BioWare is undoubtedly one of the best developers that North America has to offer, having created such hits as NeverWinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Their first project on an original IP was their fantastic – if brief – Jade Empire, and their second, Mass Effect, looks like it’s going to become one of BioWare’s key franchises, especially now that they’re under the reign of Electronic Arts. Originally released in November of 2007 for the Xbox 360, the PC version of the title was slated to fix a few things that players had griped about, as well as adding a brand new interface to the title. Developer Demiurge did well with the port of this fantastic title, though that’s not to say that it’s flawless – there are new issues to replace the old ones. However, it’s easy to overlook the glitches with the PC version to see this game for what it is: a worthwhile title in any RPG fan’s library.
Mass Effect starts with an introduction to the galaxy; it’s been less than thirty years since humans discovered the remains of an ancient race on Mars and used the technology to join the other civilizations of the galaxy at the Citadel, the anchor of galactic civilization. It is here at the Citadel that players are introduced to their avatar, Commander Shepard, the only character they will directly control throughout the entirety of the game. Shepard is chosen to visit the world Eden Prime to search out a Prothean device called a beacon, which holds information from the dead race. Shepard is accompanied by a Spectre, a member of the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance branch of the Citadel. It is on this planet that Shepard finds the main villian for the game, Saren – a Spectre himself – who murders Shepard’s escort. From there, it’s a quest to defeat Saren… and what lies beyond him.
Probably the most interesting thing about Mass Effect’s story is the fact that while there are many sci-fi standbys found throughout this role-playing epic, there are just as many things that are are out of the ordinary. While humanity may have discovered a leap forward in technology on Mars, they are far from the cocks of the walk in the universe: they are viewed as brash and headstrong by the other races, and lack a seat on the Citadel Council, which rules over Citadel Space. Humans aren’t exactly holding their arms open for the other races either – many of the characters in Mass Effect are xenophobic, trusting only other humans, and would rather not be in contact with the other species at all. BioWare, being the fantastic storytellers they are, have created a universe that is both deep and convincing, as well as one that the player can put their touch on.
Much like previous BioWare titles, players are given a wide variety of dialogue options and possible courses of action throughout their chase for Saren. However, the new radial menu for dialogue options doesn’t quite mimic previous BioWare titles. Instead of being given numbered dialogue options providing the entire text of what a character would say, players are given snippets – tiny pieces that hint about a possible line to come. Those on the bottom half of the radial lean toward the Renegade side of the options. These aren’t always ‘evil’ in the classic sense, but tend to trend toward the character being ruthless to attain goals. Closer to the top are those that slant toward the Paragon side. These options may not be ‘good’ in every sense, but they do tend toward Shepard’s wish to save everyone and still complete his mission. However, some of the options are smoke screens. At many junctures, any – or all – of the options may provide the exact same response, though there are certainly situations where the choice between a gentler touch and a punch to the face will change the situation completely.
It is within these dialogues that players begin to truly appreciate the work that has gone into Mass Effect, both aurally and visually. Aside from some small pieces of dialogue that don’t break the action, such as talking to minor NPCs that have nothing to do with any quests, every piece of dialogue in Mass Effect is fully voice acted – and articulated on the character’s face. The voice acting is simply top notch, though for some BioWare fans like me, it may be difficult to separate a voice actor from the previous roles they have played. I still have an issue separating Carth Onasi in KotOR from Kaiden in Mass Effect. The score in Mass Effect was a moot point for me; I never once stopped to listen to a piece of music, nor do I think any of the pieces are memorable. They did, however, amplify moments of emotion in the dialogue, and that alone makes it deserve a top score. The sound effects follow suit, with everything falling neatly into place; it’s obvious that BioWare placed a lot of time into the audio portion of the game.
Graphically, BioWare is top notch; the environments are superbly crafted, from the Citadel itself to Shepard’s ship, the Normandy, and even the rocky barrens of an unexplored planet look simply fantastic. This does come at a price for this version of the title: users will need a dedicated gaming PC to run the title, as two gigabytes of ram and a 7000 series GeForce or higher are recommended for smooth play. Running on our test system, a Vista Home Premium system with an 8800GTX, the game played smoothly even on the highest settings for the majority of the game, though slowdown did occasionally surface when coming out of menus. Faces are realistic in Mass Effect, and emotions are easily visible during dialogue options. Players are given free reign over what Shepard looks like, and while it may be easy to make Shepard look ugly, it is hard to make a Shepard that the game animates poorly. While the Xbox 360 version of the title had some issues with pop-in on textures, with our system this was mostly eliminated. I did run into one issue with my rig, and that was with facial shadows – they always looked odd, never having transparency, but instead had a shimmering edge. I’m not sure if this had to do with the drivers on the 8800GTX or not, but it was still a bit of an immersion killer.
