Mass Effect is the best 8 out of 10 I’ve ever played. This statement might seem confusing given the above score, but its meaning is mostly rhetorical. The subtext is simple: while a good experience overall, Mass Effect is a game with some major flaws. Whether or not you can ignore these flaws depends entirely on one’s taste in games, as Bioware’s attempt at combining RPGs, third person shooters and classic space operas can be a frustrating experience.
For a game that prides itself on story, Mass Effect gets off to a weak start. You play as Shepard, a soldier chosen to spearhead humanity’s acceptance within the galactic community. In a turn of some typical RPG events, your mission is thrown into chaos as alien forces besiege the colony world of Eden Prime, leaving both the planet and narrative in ruins. The mission itself is fine, providing a well-paced introduction to the game’s combat and dialog system. But problems arise in the aftermath. Having apparently forgotten the joys of dramatic irony, Bioware wastes no time before sending you after the one responsible for Eden Prime: Saren, a member of the elite Spectres and all-around badass. It seems the future justice system has far more lenient standards when it comes to evidence, as you manage to prove Saren’s guilt with nothing more than a voice recording and the second-hand testimony of a cowardly dock worker. These leaps in logic are by no means crippling, yet I couldn’t help but feel the story was missing a few lines of dialogue or plot developments.
Thankfully, it’s not long before the game gets its act together and you’re off to save the galaxy. Much like in its spiritual predecessor, Knights of the Old Republic, you assemble a merry band of misfits, mercenaries and soldiers, each with their own story to tell. Chatting with other crew members is a worthwhile experience unto itself, thanks to the game’s solid writing and voice acting. If nothing else, you’ll learn a great deal about how other species procreate, often without soliciting such information. Flirt enough with one member in particular and you’ll get a hands-on demonstration, or you can stick to your own kind and forgo the pursuit of extraterrestrial poontang. Sexual undertones aside, the universe of Mass Effect is highly detailed and fleshed out in a handy codex. New information is acquired either automatically or by exploring all areas and dialog options, with unread entrees highlighted for easy reference.
Mass Effect garnered significant attention for its wide-open gameplay and design, but what you read on the back of the box is not entirely accurate. Contrary to numerous previews, conversations are not affected in real time. While the interface has changed, the manner in which you interact with other characters is exactly the same as in previous Bioware games: listen to what they say, then select a response. There is no time limit when choosing the desired reaction. That’s not to say the old system lacks improvement, as the dialog “wheel” is less intrusive than KOTOR’s response list. But anyone looking for the next evolution of character interaction is sure to be disappointed. Equally sobering is the non-linear nature of the game’s universe. While you can choose the order in which you tackle the main planets, the overall structure is more branching than open-ended. All four “story” missions must be completed before you can proceed, and the finale is linear from start to finish. How much time you spend playing Mass Effect depends on how many side missions you choose to complete. These sidetracks vary in quality and recycle a great amount of content, so expect to visit the same mineshaft or pirate base with slightly different furniture on a regular basis.
Such flaws are easy to ignore, considering the interactive dialog is still enjoyable and the branching campaign offers more than enough variety on subsequent playthroughs. What cannot be avoided, however, is the game’s messy and unpolished combat. Mass Effect attempts to blend KOTOR-style RPG mechanics with Gears of War’s gameplay and engine. If nothing else, the result works…for the most part. As a shooter, Mass Effect is average at best and, at times, downright awful. Combat is stiff and usually lacking in variety, while the cover system is practically worthless. Frequent drops in framerate mar the otherwise-fantastic visuals. In order to enjoy Mass Effect’s action sequences, you need to learn and understand how the RPG elements affect your accuracy and general abilities. Once your character’s level reaches the mid twenties to early thirties, the shooting feels much better. Alas, the same cannot be said for the game’s most inexcusable flaw: horrible, horrible AI. Enemy combatants fight by either strafing from side to side or charging right at you, occasionally choosing to hide before you move in and blast them. While stupid, they at least know how to shoot straight. Your squadmates display a level of incompetence that can often prove fatal on higher difficulties. In addition to shooting at enemies through solid objects, being incapable of navigating any area that isn’t devoid of obstructions, and casting biotics into the ground instead of doing something useful, they possess an undying love for blocking your shots in the middle of combat. If not for a lack of friendly fire, many of the harder encounters would be mind-numbingly frustrating. Perhaps Bioware did this to save your brain dead companions from constant euthanasia.
Despite the rough gameplay and idiotic AI, Mass Effect is still a very good experience when taken as a whole. But its problems are such that they prevent the game from living up to its potential. Bioware has clearly succeeded in creating a deep and engrossing universe, as well as developing the basis for a great shooter/RPG hybrid. In the end, Mass Effect’s legacy will likely be determined by how well the sequels address their predecessor’s shortcomings. Failure to do so could easily prove the difference between the next great RPG franchise and another colossal disappointment.