Game Review: Mass Effect

An old review, uploaded for completeness’ sake

Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed)
Available on: Steam, Origin

I actually bought this game a long time ago and even started playing it, but not for long for some reason. I always wanted to come back to it, since I loved the universe they set up in the beginning, when you’re first let loose on the Citadel. So I actually bought it a second time on Steam, mostly because it was just €1.99, but also so I could finally play it with the English audio, since the original boxed version I have here at home only has the German audio.

Now that I’ve played it I have to say that I’m still extremely interested in the universe they built-up. The races they’ve come up with are intriguing to watch and interact with. And the story is told competently and it takes some really good turns. The voice-acting is top notch for most of the main characters. Not so much for some minor characters, but overall very pleasing, even though sometimes the audio levels are a bit unbalanced. Thank god I had subtitles on.

However I do have several major gripes with this game. First off, the combat system is extremely weak. I chose the Vanguard class because I didn’t just want to use weaponry but also play around with the bionic powers since the first time I started the game I went for pure Soldier and wasn’t a fan of the shooting experience. The problem with the combat system stems from the fact that the shooting is done via RPG mechanics meaning that the accuracy of the player is entirely irrelevant so long as you’re vaguely aiming in the direction the enemies are coming from. It calculates the hits using its RPG math behind it all to determine via dice roll if you actually manage to hit anything and as such much of the talents are incremental boosts in accuracy.

If you look at the entire game and the world it’s trying to build and immerse you in, it is kind of weird that all BioWare could come up with for the combat was a 3rd-person chest-high wallapalooza fought for the most part in either linear hallways or a few larger rooms designed like mazes. Unless of course you’re fighting in the Mako, in which case combat boiles down to finding the nearest hill next to a Geth outpost as a cunning higher ground strategy, peeking out behind the summit to snipe all the enemies from a mile away with them having no chance of actually hitting you.

Of course, with the limited weaponry I was granted as a Vanguard I could only reliably use the pistols and shotgun and shotguns are useless in most circumstances so I played the entire game with pistols. The bionic powers are a bit more helpful especially when they shield you from enemies because your light to medium armor won’t help you much. This lead to a pretty frustrating fight on Therum when you go to find Liara where I got killed within 2 seconds of the fight starting simply because I didn’t immediately duck and hide behind cover. Also I was never really comfortable with the squad commands, I rarely gave them any orders at all save for healing them when things got tense, but that was about it.

Aside from the combat system I feel that the exploration system is one of the weakest aspects of the game. I wanted to explore this universe given that the game starts off so interestingly, but what I found in the galaxy were mostly textdumps for planets I couldn’t visit and only sometimes probe with a single button. There were a handful of planets where I could actually touch down and explore bits of maps with the Mako, that were mostly empty save for a couple of crashed satellites, some resources, beacons and the odd installation to find, and the fact that the vehicle is such a chore to pilot, doesn’t make these sections any more interesting or engaging. Usually these sections entailed using the asinine hacking system that randomly refused to let me work on it because “my skill was too low”. Seriously BioWare, you couldn’t at least come up with some flora and fauna for these worlds? Just empty rocks that look mostly identical save for their horribly tiled textures? Nothing to make them look like they’re actually living breathing ecosystems? Compare all these worlds with the levels on Eden Prime or Virmire, those looked like a real planets, like some actual effort went into this. In comparison the other planets that aren’t main missions look like PlayStation-era world maps for something like Final Fantasy VIII.

I also mentioned that my skills were too low to attempt a hack. This was always something I hated in RPGs. “Your skill is too low to crack that safe, your skill is too low to use that weapon accurately”. Fuck you! Don’t tell me my skill is too low, show me a problem and let me use my personal gaming skills to bypass them, otherwise Wrex is never gonna get his armor back, because I brought my decryption specialist along the way and it still wasn’t enough, and this was right before I actually had to go to Ilos and couldn’t turn back to complete any sidequests I hadn’t finished yet. Let me use all the weapons properly and let my skills when it comes to aiming determine if I’m good at it, don’t rely on the numbers in my talent tree to gate off content. And I know this goes against the whole RPG thing where you’re supposed to play a role but I could never really get into that. I’m more at home playing a role as Dr. Gordon Freeman than playing as my Femshep. And yes, I always play as female characters when the game lets me chose my gender, because that’s how I roleplay, viewing a world in a way unfamiliar to me. This led to this bizarre scene where my Femshep sat in Chora’s Den (an adult oriented entertainment venue) ogling some Asari goods, so I’m guessing this game was obviously meant to be played as a male character because I haven’t heard of lesbians sitting in strip-clubs, salivating over the meat on display, but I could be wrong here. Still, given her interest in the Asari, I romanced Liara on the Normandy and my god the romancing in this game is just unbearable. They just stand there affirming their emotional attraction towards each other, there’s nothing that really highlights their interest. Even when Kaiden admitted to having taken a liking to my Shepard it’s just this frank, objective kind of dialogue and it really took me out of the experience. As did the sex scene which was just weird to watch. Also why did some of Ashley’s dialogue sound like she was implying to be interested in me when you actually can’t pursue any romantic involvement with her when you’re playing a Femshep?

