Monday, June 09, 2008

Mass Effect (Xbox 360, PC)

When will Science Fiction writers realise that technology doesn't progress all that quickly? We're allegedly 7 years past 2001's Space Odyssey, 9 years past the development of Space 1999's moon base and it's been two years since the cartoon "Transformers" movie was set. Quite frankly I'm getting impatient, I want a giant shape shifting robot sidekick dammit. Unless it was Blur, he was crap. Mass Effect follows a similar path of not seeming far enough in the future but is still really great, with humanity beginning to build a space empire in 2152. The game is set a bit later, but still...

The universe they have created is one of those positive, utopian looks at the future, similar to Star Trek, rather than the bleak nightmares of Blade Runner. In it, humans have stepped up to the galactic stage, wishing to prove their worth to the already established races in the universe. In a way, the story is a bit predictable for Bioware, as it involves taking a chosen one like hero character that has to save the universe, by moralising between good and evil choices, something done in Baldur's Gate, Jade Empire and Knights of the Old Republic. Don't worry about that, it's a simple RPG vehicle that works, but it's in the details that the story becomes more impressive.

The amount it crams in is fantastic, every race feels unique and distinct, with each having it's own back story that means that the game really does warrant a huge amount of exploration. If you want to hear about them, there are always characters around to ask. The reptilian Krogan story in particular is brilliantly handled, and sets up their surly, nihilistic demeanour perfectly, whereas the bird like Turians' on going underlying tension with the humans suggests that a civil war within the Galactic Senate could erupt at any time. There are very few games that manage this level of cohesiveness and depth within an original world, with only Grim Fandango, Deus Ex and Legacy of Kain springing to mind. It has been suggested that there is a little bit too much detail given in the game journal, but I have never found extra content worthy of complaint.

Except that is when it comes to the side quests. These are the only true weakness in the game, as if you want your characters to get the best weapons and highest levels, they are necessary but are incredibly repetitive. Not only the scenarios, but also the actual buildings used are copied and pasted around the game. This could be due, however, to the sheer level of graphic fidelity and the length of the game, in which case I'd rather not sacrifice anything from the main campaign.

The visuals themselves are exemplary, as is the soundtrack – all John Carpenter-esque synths and clinical overtones. Graphically, the game is almost perfect, but not quite aside from a few very noticeable flaws. There is notable pop in when you enter most rooms in the game, which can often break the fourth wall. Also, the rigging in the characters' arms is terrible, and they often look like their arms are made of loose strips of rubber if you look closely. However, the facial animation is light years ahead of anything else on a computer game and even rivals some films, which is an impressive feat impressive for real time rendering. The environments are varied and all fantastic, ranging from moon bases to deep mining lairs, glacial mountains and fiery volcano worlds, Bioware have taken the idea of planet hopping and run with it to great effect.

The game play is a strange hybrid of RPG and Gears of War style shooting, and works very well. It has enough depth and customisation to appeal to the hardcore role players yet action packed enough to bring in a whole new audience. Played from a third person perspective, it features the common place over the shoulder aiming, as well as two command-able wing men. These generally do what you tell them, though have a worrying tendency of finding their best spot move to is right in your own line of fire. It can be frustrating, but it's easy to get around. Also, if team mates are killed in combat they're actually “knocked out” which makes it a bit more forgiving, if logic defying. There are vehicles that can be used in the game, but they're not great. Though the power of a tank cannon is satisfying compared to normal combat, they handle as if the wheels are made of particularly bouncy marshmallow. Hopefully these can be fixed for the sequel.

The player is given the choice of three (well, nine) character classes, but with any combination of them. In layman's RPG terms, they are Fighter, Mage and Thief, but here as Soldier, Adept and Engineer. The first is one for the Gears fans, liking to get stuck into the nitty gritty of the shooting, and customising the rifles. The second is my favourite, being able to affect gravity, the spells feel suitably futuristic. My favourite is lift, which can actually levitate cover, allowing you to have a sniper waiting for the newly exposed enemy. It's not a fun class to start with, but gets progressively more fun as it goes on. Finally, there's the Engineer. I really can't see why anyone would want to specifically play as this. Limited weapons access and a weak array of powers that take an age to recharge, it just doesn't seem much more useful than hacking doors and computers. It's handy to take a mixed class one with you, but I couldn't find much use other than that. To be honest, who'd really want to be the guy who held the door open for the galactic heroes? Exactly. In a way, I hope they expand on this for the next game, allowing level ten accountants, and the guy who sounds the early warning alarm.

This was a really difficult review to write, and I hope it's entertaining because it's very hard to make a review funny when the game is so damn close to perfection. The gripes I found with the game don't really damage the experience, but I felt i needed to pick it up on something. It's easily the best game on the 360, and possibly even of the last five years. If you like games with action, a good storyline, depth and excitement, then it's impossible not to recommend. If Bioware want to improve on it for the sequel, then they have a hell of a task ahead of them.