconstruction in the game is near-perfect on standards of the time.

Like Jennifer Hale, Raphael Sbarge also returns for a major role after nailing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic for BioWare. On top of several dozens of other voiceover veterans who definitely knew their business when they were making Mass Effect - I'm overlooking a few technical mistakes here and there - we have Seth Green, who you might remember from Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the Austin Powers series (I remember him most as the voice of Chris Griffin in Family Guy), and two very flashy cameos to have sci-fi fans spinning in their boots. Lance Henriksen, best known as the annoying Detective Vukovich in The Terminator and the misunderstood android Bishop in the Alien series, does the voice of Admiral Steven Hackett. Actually, I didn't know this before I started the game; there was something familiar about the voice and I had to check it up. Marina Sirtis, known to all Trekkers as Deanna Troi in The Next Generation, plays one of the main antagonists, Matriarch Benezia. All in all, what we have here is an amazingly produced cast that does its job remarkably well, and like I said, actually hearing the main character speak does wonders to the experience.

The biggest problem with Mass Effect is that none of the elements of the core gameplay are perfect. Frankly, sometimes I get the very awry feeling that the game is a teaser for better sequels. There's no major flaw in the game, but each element of the gameplay has some minor flaw or a few of them - it's weird. Let's start with the controls. Now this has nothing to do with my personal relationship with the Xbox controller, this is about the structure of it in general; the grenades are very useful, if not most essential, in many combat situations. Well, for some reason BioWare mapped the grenades to the obscure Select button. It's very hard to learn to use the button during intense confrontations. Otherwise, I like the controls. Mass Effect is essentially a gun-'em-down game, so it has way more dynamic controls than most RPG's. There are two radial menus, one's for changing weapons and one's for special skills. In practice, it's almost identical to the system in Metal Gear Solid, with the main difference being that you can assign specific actions for three different people at all times. The straightforward action, on the other hand, reminds me of Uncharted. Very simple, very easy to learn. The Y button serves as a speed-dial for first aid just like in Dead Space, and with the digital pad, you can give your squad specific tactical orders - which do not always work, I'm afraid.

Shepard is all yours to manage, and the support team works entirely according to decent artificial intelligence, if you're not into the manual control of their actions; on the easy and normal difficulty levels, it's really not necessary. "Decent artificial intelligence" practically means that your squad members get in your way constantly; they steal your covers, and tend to step into the line of fire. Friendly fire is not possible - thank the Maker - but their bodies still physically absorb every bullet you shoot towards them, and they simply obscure your visual of the enemy. The biggest grudge I have towards the combat system is that sometimes placing Shepard somewhat "wrong" can result in zero reaction to your hail of bullets by the enemies, even if you're shooting at them point blank, with your crosshair on their forehead. It's some kind of a weird error in programming. In turn, most enemy missiles result in one hit kills regardless of your shield strength, and the combat difficulty level. That's just ridiculous.

Smurfette's long lost sister Liara!
Now that we've got the combat system out of the way right off the bat, let's talk about the best thing this game has to offer from the get-go: Commander Shepard as a person. You've seen the promos, you've seen the cover art, you've seen how the default Shepard looks like, but like I nearly pointed out, this game has one of the best character editors ever seen in a video game and you should definitely use it! You can decide Shepard's gender, his/her first name, and what he/she looks like all by yourself. I laughed my ass off a few days ago when I found a blog which had a collection of screenshots featuring the ugliest Shepards ever conceived. Shepard is a really charismatic and fleshed out character, definitely BioWare's flagship protagonist. However you want your Shepard to go down in history, he/she will leave a mark on you. Unlike in most games that have a good or evil main character based on your decisions, Shepard isn't one or the other; you can fill both meters (Paragon and Renegade) with your actions and dialogue options, and have a totally unpredictable (son of a) bitch on your hands by the end of the game.

Character customization does not end there. You have six different classes to choose from: Adept, Soldier, Engineer, Vanguard, Sentinel and Infiltrator. I'm not too eager to explain each class in detail - besides, all of them have more or less of a traditional RPG counterpart. Soldier is the only self-explanatory class in the bunch. In short, there are three strengths you should consider throughout the game when assembling a squad (party); Biotic Strength, Tech Strength and Combat Strength. Obviously, Soldiers have the most Combat Strength, but they have absolutely no Biotic or Tech Strength. Each time you are given the opportunity to switch to a different squad, a very convenient meter appears to indicate how balanced your group is. If you're heading into a big fight, you should naturally focus on Combat Strength. If you're doing sidequests and you expect to bump into a lot of hidden treasures locked inside chests with digital encryption, you should focus on bringing in any members of the group that have high scientific skills. It's cool, for the most part, but it's quite disheartening to finally make it to a target, just to find out that your decryption skills are not enough without another specialist. What you need to do then is to return to your ship, land on the planet AGAIN and make your way from the landing point to the target AGAIN. You can't change the party on the go. I actually missed one sidequest inside the main storyline, because I didn't have a hacker with me from the beginning; I couldn't return to the planet after leaving, and still, the quest was marked as an active quest in my journal right until the end of the game. Mass Effect acts like a jerk from time to time.

I did a few things with Mass Effect that I do not normally do on the first playthrough of any game that lets me choose a class and has any sort of a karmic system. First of all, I started with a very simple principle; Shepard will be a nice guy. Perhaps too nice for his own good. Usually, I start off as an asshole, because it tends to remove many restrictions; for example, I wouldn't have to worry about casualties, or stealing stuff, and working for the bad guys usually pays better. I learned all of this from Fallout. Secondly - and this is something I've NEVER done before - I opted not to make him a Soldier, but instead, a Vanguard, who's above average in both biotics ("magic") and weapon-based combat, but has no scientific skills at all. After just a few hours and upon starting to hack through those numerous sidequests with even more numerous hidden treasures, I regretted my decision, but luckily the skills and specializations of the potential squad members are designed with such balance that by the end of the game, it really doesn't matter what Shepard's class is; in the end, it's all up to your personal preference. I stand relieved.

Character customization indeed lets you do one more cool thing to your very own Shepard, which kind of foreshadows the origin story gimmick used in Dragon Age: Origins. You can choose Shepard's origin from three different options; either he was raised in a colony, as a child of war within the Systems Alliance or as an orphan down on Earth. Each background option results in an exclusive sidequest, and different bonuses. You also have three choices for a psychological profile, which basically tells Shepard's story up until the events of Mass Effect. These profiles affect both dialogue and the stories of certain sidequests. Finally, you can assign one bonus skill for Shepard outside of his own class. Each class has two specializations (in addition to the mandatory Spectre specialization), unlocked after achieving a certain experience level.

I rest my case, she IS way too hot to serve the
Whew, what's next? Shall we talk about what you are actually doing? Well, I would advise you to stay away from the main storyline as long as possible. The first five or six hours into the game are mandatory labour, since you won't even figure out your true mission before that point in time. First, you're thrown into an introductory combat mission, and after that, into an extremely long fetchquest with a few sidequests to boot, inside the community center they call the Citadel. After that, you're given the freedom to explore the whole Milky Way as you wish. It's the best, but sometimes, the worst part of the game. The Milky Way is divided into clusters. Clusters are divided into systems, and systems are divided into planets, or as they call them in the game, worlds. You can land on only one planet inside a system; you can survey a bulk of the other planets for rare minerals and key items from your ship, though. Occasionally, there might be a starship or an asteroid hidden on the system map for you to scan. More clusters and systems are unlocked after each chapter in the storyline.

When you take your little trips to planets to generally explore and do the sidequests mostly handed to you by the Systems Alliance, you drive a marine battletank known as Mako. The controls of the Mako are pretty horrible, especially in combat situations - it's fitted with a machine gun and a very powerful missile launcher, which takes some time to reload between shots. The crosshair is even more treacherous than during on-foot combat - you can only hit enemies from a certain distance away. Unfortunately, the Mako is very essential against large swarms of enemies and large single enemies such as Thresher Maws (overgrown earthworms with fangs) due to its mobility and artillery. The bad controls of your vehicle are nothing compared to the disheartening geographical structure of some of the planets. The Mako has a six-wheel drive and you can climb most steep hills with it to get to your targets, but sometimes, they're annoyingly steep and you have to drive all the way around whole mountains to find a lousy ammo upgrade from your target. Navigating with the Mako is not challenging; those hills are there just to piss you off and waste your valuable time.

I'll go over a few more things before wrapping this up and eagerly punching in Mass Effect 2. First, I have to talk about the stores - the store on your ship in particular. The stores are really quite useless; you gain the best equipment by simply taking your time to play the game, nail those sidequests and make progress in the story. Besides, you cannot compare equipment aboard the Normandy aside from Shepard's equipment. I bought many expensive armours from the requisition officer because they looked state-of-the-art based on the tier number, then I went to the squad lockers to find out that they were actually obsolete a few in-game hours ago. Then I went and sold them back for half the credits. Very consumer-friendly, ain't it? I ditched the stores altogether at a very early stage, something like 15 hours into the game, and I did just fine without them.

Conversing with the squad itself is not quite as interesting and fabulous as it has been in most of BioWare's games. I hate to bring up Dragon Age once again since it came out two years later, but I absolutely loved talking to my (butt) buddies in that game; in Mass Effect, it's really not that essential to keep up with the thoughts of your squad. Wooing the squad members is possible, but the romantic flame between Shepard and the potential partners for making out is not quite the same, and you can only have some form of a relationship with one single party member. That member's identity is pretty much decided by the game itself, regardless of who you'd personally prefer to get it on with, which was a big letdown.

