If Mass Effect does nothing else (and it does plenty), it shows the importance of solid gameplay. The game seems like the result of some designer attempting to shoehorn gameplay into his totally awesome science fiction story which, frankly, would have been better suited for film than a video game.
The folks at Bioware obviously have a very specific story they are trying to tell, which they try to cover up with the illusion of deep an meaningful player “choice,” although this usually boils down to whether or not you will pursue side quests and whether you will try to get a villain to join you before he inevitably refuses and draws a gun, or just skip the middleman and order your squadmates to attack. When you’re not running around and navigating conversation trees (which is what they are, no matter how they try to dress them up as “Incredible, real-time character interaction”), you’re running around weilding one of four types of weapons, occasionally pausing the game to use the Force/biotics or to switch to a new type of weapon. Most of the combat is just “shoot the big guy, shoot the big guy, use ‘warp’ on the big guy, wait for ‘warp’ to recharge, while shooting the big guy, big guy goes down, move on to next biggest guy.” It’s not terrible, but there’s nothing innovative about this system, and this kind of thing has been done much better in other games (I’m thinking particularly of squad-based shooters “Star Wars: Republic Commando” and “Brothers in Arms”).
Although combat is bland and uninspired, it pales in comparison to the sections of the game where you’re driving the Mako, an obstensively off-road vehicle that handles something like Stephen Hawking on speed, except Stephen Hawking would probably be able to aim a gun at an angle greater than 10 degrees from the horizontal. Undoubtedly the worst, most grating, experience I’ve had so far has been a portion where I had to drive the Mako through several groups of rocket troopers and armatures where I was not allowed to save in between. It was fun in that “OK, this is my character performing what is needed to complete the mission, even though the gameplay kind of sucks” way, but it ceased to be that when the third group killed me and sent me back to the beginning of the level, with my squad standing just outside the vehicle. This section spawned a few questions I would like to ask Bioware:
- Since when am I in combat if nobody is shooting at me, and there are no enemies on the radar?
- What is the tactical advantage of a land vehicle that cannot shoot up when every race we could possibly be fighting have some sort of airborne unit?
- Why can the car jump when the humans can’t?
- Look at every single driving game ever. Do you know how they differ from you? They understand that vehicles are not people, and do not move like them. Stop trying to make us control cars with the joysticks, please.
That last one was more of a demand than a question, but I just needed to round out that list. Honestly, though, nothing brings me out the experience than suddenly going from cool, composed ship commander to epileptic student driver.
Now I’m going to go against what I said earlier about Mass Effect working better as a movie and talk about my favorite part of the game. The Codex, for those not in the know, is where information about the setting is stored as you discover it. But more than just a reminder of things you’ve learned in the game, it has tons and tons of background information that’s handily set aside for those who wish to delve into it, a lot of which is narrated. I think even more than the plot and the characters, I’m in love with the world that the game is set in. You never fight in ship-to-ship combat in game, but there is a lot of information about exactly how such a confrontation would go down, going in detail into heat signatures, weapon systems, and common tactics used in different scenarios. This is reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, if instead of hinting at the backstory through the plot, Tolkien simply attached an encyclopedia that was instantly updated with a few pages of history every time the reader saw a new name or location. I find myself hoarding Codex entries so after each mission I can return to my ship and read through a big chunk of them all at once, bringing whole new levels of depth into the setting. The world is extremely well crafted, and it’s really a shame that the gameplay and interactive options don’t do it justice.
Next time, hopefully I’ll have finished the game (I think I only have an hour or two left), or I may write about something else. I wonder what my throng of undoubtedly sexy female readers would prefer.