At least when it comes to video games, new intellectual properties can be dangerous. Why should a developer take on the additional risk that comes with building a new world, new characters, and new gameplay when there’s the alternative of harvesting old ideas, old games, and previously-built code? Especially when you are a developer like BioWare, with a brilliant track record of developing games based on existing IPs?
Because the end result could be something like Mass Effect.
This game is the best-case scenario when it comes to developing not only a new IP, but a terrific, high-quality RPG. Instead of playing it safe and creating a game that builds off a pre-established story or an existing world, BioWare developed something new, a Western-style RPG space opera with shooter elements. And, as you probably know by now, not only was it wildly successful in terms of sales, the game itself stands as a true classic.
For those last holdouts unfamiliar with the narrative, Mass Effect is the story of John (or Jane) Shepard, an Alliance soldier embarking on a journey to save the galaxy. Of course this simple synopsis doesn’t do the game justice; this story has scope, intensity, danger, and a little bit of pathos. Most importantly: in Mass Effect, the player’s decisions have weight. Make the wrong move, and a member of your team dies. Make another wrong move, and you condemn a species to extinction. And the choices Shepard is faced with are, for the most part, sensible and understandable. The end result is a game that takes the freedom and explorational nature of the Western RPG and puts it in a story context like that of the best JRPGs. Not only does the player have freedom, but that freedom means something. And with the promise of decisions that carry over into subsequent games in the series, Mass Effect becomes one of the rare titles that forces the player to choose carefully and make decisions that actually affect the game’s world. Add it up and you’ve got a compelling story, a plot that moves quickly, and a level of involvement rivaling that of any “traditional” RPG.
After careful consideration, I’ve decided to leave any further details as to this game’s plot out of the review. Mass Effect tells a terrific story, and there’s no way that I could do it justice without spoiling key sequences, or leaving out the details and context that make it great. If someone explained to you the plot of the original Return of the Jedi or the Fellowship of the Ring, it wouldn’t be as fulfilling as actually seeing the films (or, in the case of the latter, reading the book). Play the game yourself if you want the story; I can’t imagine how it could disappoint.
Mass Effect blends RPG elements with third-person shooter gameplay. While the end result is not seamless, it is accessible both to fans of shooters and fans of RPGs. Personally, I’m not one to play a lot of shooters, console or otherwise. My skillz, sadly, are weak. Did I have much of a problem adapting to Mass Effect? Not really. First off, I enjoyed the gameplay, which made it easy to adapt. Targeting enemies in Mass Effect is relatively easy. Shepard is loaded up with skills and abilities that can make up for errant aim or a tendency to miss cover. On top of that, the ability to adjust difficulty on the fly was a godsend for me, as I hit a wall (shaped like a Krogan Warlord) about halfway through the game. Needless to say, while difficulty may have been tough for a novice to cover-based shooters like myself, genre vets should have no problem at all. That is, of course, until they try amping up the difficulty level for added challenge. Mass Effect does a good job of providing a way for all types of players to enjoy the game, regardless of skill level.
The one aspect of the game where I felt that I lost a little enjoyment was when I loaded up Shepard’s crew into a tank-like vehicle and explored the various planets in the galaxy. While Mass Effect excels in making the galaxy seem huge and full of undiscovered planets to explore, the actual gameplay of the vehicle portions of the game didn’t appeal to me. There are a few times in which driving is needed to move the story along, but for the most part planet exploration is an exercise in diminishing returns. While the developers could be commended for attempting to infuse the game with breaks from the shooter-style core gameplay, maneuvering the Mako assault vehicle was a bit of a chore; as a result, many of the planet exploration segments felt flat.
In truth, controls may have been the weakest aspect of the game for me. There were a couple of instances where my Shepard became stuck in a wall while moving, or trapped behind a bit of cover. While basic controls are loose and easy for a novice to pick up, there were times when I had a bit of trouble getting the camera to follow where it should. In one particularly strange event, the camera locked in place and would not move while Shepard ran off the screen. Yet, for the most part, controls were hassle-free. I had a bit of trouble making the Mako vehicle go where I wished it, and there were a couple of niggling bugs. Other than that, control was much like the rest of the game: seamless and enjoyable.
