In many ways Mass Effect could easily be an incredible Star Wars role-playing experience. After all, it has all the elements of that classic space opera, like memorable aliens, killer droids, and a special order dedicated to maintaining balance throughout the galaxy. Plus, there is the tiny little detail that BioWare has a history with this sort of thing
. However, if it were a Star Wars game then Mass Effect probably wouldn't be anywhere as interesting or cool as it is. That's because discovery has an excitement all its own, and Mass Effect introduces us to a deeply immersive new galaxy full of stories and mysteries.
First, here's a disclaimer: I played Mass Effect on the Xbox 360 last year and it was an excellent and engrossing game then. The PC game is identical in terms of content, and yet I still found myself engaged and enthralled by the universe. In fact, I caught quite a bit that I missed on the Xbox 360 with the PC game, like a number of side quests that I never knew existed. So if you've already played the Xbox 360 game, there's still plenty to discover in the PC game, plus you can enjoy higher resolutions, faster load times, more save slots than you can shake a stick at, and the precision of the keyboard-and-mouse controls, to just name a few benefits. And if you haven't played Mass Effect, then you need to.
There are so many reasons why Mass Effect is so appealing. It's got a typical BioWare plot, which means that there's a mystery that's so well thought out and told that everything clicks into place during the big reveal. Yet it's also a game made by sci-fi fans for those who love sci-fi. There are so many elements borrowed and culled from decades of science fiction and movies, and there are countless moments that will remind you of Star Trek
or some early John Carpenter movie (the electronic score is very Carpenter-esque, too). There's even an effective film grain post-processing effect that makes the game feel like a 70s or 80s sci-fi movie, before digital filmmaking and CGI made everything look and feel too clean.
Here's the premise of Mass Effect: Several hundred years in the future humanity has joined the galactic community after finding alien technology on Mars that opens up interstellar travel. We uppity humans are seen as too ambitious in a galaxy run by a UN-like council populated by ancient alien races. You play as Command Shepard of the human Alliance military, and BioWare lets you role-play as either a male or female character. There are pre-rolled characters that you can select or you can create a custom character with a unique face.
When a rogue spectre--one of the galactic council's special agents--attacks a human colony on Eden Prime, you're tasked with hunting him down. It's not that simple, though, as invariably epic themes such as extinction on a galactic scale kick in. So you must zip around the galaxy in a very sleek starship, explore alien worlds, engage in futuristic firefights, and unearth the overarching mystery. There's also a cast of human and alien characters that can grow on you, like Wrex, a krogan killing machine with a blunt, sardonic personality. And this wouldn't be a BioWare game without one or two romance possibilities, as well.
Mass Effect's story goes beyond just simple character interaction, though. You have a wide degree of freedom to see how your story unfolds. BioWare offers basically two paths: the path of goodness and decency (the paragon) or the path of ruthlessness (the renegade), and often the choices presented to you can get under your skin. The game does an incredible job of introducing you to sympathetic characters whose fate you later get to decide. These can include members of your very own party to large numbers of innocents that you meet along the way.
This is also a game about exploration and combat, as you'll explore vast facilities on foot, drive around alien landscapes in an all-terrain vehicle, and engage enemies using a variety of sci-fi weapons and armor. Here's where the PC game improves on its Xbox 360 cousin, as it features a new tactical combat interface that lets you give individual orders to your two squad mates. There's also a useful quick slot toolbar that you can drag-and-drop special abilities to, letting you access them with a tap of the keyboard. This translates into greater tactical control during combat. The precision of the mouse and keyboard helps to a degree, but this isn't a pure action game, so it doesn't matter if you can put the cursor directly on a target. What matters more are your character's stats and the stats of the weapon that you're using. Still, I was able to get through many battles on the first attempt, which is in contrast to my experience with the Xbox 360 game, where I died-and-reloaded in many of those same battles multiple times.
The combat system of Mass Effect is dynamic and deep. You can play through as a soldier, which makes it not unlike a third-person shooter where you have to use cover to shield yourself from enemy fire while popping out to shoot back. However, the other classes in the game let you tap what are called biotic and tech powers. You or your allies can use abilities such as singularity to send enemies floating in the air, letting you unload into them. (There's physics in the game, too, so pounding an opponent with enough force will send them hurtling through space.) Then there's the intricate weapon and armor system, with upgrade slots for almost everything, including different types of ammunition. At the same time, if you're not an action fan or you lack lightning-fast resources, Mass Effect is fairly forgiving, as you can pause the action at any time to issue orders to your teammates or you can tweak the game settings to give you a generous aiming reticule.
If there's a complaint about Mass Effect, it's that many of its side quests recycle the same formula: go to planet X, land in the Mako rover, roll around the landscape until you find the objective (which usually recycles the building design from previous missions), go in guns blazing, and you're done. There's not a lot of variety here, but to its credit Mass Effect makes these detours fairly quick, so it's not like you're getting bogged down by them. And while the game finishes on an excellent note, it feels like it finishes too soon. BioWare has made no secret that this is just the opening chapter of a Mass Effect trilogy, so the company has sprinkled potential future plot threads throughout the game. And maybe it's just me, but it seems that BioWare's games used to be longer than Mass Effect. For instance, Mass Effect's main plot would have constituted but a chapter in Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights. So for better or worse, Mass Effect will most likely have you wanting for more.
There's a built-in timer in Mass Effect, so I know that it took me 19 hours and 9 minutes to get through the entire game. Of course, I had played Mass Effect on the Xbox 360, so I was able to blitz through the story for this review. If you approach the game at a more leisurely pace and take time to do more exploration, there's easily another 10 or 15 hours of gameplay here. There's also a considerable amount of replay value, too. In fact, the game encourages it, since you can beat the game and then start a new one using the high-level character you just used to finish the previous game with. This means that you get all the experience and skills that you finished with, as well as all the weapons and equipment that you have. Or you can roll a new character and explore different story paths. (There are unique quests depending on what you choose for your character's background or if you strive to be a paragon or a renegade.) Finally, there are a slew of achievements that you can work toward, but unfortunately these aren't Games for Windows -- Live achievements, and that means that they'll have zero impact on your overall gamerscore if you're a points hound.
As you'd expect, the PC game looks quite a bit sharper than its Xbox 360 cousin, provided that you have the hardware for it. I played on a dual core system with an Nvidia 8800GTX card and it looked incredibly sharp at 1680x1050 resolution. The frame rate was fairly steady, too, though there was the occasional hiccup now and then. I was surprised to see how much of a CPU hog it is, as both cores on my processor were constantly maxed out whenever I played. The PC game doesn't really feature any graphical enhancements, and it uses the same textures, but it still looks better on the PC screen than it does on an HD television. And the texture popping problems exhibited in the Xbox 360 game were pretty much missing from the PC.
This is also an excellent sounding game, especially on a surround sound system. The voice acting is simply superb, as the large cast brings an incredibly varied range of characters to life. In fact, voice acting doesn't get much better than this. There's the occasional familiar voice, like Keith David as a famous captain or Lance Henrikson as an admiral, but for the most part BioWare enlisted a large number of professional voice actors to deliver the lines for many memorable characters. Moreover, it isn't just the performances but it's also the quality of the material the voice actors had to work with. Key NPCs have moving stories to tell, stories that tie into the overarching history of the universe. The music is also powerful and haunting, as the electronic themes capture the desolate and lonely nature of space, but they're also capable of ramping up in urgency during battle.
Mass Effect doesn't feel like a port, so don't hold the fact that it arrives six months after the Xbox 360 game against it. The interface feels like it was built for the PC, and there are a slew of improvements here that the Xbox 360 game will never get, like an improved inventory system. It's also nice that there are pretty much as many save slots as you need, which is a big improvement over the Xbox 360 game. In that version you frequently had to overwrite previous saves, which made going back to experiment with different story paths difficult.
©2008-05-27, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved