Monday, December 29, 2008

Mass Effect is brilliant.



Yes, it is. This is going to be one huge post so you might as well get yourself a drink. I did. I feel compelled to write about it because none of you blighters seem to have done. And that's something I don't quite understand. The critics have. The haters have (really, what kind of men complain about lesbian sex?). It's quite an accomplishment for the gaming medium. It's a game I will hand over to my kids when I teach them about right and wrong. If some of you didn't pick this game up it probably must have been because of the Box art, which made it look like something of a generic space opera. Mark Vanderloo looks generic, just another model in spacemarine armour. They should have put an icon on the box. Like one of the alien races.

It's been a long time since I dumped the multiplayer RPGs for what they were back when, and started playing single player RPGs. That's not because I don't have any time left to get lost in an MMO but because I am a huge selfish prick who only thinks about himself and the world relating to me, rather then myself relating to the world. By the way this isn't irony, it's a Vanilla flavored milkshake.

This is me thinking like a renegade. And you know when you've played to much ME when you start thinking about real life responses in terms of paragon and renegade. So, time for the ceremonial blogpost intervention to mark my third play-through. In all, I think this game has taken about 120 hours of my time already. Don't read this as something bitter, I just couldn't find a shorter Bioware RPG. And I needed a break away from anything Star Wars related. So why not find something better?

The more perceptive readers might be discerning something of a pattern here. Bioware has been the dealer to my addiction and what you are reading is a love letter. Or maybe it's like an open solicitation. But I doubt they have an opening. Or read blog posts. Or care. But rest assured, I carry a key-chain with Canadian Flag on it.

The big deal about ME is that it makes you choose not between Good or Evil, but between Polite (selfless, paragon) and Rude (selfish, renegade). Needless to say, 2 of my characters are rude space bastards and one is a big softy. The point is, that as far as moralistic games go this one is quite refreshing. I played an evil megalomaniac lunatic in Kotor2 and Fable and the deeds were cartoonishly villainous. Mass Effect doesn't go to such extremes and rightly so. It would be quite unbelievable for Shepard (the protagonist) to join up with the bad guys or aspire to some other cliche. The games where you can solve an argument with an uppercut are far and few between. I for one applaud the game for allowing me to develop an otherwise neglected character trait.

ME is a linear game, that's because it's story driven. However the tracks are relatively broad and your actions directly influence how certain elements of the story play out. So it's not as if your actions are ultimately reset and the only difference is the way you got there. Because of it's linearity you might think you'll be done with it after one play though. But that's not the case. The biggest reason for this is that after you finish the game, you can pick that same character and start another play-though with it. Not only will the game be upscaled to fit your level, the level cap will increase after you finish the game. It's also good to play the hardcore or insane difficulty level, since combat will become that much harder, interesting and rewarding. Part of ME is a tactical third person shooter. There's a cover mechanic that slows the pace of the combat down and gives it the breathing room for the actual tactics. In addition to this there's a pause function! Which allows you give orders to your team mates about. A game mechanic that goes way back when RPG's were at the isometric stage of their evolution, and has lost none of it's brilliance. The opposition is hard so don't expect to barge in, shoot every bad guy in the face and walk away unscathed. If you don't take cover you'll probably get one hit killed by an enemy sniper or rocket. Only as the game reaches the crescendo at the end will you feel like a right bad-ass about to lay down the law, stamping peons left and right.

The main quest is clearly outlined, and you can get on with things rather quickly, there's no real need to do any of the side-quests. So you could blast through the story as if it were a regular shooter. I'll admit that's not quite how it was intended to be played but the option's there. You're free to take your ship and zip around the galaxy as you see fit. Side-quests will show you the broader scoop of the universe, and tell stories that don't directly relate to the main storyline. There are quests about your companions, investigating companies, crimes, abductions, extortion, crime syndicates, you name it.
There's even the downloadable content "bring down the sky", which takes place on an asteroid on it's way to crash into a planet. It's a shame Bioware hasn't released more DLC for the game. Since this one was of premium quality if rather short. It has a lot of fun combat scenes. Some moral choices and in the end, there's even a special item loot reward.

