Mass Effect
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The galaxy is a huge place. The likelihood of there being more powerful sentient races is quite high. In Mass Effect you will become Shepard, a human hoping to prove humanity’s worth to the galaxy’s ruling council. And guess what, they’re not human.

Travelling the star systems in a unique prototype spaceship you will learn much about the politics and racial differences of many colourful species. This information helps form a better understanding of how the Human race fits into the bigger picture and the trouble the galaxy now finds itself in. I can tell you, it’s a mighty plot and you'll be right in the thick of it, which is why you’ll be grateful for the followers who join your ranks, a la KOTOR.

Mass Effect came to the Xbox 360 at the end of November last year (23rd November ‘07). Why do I care? Because people would have played that version first and then concluded that many aspects of Mass Effect have been mended or tweaked to deliver a better experience for the PC port. I never played the console version. I don’t have preconceptions of the game any further than expecting it to work well, just like any other game that has been swapped for good ol’ greenback. So comments like “the squad control system is now so much better than it was on the console version” are not going to pass my lips. Instead, expect “the squad control system plays like porridge on the pc”.

Let’s look at that in more detail. The squad would be useless in combat if they didn’t offer the extra automated firepower you sometimes need. This is a crying shame. It’s essential that you can bring them back from the dead because, despite a fun cover system, your pair of allied NPCs like to stand toe-to-toe and duke it out with the hordes of robotic aggressors. If you do try and direct them to get behind something there is a good chance that the preschool AI has better ideas or your buddy simply gets stuck on the scenery. I found that a lot of ignoring helped me to best deal with the squad characters who tagged along on a mission. However, they really shine when it comes to giving you a sense of depth within the game. They are well thought out, with well rounded personalities and agendas that come to life at crucial plot points. They often thrust upon you moral dilemmas, the resolution of which will affect how you progress.

The main problem with Mass Effect is ironically based around the brilliant layer of depth the universe has been brushed with. In a sentence, it has troubles living up to it. This problem takes a number of forms.

On one hand, the key characters you encounter have real reasons for acting the way they do. Exploring these provides a handful of climactic scenes and the story seems to be just getting started… at which point the game actually comes to an end.

On the other hand, as a high ranking galaxy cop with Judge Dredd type powers you are faced with an array of citizen dilemmas which you can dip in and out of along the way. These side tasks seem hollow in comparison with the gargantuan plot swirling around everything. And they aren’t helped out by the nature of the combat system. For example, when you have found your quarry in a side-quest man-hunt the combat mechanics, which provides a lot of fun, does little to get you up close and personal with the key antagonist. More often than not Mass Effect tries to solve this with a pre-combat, in-game cut scene but these are always a little jerky and can actually spoil the realism. So it usually ends up with you putting an end to the bad guys as quickly as possible and coming away wondering who they were and why you really cared. However, evil is alright in my book and in true Bioware fashion the whole game allows you to tackle any choice from a couple of moral angles, giving plenty of replayability.

My last key issue is with the inventory. You get loot from the bodies of the dead. But you don’t have to pick anything up manually. It just appears as an interrupt window the next time you fancy configuring your equipment layout. From this disconnected window you can either sift through each random item and guess whether or not your current version is better or destroy it by turning it into a tiny amount of energy that you probably won’t use elsewhere. I found that selecting ‘keep everything’ was the best way to side step this logistical irrelevance or at least put it on hold until I had no choice but to deal with it later. Associated with this is the pain of passing items between your squad and seeing which items are better suited to which characters.

"Inventory? This is a basic RPG requirement." I hear you say and yet why do so many experienced game developers have trouble with it?
In this case I fear that it’s mainly due to the heritage of Mass Effect; you can feel the sludge oozing into the character inventory system from the console port.

The game encourages the swapping of ammo and weapons to better deal with a situation. Again this becomes a chore as you try to dissect your way through a whole load of never to be used equipment, click on every item to see if it is better than your existing item and then try and swap it to a fellow by first putting it back into the pool of items and... argh.

Loot gathering is a huge part of RPGs. It helps drive you onwards. To make this area a headache is simply a crime when you consider how great the game is as a whole. I have to draw the point back to where and why we encounter the above issues. I can’t help but think that had the game and its user interface been designed for the PC first then we wouldn’t have any of the aforementioned problems. Who knows, maybe the console owners would have been struggling to get their comrades to negotiate basic terrain, but as far as I heard they had that problem anyway.

With the bitching over, I will say that the more we love a game the more we notice those few areas that aren’t quite up to par and stop it from being the One True Game.

Let me end on the high that Mass Effect deserves. Because despite the negative points above, they amount to no more than a niggle of irritation as you blast through the 25 hours of gorgeous gameplay.
With a beautifully imagined galaxy to explore, you take in the cosmic politics of the deep and intricate races to become a hero. Sounds good, huh? The members of your mixed race squad are well thought out and the large quantities of combat-driven plot never get dull. Assuming your system is capable of chewing through the requirements, you will be blessed with visuals that can make even the darkest of hearts sing. On the occasion that the backdrops become dull or repeat you’ll probably be too busy, using the built-in boosters to try and flip over your self-righting space buggy, to notice.

But the piece de resistance has got to be this: every character interaction is voice acted. Every single one! There is very little that draws you into a game quite like that. You will make a quick text choice to determine your reply, something like, "yeah, I agree with you" and then you, the lantern jawed hero, step into the frame and say "I had a feeling that all the aliens were scum but you’re definitely on to something, Admiral. We should take the fight to them." Now your next thought might be, "I bet they just got Mr. Sible from down the road to record the ten thousand lines as he walked his dog on a morning". But you’d be wrong; the voice acting is good. It’s probably Patrick Duffy, haven’t heard much from him in a while.

Taking a trip to this well rounded universe is something we should all do at least once and Bioware are giving PC owners the expansion for free (Bring Down the Sky, available as a DL right now on their website), probably as a way of alleviating their guilt for bringing out the game on console first. We forgive.