Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mass Effect

One of my Christmas gifts was a $15 GameStop gift card, and it just so happened that used copies of Mass Effect were in the $15 bin (since new copies are now retailing for $20).

Mass Effect is a gratuitous sex simulator, where you get to choose between heterosexual or lesbian scenes that you are then able to act out in detail, with full-frontal nudity and…

Whoops, sorry, was channeling Fox News there for a moment.

Mass Effect is an RPG set in a time where humans have recently begun to colonize the galaxy and are taking their place in an alliance of alien races. Your character, Commander Shepard, ends up gaining notice of the ruling council and is enlisted into the elite corps of soldiers, the "Spectres". Your initial mission as a Spectre is to track down a rogue Spectre who is conspiring to bring an ancient race of terrorist warriors to destroy the galaxy, or something like that.

Along the way, you pick up side missions and quests that add players to your party. You can pick two from your retinue to accompany you at any given time. Achievements exist for completing the game using particular people for the majority of the game, requiring replay for all the achievement points.

As referenced above, Mass Effect got some press a year or so ago for their inclusion of a sex scene. General opinions about Fox News aside, this was completely absurd. Why BioWare didn't sue for libel, I don't know, as the reports went from mere exaggeration to outright fabrication. There's no "full frontal nudity", for one thing. For another, it's not a "simulation" in that the player controls it; it's a cutscene, which for someone not familiar with videogames means a prerendered video (or sometimes realtime-rendered by the game engine, as is increasingly common these days with more powerful consoles) that the player can only watch, not control. As far as what's shown, it's no worse than what you'd see on a daytime soap opera. Now, as a relatively conservative Christian, I will say it's probably a little more than I care to see in a videogame (or a daytime television show for that matter), but considering this is part of a Mature-rated game, I don't think it's out of place.

Except for the fact that the whole romance subplot feels out of place. The proponents of Mass Effect's intimacy liked to build up the fact that the "sex scene" isn't just haphazardly thrown in for the sake of having a sex scene — it's the culmination of the romantic interaction you have with the character over the course of the game. However, the lines of dialog that seem to have any basis in romance just seem… forced. I don't know if it's bad writing or if it's Mark Meer's flat delivery of the lines (when I expressed this in the Geezer Gamers forum, others commented that the female Shepard voiced by Jennifer Hale is much more flirty and animated), but it just fails to grab me emotionally. When confronted by a female character who professes the need to talk about our relationship, all I can think is, "Why?" When Shepard says "I feel the same way about you," I can't tell if he's feeling romantic or feeling like heading to the mess hall for a pizza.

The story world is fairly well detailed. Following in Halo's footsteps, books have been released to expand the universe. Authored by the game's lead writer Drew Karpyshyn, they provide an interesting (if optional) expansion on the game's story. At this point, I've only read the prequel novel, Revelation. It's very interesting to see events unfold in the novel that are touched upon in the game. In games, you often have to take your environment and situation for granted, with perhaps the most rudimentary backstory to set it up. Karpyshyn does a great job detailing the backstory and giving it life, making this passing "oh yeah, you're doing this because of some past event" moments in Mass Effect's main quest seem more real. It also adds a little flavor to some of the side quests, as you have a greater understanding as to why a race might behave a certain way and might need help defending against another. (The second book, Ascension, takes place after Mass Effect, so although the audiobook is on my MP3 player, I'm not listening to it until after I complete the game at least once.)

Mass Effect plays a lot like BioWare's previous epic, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. It is primarily an RPG. You spend the majority of your time walking or driving around, talking to people or looking for items. Combat, however, is a little closer to an RTS, although Mass Effect brings it a little closer to even an TPS. You and the selected members of your team have certain strengths and weaknesses, and presumably you pick and choose companions that give your party the right balance for the task at hand. (Or, if you're going for the "complete the majority of the game using character 'X'" achievement, you pick that one every time.) When in battle, you control Shepard in a TPS mode, and your companions start to do their own thing. You can, however, hold the bumpers, and that freezes the action and lets you order yourself or your teammates to use your special biotic powers, switch weapons, move, or attack targets.

One major complaint I have is that every command you give your team is done from your point of view, which means if you can't see the target, you can't order your teammates to hit it. I suppose if you consider that you are Shepard, it makes a little sense. You can tell your companions to be aggressive or defensive in their abilities, and if they see an enemy they will react how they see fit. Still, I definitely prefer the Knights of the Old Republic mechanic a little better, where you could switch off and "become" another member of your party and see what they saw (even if it does take you "out of character").

The missions are your typical RPG fare — explore this planet, carry this message, find these people, and kill any bad guys along the way. If a character implies that a mission must be done "urgently" or "right away", that really means "whenever you decide to get around to it". For me, that means spending a lot of extra time exploring and doing side quests instead of plowing straight down the main storyline. What can I say? When I play a game like this, I like to feel like I've seen everything there is and didn't miss something because I was in too big a hurry to get to the end. Besides, the side quests help buff my character for the main quests, so I'm not outmatched when I come across the next "big boss".

It can be frustrating when you come across a fight that you're not ready for, as it's not always entirely clear what you're ready for and where enemies of various strengths lie. Did I die because my tactics were wrong? Or are these guys just 30 levels above me? Where do I find enemies closer to my level anyway? But a very liberal save system (you can save at any time, as long as you're not in battle) makes it much easier to manage and backtracking less painful — as long as you remember to take advantage of it. And again, if after a couple tries you find that this area of bad guys is not for you until your character has properly leveled up, there's nothing that's forcing you to do that mission right now — you can leave the area without penalty (as far as I've noticed) and come back however long it takes later when you're ready.

BioWare, I feel, did a decent job with scale. The galaxy and the planets you explore all feel very large, but in "reality" they are a lot smaller than they seem, as the number of places you can actually go is very constrained. I did feel a touch disappointed when I realized this, but I've quickly come to appreciate it. I at once feel the vastness of the area I'm in, and yet I feel in control, not lost.

One common complaint that's been the brunt of many a joke on the internet is the loading times. There are a lot of them, and they are long. BioWare tried to make them mildly interesting by making them happen in elevators, and trying to make something happen in those elevators — dialog between characters, or news reports reflecting quests or events you just completed. It adds very little to the game (although I guess if you have to have a loading screen, dialog is better than a progress bar?), and the game is now coded to require this elevator ride of at least a certain duration. So, if you were to, say, install the game to your hard drive, you'd find your time spent on the elevator (especially the one on the ship, the Normandy, that appears to be powered by an overweight hamster in a rusty exercise wheel, and contains no news speaker or talkative companions to pass the time) doesn't decrease at all.

I finally finished the main story (which is why I'm finally getting around to making this blog post live). I definitely enjoyed it, especially when I got my stats up to the point where I was actually halfway decent in a combat situation. I also started a second playthrough (achievements of course), and by restarting the campaign with the same character, you can start off with the same stats and equipment you ended the last game with. I don't know if I'll be able to finish all the achievements in time for Mass Effect 2, but it'll be fun to try. :)

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