Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Aug 24, 2008

Mass Effect

Shamus over at Twenty-Sided frequently writes long, involved, and very interesting reviews of video games that he's playing, but he has Issues with the DRM that comes along with Mass Effect, so I thought I'd do a similar review and save him the trouble. I think the game really does merit an in-depth analysis simply because it comes really, really close to being a truly excellent game in many areas.

(As an aside, although the DRM on the game appreciably sucks, you don't have to have the CD in the drive to play the game once you've got it all registered etc.)


The basis for the plot of Mass Effect is *spectacularly* unoriginal. Granted, this doesn't necessarily mean that the plot is *bad*. A lot of good stories are retreads of existing plots. However, in order for a retread to be good, it has to be told in an interesting and original way, or at least with some interesting and original flavor added. This is not what happened here.

We start off with a seemingly innocuous mission to go pick up an ancient alien artifact from a human colony world. It's supposedly an idyllic place with much to recommend it from a vacation standpoint. During the opening dialogs and cut scenes, we also discover that The Protagonist (I.e. You) is a Special Person who is being evaluated for inclusion in what later turns out to be a black ops organization approximately equivalent to the SS. I say SS and KGB in this post because it's made clear in Mass Effect that this particular agency enjoys no oversight and the governors are only interested in methods when it suits their agenda. Such an organization is benevolent only by accident.

When you arrive to pick up the alien artifact, however, it turns out that a rogue agent of this selfsame agency named Saren has landed with an army of sentient machines. He, too, wants this alien artifact. A nasty little fight ensues. I'd like to take a moment and point out here that Bioware seems to be having some kind of problem finding names for their villains. Changing the consonants does not make Saren distinct from, say, Malek. It doesn't help that Saren orders the explosive destruction of the human colony in much the same way that Malek bombed the shit out of Taris in KotOR. Then, you spend a large portion of the game shuttling around the galaxy (and visiting FOUR plot-related planets) looking for various clues that will enable you to find him and, hopefully, beat him like a red-headed stepchild.

Fortunately (whew!) the plot does gradually diverge from that of KotOR and you eventually discover that Saren is Not The Real Threat. In fact, I suspect this may have been intentional on the part of the developers. Yes, they're not telling a story, they're trying to see if they can psych you out. The real threat here is a "race" of sentient machines--in fact, it seems that sentient machines are, for some reason, inimical to organic life on principle. We've moved away from KotOR--by turning it into The Matrix. The Big Scary Boss Machine even looks remarkably like a giant squid. It's named Sovereign. Hmm. Saren. Sovereign. And there are supposed to be two more games in the same series. Let's just hope the next part of the plot doesn't involve them giving you a ring and telling you to chuck it in a volcano.


It's tempting here to just point to the Zero Punctuation review and say "I agree with Everything Yatzhee Said", especially since this post is already looking pretty freakin' long. However, I'd rather at least make an effort to contribute something useful, so here goes:

In my opinion the combat is actually reasonably good--for the first fifteen minutes of the game. That's when you're first trying out your various abilities and doing things like taking cover behind rocks to pop out and shoot at enemies. Unfortunately, it remains identical for the rest of the game. Every battle involves you threading your way through a maze of boxes or similar terrain features and shooting amazingly indistinct enemies until they fall over. The enemies are made even more indistinct by the fact that each has a huge red triangle superimposed over them, so you never actually get a chance to *see* most of them.

I can't really *complain* about the red triangles, though, because without them the enemies would be *invisible*. In an effort to make the game areas appear visually "big", the terrain gets smaller with distance VERY quickly. If the figures didn't shrink in proportion it would look EXTREMELY strange. Hence enemies that aren't all that far away are inexplicably tiny and impossible to see.

Your squad is still as dumb as ever, a fact that is not in the least mitigated by your ability to give them "commands". One of the commands--Attack--is pointless because they attack anything they can see regardless, and I never succeeded in getting my squad to stop attacking and Hold Position when I ordered them to. You can order them to move to a specific location if you really want to fiddle around with it, but half the time they can't figure out how to get there so it doesn't matter. I don't care if they attack the enemy I'm shooting or not (the only other command), as long as they kill SOMETHING. You can also tell them to use specific special abilities, but since the ability you want is almost always one that is currently cooling down because they've already used it, this is also somewhat lackluster. There is an option to prevent them from using abilities unless you give the order, but this turns into a micromanaging nightmare.

They could have gotten away with just three commands very easily and drastically increased the usefulness of this feature: Move Forward (in the direction I'm facing, that is), Fall Back, and Take Cover. As it stands, the fact that they won't run away when they get overwhelmed is probably the most limiting factor, because it means that fairly often your squad gets dropped and it's up to you to finish the combat by yourself.