The customization elements in the game are many, and for the most part worthwhile. Shepard’s look and class are malleable during the character creation process, and there’s a host of skills and equipment that you can use to trick out your Shepard and Shepard’s crew. There are a few nits that one could pick: the equipment system in the game is a bit overwhelming, as if there was too much equipment and the menu made it difficult to pick the right piece of gear quickly. Also, the sheer number of skills and skill points assigned made it seem as if some abilities just aren’t that useful or never got a chance to be activated. Nonetheless, the ability to make Shepard your own makes the game so much more immersive than having a standard build for the hero.
Mass Effect’s graphics aren’t perfect. But as far as current-generation games go, they’re pretty darn good. Backgrounds are sufficiently alien in design, especially on the world of Ilos. And yet, the designs of the Normandy starship, the Citadel, and the other future-steel structures seem both fanciful and grounded in technology I can understand. Everything looks functional, fanciful, or both, and that makes the Mass Effect universe one that is easy to accept. The varied alien races are all very cleverly-designed, with enough variance to make you think that there might be a whole galaxy of life out there somewhere. Yet, at the same time, the human characters may be the ones who suffer from the poorest graphical rendering. Some characters’ teeth are too heavily shaded, and don’t get me started on creating your own Shepard face. It is far too easy to make John or Jane Shepard be hideously, comically ugly. While not without flaws, Mass Effect’s engine does everything it needs to do: it shows us the tremendous diversity of the galaxy in rich, colorful 3D.
Sound in ME is good, with background music full of orchestra, synthesizers, and everything in between. While any space opera has the legacy of John Williams to live up to, the work done in Mass Effect is beyond serviceable, and certainly provides the player with strong accompaniment to their actions. Yet one audio track stands out most, and that is the main menu theme. Haunting and certainly lending an air of artificiality, it sets the mood properly for a conflict with the bizarre, mechanical race known as the Geth.
No discussion of Mass Effect’s audio is complete without a run-through of the voice work. The voice cast is great: Seth Green is eminently likeable as pilot Joker; all of the crew members have interesting, unique voices; even the NPCs and minor enemies have something to offer. Unfortunately, the worst of the voice acting performances may be the most important, as the voice actor for the male Shepard is not up to the standard of the rest of the game. At no point does the male Shepard’s voice come off as grating or annoying; it merely seems that the voice actor doesn’t have the emotional range or the commitment that many of the other performers brought to the table. His work is passable, but I don’t think that anyone would mind a different voice actor. Even though my Shepard had a slightly stupid-looking face perfect for radio (and not television or film), I’d have had a hard time buying into his story if the gameplay wasn’t quite so immersive.
Mass Effect has aged very well in the three years since its initial release, and that’s a testament to the developers at BioWare. Even without the promise of sequels, it stands on its own as one of the best space opera stories in gaming lore, as well as one of the best RPGs of the current generation of game systems. This should hardly come as a surprise to anyone reading this. But, if you are like me, and for whatever reason are late to the Mass Effect party, go ahead and play the game already. If you think that Western RPGs aren’t for you, and that you’re only a fan of the Japanese style of RPGs, take solace in these words: Mass Effect has the quality story, the customization and exploration, and the atmosphere that you would want from the best JRPGs. Don’t let yourself be fooled by the North American development team and the fact that Star Trek is a bigger influence on this game than Lord of the Rings. While this is not a perfect game, it is a great one. With Mass Effect 2 out now for three different platforms, and Mass Effect 3 less than a year away, now may be the right time to replay the original and see where it takes you.
If you’ve taken the time to read this, it’s likely that you’ve already made up your mind about Mass Effect. On one hand, you have played the game before and are reading this to sate your nostalgia, or to see if the game has continued to hold up over the years. But maybe you have decided that it’s not for you, either due to the setting, or the fact that it is Western-developed, or due to it having shooter gameplay, or for some other reason. I used to be one of those people. I have a message for you naysayers, and it is this: I urge you to be bold enough to take the risk in playing this game, as BioWare was bold enough to develop this marvelous RPG. Perhaps you will be right, that it won’t be the right gaming fit for you. More likely, there’s a good chance that, like myself, you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised.