Ahhhh, yes. I just gotta make it through the New Year’s celebrations tonight and birthday #38 on Thursday, and the holidays will be OVER. Thank the gods, ’cause they seem to get more stressful and irritating each and every year. (I am SO gonna be that cantankerous old codger who repeatedly runs the neighborhood kids off of his lawn.) A main point of contention is how difficult it can be to score any relevant gaming time, as there always seems to be somewhere to go or something to do…despite having a couple of days off from work. Still, though, I did manage to sneak away enough hours over the Holiday to get in some fairly heavy gaming, the main course of which was the much ballyhooed Mass Effect.
As I’ve already lamented in a previous discussion on the game, the first couple of hours — consisting of heavy character and plot development — were a drag for me. It started out well enough and I was initially quite interested, but by the time I hit the hour-and-a-half mark, it really started to grate on the nerves. Despite consisting of well-written and finely executed voice-acted dialogue (thanks to a talented cast featuring the likes of Keith David, Lance Henriksen, Marina Sirtis and Seth Green), after a while it all just started sounding like a bunch of “blah blah blah” that I was tiring of. That’s not to imply that this title contains no actual game within its first couple of hours, because it does. It’s just that the game-to-cutscene ratio swings so heavily in the cutscenes’ favor, that it feels like you’ve engaged a CGI film, when instead you believed you were investing time into a video game. (Of course, it should be noted that this is really only relevant to those who stick firmly to the plot points that the game serves; never straying outside of the main “path” and picking up the available side missions.) Having played previous titles from the wordsmiths at Bioware like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, I had expected things to get off to a slow start, but it just seemed so much more excessive in Mass Effect than what I remembered in KotOR.
WHEN THE LEVEE BREAKS
But, thankfully, the game does eventually open itself up, and when that happens, things get really good. Essentially a mix of the aforementioned KotOR and the legendary Star Control II, Mass Effect features a “choose your own adventure” style of dialogue-driven gameplay (ala KotOR), with a lot of interesting space exploration (ala SCII) thrown in for good measure. While the main motivation of your character is to save the universe by destroying the evil Saren and his synthetic Geth army, there are a ton of other things that can be done, like accepting side-missions from fringe characters, surveying planets for resources, and going on planetside expeditions — investigating surface anomalies and other mysterious points of interest. You’ve got around seven or eight hours worth of gameplay if you just follow the main storyline from beginning to end, but when you factor in all of the extra missions and whatnot, the amount of available gameplay increases considerably.
DO UNTO OTHERS…
Just like with KotOR, there’s a little bit of morality injected into the gameplay, all in the form of how you deal with giving responses at certain points within the game’s cutscenes. There’s a couple of meters on your character’s skills & attribute screen that measure both good (“Paragon”) and bad (“Renegade”) character traits. While certainly an interesting feature, it doesn’t seem very important as to which path you decide to follow, as the effects on the game as a whole appear to be next to nil. Perhaps it’s because of the change to your character’s physical appearance or simply a matter of me looking back through rose-colored glasses, but the morality gameplay mechanic seemed much more important in KotOR than it does here.
THE COMPLETE PACKAGE
The gameplay is solid and what you’d expect from a descendent of KotOR. Viewed from a third-person perspective, combat is just deep enough to be engaging, without being overly complicated or frustrating. (In fact, the game could be considered to be too easy on the default difficulty level.) Also as in KotOR, you’ll pick up additional team members as you make your way through the game, and not only can you collect armor, weapons and upgrades for yourself, but you can do so for your team members as well. You and your team members will also gain levels which come with attribute points that can be spent on skills and abilities, making the game’s combat even more interesting.
On the audio-visual side of things, the game looks and sounds impressive — with a lot of attention being given to the detail of both environments and characters. However, I did notice a lot of texture draw-in (especially in the cutscenes) that was quite distracting at times. Methinks the game engine could have used a bit of tweaking for the rendering of the cutscenes, ’cause really…should a cutscene tax the 360 that much? (After all, we’re not talking about the same kind of heavy rendering that we saw in older titles like Dead Rising — which was stutter-free.)
Ya know, there’s a lot that could be said about Mass Effect’s many features and high quality, but it’s really just one of those games that you need to play for yourself in order to understand the true scope of its ambitious design. There’s more than enough goodness here to actually warrant a $60+ purchase of the game, and it would be ridiculous to even waste time thinking about whether it’s worthy of a rental or not. Trust me, it’s absolutely worth picking up, as evidenced by the fact that as soon as I finished it, I immediately started it over. (I can’t even hazard a guess as to the last time I did that.)
Having not played every available game for every available system in 2007, I really hate to jump on the bandwagon and announce a winner for “game o’ the year” like everyone tends to do at this time of the year. However, to be perfectly honest, I simply didn’t play a better game than Mass Effect in 2007, and I’m sure I’ll be enjoying it well into 2008.