The vehicle sections initially reminded me a lot of one of my favorite games ever: Drakan. I find it very enjoyable to switch between the big heavily-armed vehicle (or dragon) that can squish enemies without effort and the small individual with a great deal more mobility. However, it lacks one primary feature that made Drakan so much fun: ingenuity. The areas you drive through are just different-colored versions of the same randomish terrain. There aren't any interesting puzzles for you to complete in order to get your vehicle past obstacles. You can't upgrade or alter the vehicle in any way. So it rapidly becomes tedious.

In fact, you can pretty much say the same thing (tedious) about every aspect of the game. You have this cool awesome cutting-edge warship that never does anything except transport you from one location to another. That's not a warship, that's freakin' JetBlue. At least in Jade Empire and KotOR you occasionally got to shoot at things that were attacking your ship. There's an "unlocking" mini-game for accessing almost all of the "treasure chests" in the game, but it never varies so by the tenth time you really don't want to put up with it any more. They even included that tired old Towers of Hanoi puzzle that everyone really ought to know by now.

Heck, the six biggest (in terms of the amount of crap you have to go through to finish them) quests in the game are *scavenger hunts*. They aren't even scavenger hunts with a cool wrap up. No. You just find the minerals/asari writings/prothean data disks/salarian id tags/keepers/turian insignias and get some cash and XP. While that's nice enough for my character, I suppose, it has little entertainment value for me, the player. You're never even formally given five of the quests, they just show up in your journal when you stumble upon the first whatever-it-is and never go away, which leaves completest types with the nagging feeling that they really should be spending hours and hours finding every last damn polonium deposit just so they can finally clear their quest log.

The leveling system works pretty well but it's also incredibly bland. If you make an effort to finish EVERYTHING, you will probably level about 50 times, but at the end of the game you still have the same dozen knacks you had at the beginning. They're just More Better. Granted, since the enemies keep getting tougher it can be difficult to tell whether this is actually the case. I do want to point out that there is some value to maxing out your skills, however. Should the time come when you wish to replay the game (and I have, several times) you can take one of the skills you previously maxed as a "bonus skill" with your new character. I don't know if this only applies to the PC version, but I thought it was pretty cool. The add-on you can get online for registering your game is also pretty nice, if short.

Gear is incredibly tedious. There really aren't any tradeoffs to weigh when selecting your gear, you just wear whatever armor has the most damage absorption/shields and use whatever weapon does the most damage. The various Mods for weapons and armor pretty much just change these basic attributes in either a positive or negative direction. By the end of the game I had every single character in identical armor using identical weapons with identical mods. I also would have liked to have been able to un-equip the weapons my character didn't know how to use. What's the point of carrying an entire arsenal everywhere if you're only going to shoot the pistol?


Technically-speaking, I can't say very much about this. The raw *quality* of the graphics is *incredibly* high. However, my computer is brand-new so I can't even begin to tell you whether the game runs smoothly on a decent older system, which should be of primary importance to anyone talking about graphics. Also, they (mostly) fixed one of the things that annoys me horribly about modern graphics, i.e. the bloom lighting that makes ordinary objects glow like they're covered in ectoplasm.

I have MANY aesthetic quibbles with the game, however. I, personally, would have been much happier if Bioware had spent *less* time putting in the characters' various moles and skin lesions and *more* time making the areas interesting. While I understand that the game involves you flying around in a space ship, it does not therefore follow that every area should resemble an airport terminal or a loading dock. What's worse, the "side quest" areas all have that Diablo-like "random generation" feel to them. I don't care that this is a new heap of crates. It's still a heap of identical crates. After three or four side quests you start experiencing a horrible sensation of deja-vu every time you open a door.

The characters look awesome, which would be really neat if they weren't all a combination of the same basic features. The clothing is *worse* than the hideous lumpy armor from Neverwinter Nights. Everyone wears identical outfits in vicious, glaring colors. It kind of makes you wonder whether the civilians all work for Dilbert-like corporations with amazingly strict dress codes. Plus, everything is WAY TOO TIGHT. I'm sorry, but combat armor that shows butt cleavage cannot possibly be comfortable to wear for any length of time. Every time I saw my character executing some combat maneuver it prompted a wince of sympathy.

The sweet graphics plus the lack of variety combine to make the game visually very bland. Wandering around has about the same appeal as walking to the Post Office, which segues directly into my next section about the:


I'd say "game world" or "universe", but since it's persistently referred-to in the game as the galaxy that's what I'm calling it. Call it my attempt at continuity or some such. In my opinion, this is the area of the game that needs the most work, even though it's PAINFULLY obvious that Bioware ALREADY put AMAZING amounts of work into it. When I say "painfully" here, I'm specifically referring to the amount of eyestrain you will incur should you attempt to actually delve into the mountains of literature that the developers dump on you pretty much throughout the course of the entire game. The sad part is that while most of it is actually kind of interesting in an abstract sort of way, its inclusion in the game serves no purpose whatsoever.