To end this on a high note, I like the "puzzles" and decryption sequences in the game, although they're more or less button patterns you simply have to follow. Some people call them minigames. There is one bonafide minigame in Mass Effect - Quasar, which can only be played at the Citadel. In these times when everyone is striving to make the most original AND confusing prominent minigame, BioWare took the least original way out and made a very discreet minigame that is as simple as one could possibly be. Quasar is like blackjack without cards. You simply let the game give you random numbers between 1-7 or 4-8, until you're as close to 20 as you can, but if you go over 20, you lose. Quasar is annoyingly addictive, despite being so God damn simple - that's a sign of a decent minigame. I lost interest when I figured out how useless money is in the long run.

Driving around can be fun. Sometimes it just
It took me about 40 hours to complete the game, and the definite majority of the sidequests. The story is very short, as there are less than ten chapters in it. Some might say it's disappointing, I'll just go with saying it's the sign of the times, but I won't deny that the sidequests repeat themselves quite a lot in practice especially considering how much the actual chapters in the game differ from each other in every way. Despite the short length of Mass Effect, we have a lot of stuff here that guarantees a long cycle; six different classes, five difficulty levels, the Paragon/Renegade system, and finally, the option to change Shepard's gender. In most games, gender doesn't change things a whole lot since the main character doesn't speak, but once again, Mass Effect is not one of those games. Finally, the game has 49 Xbox 360 Achievements for you to nail down, including beating the game on the Hardcore and Insanity levels. Because of a little technical setback, I didn't earn any Achievements during my playthrough, but upon checking out the list, I calculated I would've gotten about 40% of them. You need to try out several classes (if not all of them) if you're aiming to truly complete the game.

I started writing this review four days ago. In the beginning, I said "Luckily I found it intriguing enough to press on, because after those five hours, I was starting to get both the story and gameplay by just playing the game, and the length of my gaming sessions suddenly increased from one to two hours to six or seven at a time." Well actually, six or seven wasn't enough. Yesterday, I played Mass Effect for a total of 16 hours in a row (rainy day). After I had downed my fifth cup of coffee, I realized that I had grown used to the game's mistakes, and I hardly even recognized them as mistakes anymore. Mass Effect is not a perfect game, but there is some kind of magic within it that places it on the mark of 9... which means that after all these petty criticisms I have towards the gameplay, I consider Mass Effect one of the finest BioWare titles I have played thus far as a whole experience. That being said, I'm burning to sink my fangs into what I am hyped to expect to be one of the most explosive sequels ever made.

SOUND : 9.4


GameRankings: 89.43% (PC), 91.15% (X360)

The game was initially banned in India due to the possible lesbian sex scene.

The wreckage of a probe identified as CCCP Luna 23 can be scavenged on the moon. The CCCP Luna 23 was an actual Russian probe that was sent to the moon to gather rock samples in 1974.

3 kommenttia:

  1. Probably one of your best reviews yet. I actually really enjoy the MAKO sections (odd since I usually hate vehicle portions) but I'm also playing on PC. The Xbox controls are notoriously bad, so if you had this great an experience with the console version then I'd say that's impressive. The PC controls are pretty intuitive once you get used to them and (from what I understand) a great deal less cumberson.
    I'll admit that Kaidan is currently getting on my (fem)Shepard's nerves and she's pretty much told him that he can fight with her ont he battle field but that is it. I absolutely love Garrus though. He and my Shep get along famously. Ashley is pretty cool too as is Wrex, but Tali (despite how awesome other people think she is) and Liara get on my Shep's nerves as well. It might be different if I were playing a different kind of Shep, but this time around atleast that is how the cards play out. I've got a couple of entries about those interactions actually. Shep seems to think that Kaidan has just a little too much attitude and is a bit too familiar for her liking. On the other hand .. I have a feeling that she wouldn't be opposed to Garrus being a bit too familiar. Unfortunately that's not how ME1 works, so she's going the "no romance" route this game.
    BTW, my blog will be back next week. My hands are feeling much better even though they are still not tip top shape. I hope that you have fully recovered from that concussion of yours.

  2. Thank you very much! I absolutely had to overlook some minor things in better and worse, the original draft was WAY too long for my taste, and seeing how long my reviews sometimes are, you can just imagine how long can a "WAY too long" review be.

    20 hours and counting into Mass Effect 2, and the review is taking shape slowly but surely.

    If I had some more time, I'd start the whole thing all over again once I'm done. I already had a vision of a female Shepard, possibly an Engineer and definitely a Renegade. Might even do it if I can clash through this pile of games really quick, but there are at least six more RPG's coming up, so I doubt it.

    I've recovered, thanks. My hand's still somewhat messed up, but it no longer affects my everyday business or the length of my gaming sessions (which is good since I'm totally hooked on ME2!). My head's fine, save for a permanent scar on the back of it. I have to look on the bright side: scars are cool. :)

  3. Glad to hear it's fine, and of course permenant scars are cool. Why else would ME1 allow Shepard to have one ;) Bethesda is even marketing the fact that you will be able to have scars on your characters in Skyrim.