Other than that I felt that some of the level design was incredibly misguided, especially with the shamelessly copypasted levels where you basically have an entrance to a large room and with enemies and some clutter to make it feel different from the last time you visited the exact same map, followed with the two branching arms leading to two empty rooms. Basically the lunar bases looked exactly the same as a variety of other underground bunkers halfway across the galaxy, and individual elements like doors and crates all looked the same despite the fact that they were built by entirely different races, etc. They’re just shamelessly recycling content here.

And speaking of cutting corners, it was just pathetic how at some points when you beat the last enemy at an outpost or something a window pops up and describes to you in DnD-RPG manner what you’ve experienced in the aftermath, instead of actually showing it all to you. This was especially galling when you find that one Prothean artifact, the reflective sphere, and the textdump tells you that you’re astral projected into an ancient human precursor to the homo sapiens and that this somehow gives some insight into how long the Protheans have been monitoring humanity from their abandoned Mars facilities. Why not actually show me this vision? Heck you showed me the original Prothean vision at the start of the game and that was a load of nonsense, but at least I got to see what happened, but here it’s just a textdump telling you that you fell into a trance, had this vision and then woke up again to find your teammates ask you how you feel, and yet when gameplay resumes nothing is ever mentioned you just go along with your current objective. This so clearly illustrates that content was cut for time or budget reasons.

I also felt that for all the vastness of the Citadel (at least the claimed vastness in your journal – which is almost as bad as the journal in Final Fantasy XIII, although at least the stuff that’s important to the plot is getting read to you by a voice-actor), the stuff that you’re allowed to explore is mostly barren and there are actually very few locations to visit in the first place. I got this entire Babylon 5-vibe at the start of the game but nothing hints at this being a sprawling center of commerce, culture and politics. Even more disappointing was the fact that my interactions with other races were superficial at best. Sure, my team consisted of many races which all gave me expository dialogue on what their history and their culture is, but we never get to visit their homeworld or a colony which would’ve been a far better way of telling me about these races instead of clunky exposition dumps, both inside the journal and in actual conversations.

Another constant annoyance during these 21 hours was the inventory system. It’s just so convoluted, every time you pick up a weapon you already have it shows you another entry instead of, you know, writing how many copies of each weapon you have next to it to show me that I have 3 identical sniper rifles left, and since there’s no real way to filter or sort your inventory it quickly becomes a nightmare to rifle through it all and keep everybody well-equipped. Especially since when you’re picking up weapons it doesn’t let you compare them to the stuff you already have so you can actually make an informed choice about reducing it to omnigel or not. Not that it mattered because at the end of the game I had 999 omnigel, and since that maxes out the textbox, I coulnd’t get any more. And I had a couple of million credits in the bank since I never needed to buy anything from the shops besides expanded inventory slots for medigel and grenades.  And speaking of equipment, why can I only equip my party during deployment and the rest of the team in the cargo bay of the Normandy? And why do I have to go to their respective locker to do it? Why can’t I just use the “equipment” command in my menu and simply go through everybody’s equipment there at any time? So much time is wasted to properly prepare for upcoming challenges and so much could be streamlined to make this a more enjoyable experience.

Also there was one graphical glitch I want to highlight because I actually needed to open up the console and disable the dynamic lighting which made the game look about 5 years older in an instant. This was on Noveria just when you enter Peak 15, and on Ilos as well, when the game started rendering all the characters, both my party and the enemies, as well as dynamic objects as blocky black entities. Not even in 3D space, simply right on top of everything else so there was no way of judging distance and the shapes themselves were so blocky that you couldn’t make out which enemy you were fighting. This is apparently a problem with newer AMD FX processors but it’s weird that it only occurred on that particular level, and since I know that this bug has been brought to the attention of both EA and BioWare, I’m surprised nobody has actually managed to create a patch for this because even from the official side you’re advised to turn off the lighting. But I won’t pin this on the developer since it’s an isolated case that happens on certain specific hardware.

So overall I’m not overly fond of Mass Effect as a game. I liked the story and the universe and I’m definitely interested in playing the sequels, especially since I know that they apparently changed stuff around in those. Though how much is left for me to find out. But if I were to judge the original Mass Effect as a standalone experience I simply could not recommend it. There’s just not enough there to justify playing it for either the combat or the exploration since both are rudimentary at best. The only thing that truly stands out is the initial world-building and some of the dialogue you have, but since I am now spoiled by Telltale and their excellent way of providing me with story and dialogue, I don’t think that Mass Effect can count as the best example of this. So in the end I don’t feel that there’s really all that much to it, especially with the massive amount of hindsight I have nowadays. Sure, maybe it was great when it first came out 9 years ago, but it has held up remarkably badly. I mean I’ve played far older games that I haven’t previously played and I’ve gotten more out of those experiences.

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