In fact, the in-game "codex" (as distinct from your "journal", which contains the information you actually *need* to play the game, namely where the damn quests are) actually manages to be counter-productive in some instances. Very early on in the game you can acquire a four or five-paragraph summary of the "rachni wars" (which occurred roughly TWO THOUSAND YEARS before the time of the actual game). You get a very nice picture of what a "rachni" looks like (think The Bugs from Starship troopers and you won't be far wrong). During one of the main-plot missions you encounter several of the damn things and are required to shoot them a lot: the name "rachni warrior" appears helpfully at the top of the screen while you are blasting away at them. Yet, when the fight is over and it's time to talk about the mauling you just endured, everyone is utterly baffled and and you have to wait through several more scenes before someone finally tells you that these are, in fact, rachni. Then your group comes over all surprised.

Granted, this is only one incident (the one I NOTICED), but COME ON!!! It's like the person responsible for the writing in this particular case actually wanted to encourage the player NOT to pay attention so they could ENJOY the panorama of events unfolding before them. It's a CLASSIC case of World-Building For The Sake Of World-Building, which is a HUGE no-no in any plot-driven artistic form. This is basic stuff here, people. If something is not important to your story then don't put it in. I don't care HOW cool it is. And if it *is* important to your story, don't just slap down some documentation and call it a day. Integrate with the rest of your story so that the player learns about *your* world the same way they learn about the *real* one: by observing and making inferences and gradually adding new tidbits until a full picture is assembled. It's much more interesting and far more entertaining.

Sorry if I sound a bit crazed, but this issue is really annoying to me, particularly because they went so far as to give the protagonist (you) a voice and at least a little bit of a personality, yet left you as an ignoramus who must ask tedious questions of everyone you meet in order to find out What The Hell Is Going On Here. You're supposed to be a Marine Commander (approx. equivalent to a Colonel in Army ranks) but you don't know anything about anything!!

As an aside, I think the whole "military" aspect of the game was royally messed up. I'll give Bioware credit for NOT portraying the military as a bunch of mindless psychotic thugs, but this is not the same as portraying military discipline and organization in a reasonable fashion. The TO aboard your ship is AMAZINGLY officer-heavy, starting the game with a Captain (aka a General in the Army), a Commander (you), two lieutenants--they never tell you which of the three flavors of lieutenant these gentlemen are, either--and two guys who I guess are Lt. Commanders because they appear to outrank the regular lieutenants.

You have ONE sergeant, who you PICK UP during the first mission, and maybe fifteen crew making up all ranks below that. During the game you run into three admirals, two of whom are apparently so short of staff and authority that they have no choice but to ask YOU to help them out. Repeatedly. I won't even go into the fact that you, as the superior officer on the ship after the Captain gets the boot, run all the combat missions accompanied only by TWO GUYS. I realize this situation came about primarily because of the nature of the game, but they could have very easily ditched the Space Marine motif in favor of something that made sense in context.

It doesn't help that you DO wind up getting assigned to a KGB-like "special ops" group. This *should* mean that you're *no longer subject* to any of the military rules, regs, restrictions, etc. In fact, they tell you precisely that several times during the game. And then, when it's convenient, the Alliance Military treats you like a regular old soldier under its command--or at least, under the command of their Ambassador, who shouldn't be in the chain of command in the first place. In real life, this would be a huge mess, but the game just kind of glosses over it, the same way they gloss over many other things.

There is no need to make informing the player and informing the character an identical process. Bioware had a golden opportunity here to make *your character* a savvy, sophisticated, cosmopolitan person instead of a n00b who still, inexplicably, is the Leader and giving the orders. How much more awesome would the above rachni scenario have been if, when your squadmate demanded "What are those!?" you had replied: "Rachni. I've seen pictures." How much effort would it take for your character to say "It sounds like I need to do this" instead of constantly asking "what do I need to do?" A little thing can make such a big difference.

I find it more than a little distressing that a universe which contains the actual Earth and thus has the full breadth and depth of existing human culture available turns out as bland as oatmeal. KotOR was, for the most part, genuinely interesting even though Star Wars is made up from whole cloth.

Shorn of the "informational" verbiage the writing and voice acting in Mass Effect is actually quite good. Add some more variety and integrate the side-quests into the overall story a little better (a perennial problem in RPG's--possibly because it's not even widely recognized as a problem), and you've got a real winner here. I definitely recommend that the Mass Effect designers give games like Drakan or Gothic a try so they can get a feel for how much fun the intensive variety of swimming/climbing/jumping/fighting/flying can be.

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