A friend of mine recently lent me his copy of Mass Effect, the science fiction action roleplaying game released by Bioware for the XBox 360 back in 2008. I’ve since clocked in around 8 hours on my first playthrough, not counting deaths and reloads, and I get the feeling I’m nearing the conclusion. For this post I won’t put in any spoilers, but try to simply touch on the gameplay and give some of my impressions.
The first aspect of this game that really made an impression was the cinematic storytelling. The cutscenes, which are all partially interactive, are well-acted, and the story they tell is genuinely riveting. Rather than giving the player a list of conversation topics, or a list of canned responses as most games of this type are apt to do, in Mass Effect the player is allowed to choose between several different tones of message. So, during a conversation, the player may choose “It’s hopeless,” but Commander Shepard (the player’s avatar in game) might say something like “It’s a lost cause, what can we possibly do about it?”
In theory this reduces screen clutter and makes conversations move along at a decent clip, but in practice it makes the player unclear on what exactly Shepard will do next. While playing the game, I have said something that sounded like it would come out understanding, but in disagreement, only to have Commander Shepard shout down my team mate until he was so intimidated we left the conversation tree. (SPOILER ALERT: I left him for dead later, so I guess it doesn’t matter much.)
The conversation trees are also home to some of the worst railroading in the game, where the designers give the player the thinly veiled illusion of choice, when really all responses lead to the same dialogue or tone. In one glaring example, two NPCs where arguing about a certain topic concerning the Genophage, and all of my input into the situation was pre-determined to side with one of the NPCs, even though I agreed with the other one. It’s lazy game design, and it lead to what is supposed to be an emotional scene which actually made me feel frustrated and disconnected from the experience.
Outside of conversation, the gameplay is fairly solid, if not a bit bland. Combat seems like it’s trying too hard to be Gears of War, with an added roleplaying element, although the cover system is too clunky and it takes too long to enter and leave cover to make it useful (granted, the fact that your allies take the good cover and charge headlong into rockets doesn’t help the situation). I am grateful that red triangles appear over my enemies, because otherwise I would have no way to see them at the distances at which I am usually fighting, although that may be because of my ten-year-old college-dorm-room tv’s crappy resolution compared to what the game was designed for.
That feels like enough for now. My next post I’ll probably touch on the Codex and the Mako, unless inspiration strikes and I decide to do something other than write about a game that everybody and his mother has beaten three times.