"But what about the flaws of this masterpiece?" I can hear many of you ask. Well, there are a few, but none of these are game breakers, but some rather archaic ways of dealing with things. Like the inventory system. It's taken right out of KOTOR. That is to say, all your inventory items are shown in one, big, long list. If your list is crammed with items, you'll loose oversight. This is all rather mind boggling since KOTOR2 had fixed the Kotor inventory simply by adding tabbed sorting options. Like Weapons, armour, upgrades, miscellaneous, etc.
Anyway, a lot of your weapons and items will be replaced by newer, more powerful versions. So you'll want to sell all the old crap after every sortie anyway. A inventory purge might take some setting up every mission, but in the long run, you'll be glad you did. It won't only save you time and fill up your coffers but it'll also guarantee you've got all the latest equipment. Comparing items has been made easy since there is an on the fly statistics comparison. With colours. Red means bad, Yellow means good. This also goes for weapon and armour upgrades too. Of which every armourset and weapon has a few slots for.
But the most frustration I had was with the driving sections. Not that driving is bad in itself, but a few of the planets you're driving on are ridiculous. Apparently some planets in our galaxy have landscapes with mountains that look like they were drawn by a 5 year old. Imagine a military troop transport climbing a 75 degree mountainside. At times I would really hate mountaingoating with the thing. Of course, there were some designated areas where the designers clearly intended for you to ride. But in my logic the shortest route from point A to point B still is a straight line. Even if it means scaling mount Zork.

ME is an innovative game for a number of reasons. And while these are not the sole reasons for playing the game, it would be good if people took note. The production values are unlike any you'll see for some time. The game is polished, the story and universe work, there are no annoying inconsistencies. This makes the ME universe so believable. The animation is clearly motion captured, and to great effect. Characters tilt their head, blink when their eyes move, shift their stance, make gestures while talking. Sometimes they will almost move out of frame. All of this makes them look very much alive. There's next to no sign of the Uncanny Vally effect. Of course, having aliens talk further bypasses the effect. That's not to say that these characters are photo realistic, there's a subtle styling, like the shading in the GTA4 concept drawings. Which ensures the game will keep looking good.
The soundtrack is impressive too. Synthesizer sounds done in a good way. Winking to Vangelis and the blade runner soundtrack. Let's not mention the voice acting in this game, it's so good that it warrants it's own blog post. Suffice to say, there's some A-grade voice talent in ME. Jeniffer Hale, Seth Green, Lance Henriksen, Marina Sirtis, Raphael Sbarge are some of the better known names.
Bioware has made a good innovation with the dialog wheel. It gives oversight and quick selection, which keeps the dialogs at a steady pace. I hope this feature makes it into future RPG's. It's so much faster and dynamic then the usual "list of answers". It also adds to the cinematic feel of the dialogs, in which the camera cuts to different viewing angles. Keeping it interesting to look at. Options are there to drag conversations out, but these are hardly mandatory.

ME is a third person action RPG. So it ditches some pure RPG burdens. For instance. Every character in your team has 4 weapons at it's disposal. The Pistol, Assault Rifle, Shotgun and Sniper Rifle. These are, like in an FPS, freely selectable. So you won't be digging into your inventory and swapping weapons out on your paper doll. You'll be selecting weapons suited to the tactical situation. This might seem like a trivial thing, but some modern "shooter-RPGs" haven't leaned this. I'm looking at you Fallout 3. Even Kotor2 had two different weapons sets... The controls and combat system are fluent, and characters feel like as if they have some weight to them. Another example is the statistic screen. In ME you won't be adding points to strength, dexterity, intelligence etc. Every class has a distinct talent tree and you'll be adding points to those. Your ability to, for instance, hit an opponent will be determined to how good you can aim and shoot. However, your ability to aim and shoot is influenced to how steady you can hold your weapon. Thus, Adding points to your sniper rifle talent tree will lessen the sway with the rifle, increasing your accuracy. Of course it will also increase the damage. Weapon mods can further influence these statistics, or grant side effects like a poison or burn status.

I think it's safe to say that Mass Effect has become one of my favorite games ever. It's up there next to Sacrifice. It's become a comfort game and nostalgia will have me coming back in years to come. It's like a book you read once a year. It will make me play my characters through the insane difficulty. I only hope my skills will keep up when the time comes. I can't wait for more Mass Effect titles. Be it games, books or movies. I hope Bioware and it's writers continue to pursue and expand the Mass Effect universe. Because, frankly it stands above the likes of Star Wars and The Matrix.

Game of the year 2008. Surpassing among others: Bioshock, CoD4, Orange Box, Kotor2, Crysis Warhead, Company of Heroes. Now, on to another game where I can be a moral reject. Fallout 3, here I come.

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