Players aren’t only able to create the Shepard they want in terms of visual style, but also in the way that they fight. There are three main branches of Mass Effect’s combat: Soldier powers, which are oriented around weapons, Technological powers, which are oriented around sabotaging enemies or controlling synthetic enemies, and Biotics, Mass Effect’s version of magic. Shepard can be a fully-blown adept of one of these branches, or a combination of any of the two. The weak points can always be shored up – Shepard collects six allies over the course of the game, each of whom represents one piece of the six-part possible combination of classes. Once players have selected a class, they gain points on level-up which can be distributed throughout the collection of skills available to their class. Additionally, halfway through the game, players are able to choose the equivalent of a prestige class – a specialization in their field, which gives them a new skill bar that focuses on one piece of their combat abilities. I, of course, chose the ability to shoot for more damage. Who wouldn’t?
It is Mass Effect’s combat that provides it with its greatest asset as well as its weakest point. After completing Mass Effect, it becomes obvious that, unlike the days of Baldur’s Gate, BioWare is providing a game that’s more and more accessible to the general gaming populace. Combat is real time in Mass Effect, and has even more twitch sckill attached to it than BioWare’s last title, Jade Empire; no longer is it the realm of dice rolls and pauses to enter commands. Players can take cover behind objects and peek out to fire shots, much like other recent shooters, and issue orders to their squadmates by holding the spacebar. One of the major improvements over the console version of the title is the fact that individual orders can be sent to each member of your three-man squad, no longer are Shepard’s two allies connected by the same commands. While there are still statistics involved – just try shooting a sniper rifle with no skill in it – Mass Effect is more accessible to a pick-up and play gamer: level-ups can be set to automatic and your allies, left alone, provide adequate help. Mass Effect also features vehicular combat, with players entering their ATV/Tank, the Mako, whenever they touch down on a planet. Combat in the Mako is fairly straightforward: shoot rockets at your enemy, and when the rockets aren’t up, shoot them with your bullets. Combat is very entertaining, and while later in the game it becomes far more than simply “point and shoot,” it feels much less like an RPG than previous entries. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, it’s simply different than many RPG fans are used to.
The other major improvement to the PC interface is the inventory system. With access to a mouse and keyboard, Demiurge Studios was able to craft an interface that provides users with the ability to easily navigate the different types of weapons or armor to equip, sell, or reduce to omni-gel, a fix-it substance that can be used in both breaking open locked boxes and repairing the Mako. The only issue with this interface is that to reduce weapon attachments to omni-gel, players must go into the menu to equip these to a current weapon before they can turn them into goo; a small complaint, but a complaint nonetheless. Another improvement is the loading times – the seemingly infinite elevator in the Normandy has been reduced, though players will occasionally see small load screens pop throughout the game. It may cause a break in the action, but it’s preferable to the massive loading times in the Xbox 360 version of the game. These PC improvements are fantastic, but there are some issues with the PC version of the game. The main gripe? It is buggy. Not so much that it becomes a game-breaker, but there are both crash issues and weird in-game bugs. Just be sure to save early and save often, and these become nothing more than a minor inconvenience.
BioWare has created a top-shelf RPG with Mass Effect, though it’s not without its flaws. Many of the issues present in the Xbox 360 version of the title are gone, and while there are new issues thrown into the PC version, they are minor in comparison. Mass Effect’s main story is still short – I finished in fourteen hours with about one third of the side-quests complete – but there are enough side-quests to provide another ten hours or so of gameplay into the mix. Additionally, the downloadable content from the Xbox 360 version will be available as a free download on the PC at a later date. If you’re at all a PC RPG fan, it would be difficult not to recommend Mass Effect to you. While RPG elitists and snobs may turn up their nose at the streamlined, shooter-like combat, the core game is simply quality and is one of the best single-player PC RPGs released in the past few years.