Mass Effect

I’ve been a long time fan of Computer RPGs. I’ve played many an epic pixel-fest in my time. Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape Torment, Knights of the Old Republic and the Elder Scrolls series have all graced my various computer screens over the years. I am, in particular a fan of the old-school, isometric computer rpgs. There was a generation of computer rpgs that embraced plot and character above all else. This was their main source of praise and damnation, depending on who you were talking to. Fans loved the depth of story and detractors complained that they were ugly and boring. I fell into the fan camp. Fallout and Planescape Torment are two excellent examples of this era of gaming. You had the opportunity to create a unique character, with a realistic personality and an expansive, open-ended world in which your actions had serious consequences (and occasionally rewards). This is not to say that every game of this ilk was any good (Icewind Dale was a dull slog of combat and snow) but, for a while there, we had a run of computer roleplaying games that actually allowed you to roleplay.

The perceptive among you will note that two of the games listed above, Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic, were created by the good folks at Bioware and another, Planescape Torment, was created using Bioware’s Infinity Engine. “What the hell does that have to do with anything”, I hear you bray? Wel, our old friends at Bioware are back and they are back with a vengeance. The latest offering from Bioware is the epic, science fiction saga Mass Effect.

I have had some trouble with videos playing, so you can also veiw it here.

Ok, so the voice-over is a bit hammy but it’s a launch trailer and they’re trying to sell something but there are a few things about this clip you should know. The first thing you should know is that all of the visuals are in-game graphics. The second thing you should know is that a puny little youtube clip doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of illustrating how amazing this game looks in full HD on a nice big LCD screen at 1400×1050 resolution. The level of detail and 3D rendering is astounding. This incredible graphic detail and loving animation is crucial to Mass Effect’s success and level of immersion. But I’m getting ahead of myself, before you can appreciate quite what this game does to me we need to talk a little about its character creation process.

If a roleplaying game is one in which you take the role of a character then surely one of the fundamental components of any roleplaying is the process in which you create your character. Now, this might seem elementary, but you’d be amazed how many games seem to miss this. A prime example is The Witcher in which you’re simply ‘the witcher’ and, from the get-go, you have no say in your character’s abilities or (perhaps more importantly) personality. Now that’s all well and good if I’m interested in playing a misogynist, mutant, monster-slayer who talks with his sword, but what if I want to play a compassionate, pure-bred, sissy who talks with his vocal chords? The answer is, in the case of games like The Witcher, I’m screwed.

Straight off the bat, Mass Effect scores big points for its character creation process. First of all there are 6 basic kinds of character you can play: Soldier, Engineer, Adept, Infiltrator, Sentinel, and Vanguard. Basically you can be really good at fighting, manipulating technology or biotics (or as it should be called, but isn’t for copyright reasons, ‘the force’). Alternatively you can be mediocre at two things. This business of being able to select your character’s specialty is nothing special in computer rpgs and any of them worth their salt will have it, so I won’t dwell on it. Next the game asks you three questions about you character’s background. This is a really nice feature because not only do you have a say on your character’s past and psychological makeup, your answers to these questions affect the way other characters in the game react to you and opens up some quests specific to your background. This is another element that greatly adds to the ease of immersion within the game world. People and events around you refer to your character based on your preferences for the kind of guy (or gal) you want to portray.

The really impressive thing about character creation in this game, however, is the degree to which you can sculpt your character’s appearance. You can completely change your facial structure, skin colour, facial hair etc. Now, I know what you’re going to say, “That’s nothing new, why, Oblivion did that just last year!”. To put it bluntly, you’re wrong. What you mean to say is “Oblivion tried to do that and failed so miserably I wanted to cry because the character I ended up with was a horrible monster whose mother would sooner club it to death with a red-hot poker than love it.” While Oblivion allowed you to morph the features of your character the facial structures didn’t conform to any kind of real human parameters and it was very hard to create a character that looked like a human being. Mass Effect succeeds because every character I’ve made has looked like a completely believable, convincing human being. The textures, lighting and bone structure are so amazing that you can create a face which looks equally realistic in any skin tone. At one end of the spectrum I was being stared down by a cold, hard, space brother and at the other I was faced by a mean, stubbled, space-whitey.

So, bearing all this in mind, by the time we reach the game we are presented with a beautiful in-game cinematic sequence starring the charcter we just made, down to the finest detail. Elements of the history we created are woven into the plot and we are introduced to our character’s place in the setting. By the end of this sequence we’re completely immersed in the game and ready to kick some galactic-arse as we explore the universe. This is what roleplaying games are about. Playing a character you’re excited about in an amazing setting.

To further enhance this all of the dialogue and cinematics are lovingly rendered with the in-game engine and presented in wide-screen, starring the character that you created and not some pregenerated jerk. Dialogue plays a huge role in this game. You’re choices in what you say have an impact on what happens in the game, the way other characters relate to you and even allows you to apply skills you gain over the corse of the game (such as charm, intimidate and diplomacy). The interactions between all of the characters in the game (including yours) is a delight. The voice acting and character animation convey real emotion and result in an incredibly cinematic gameplay experience. Unlike nearly every computer roleplaying game I’ve played, in Mass Effect you feel like the star of a classic feature film. It plays like a golden era Science Fiction novel with you at the centre of the action. The characters, setting and dialogue are all incredibly convincing (especially the aliens which look real).

People have complained that there is too much dialogue in the game but, frankly, they’re missing the point. If you want a quality shooter you’re playing the wrong game. This isn’t to say that the combat in Mass Effect isn’t fun, it’s a hell of alot of fun, but if you want non-stop action unfettered by all that pesky talking then get Gears of War or Crisis or any of the miriad of First Person Shooters out there. Don’t assume that the only application for quality 3D graphics is the wholesale destruction of countless foes and interactive environments. Mass Effect proves that games have the the potential to be powerful, story driven and visually stunning all at once and is serious ammunition for the “games as art” argument. If you enjoy computer roleplaying games (or for that matter, pen and paper roleplaying games) then I strongly recommend you purchase Mass Effect.

Those interested can compare Mass Effect prices here.

(This is not a paid advertisement, I just really want people to purchase this game to encourage Bioware to make more)

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~ by Morgan on August 10, 2008.

5 Responses to “Mass Effect”

  1. What strange universal chemistry is at play, Mr Bread! On a recent trip to Wales with my partner (whom is a lecturer in computer games) on a grant he had to “research” with a collegue at an art/design school there, i became a Mass Effect widow – 30 hours I sat through! They were also besotted with it, and I believe are writing an academic paper on it as we speak… you are totally totally not alone in your feeling that this game is something different, although that may just mean its only the three of you now šŸ™‚

    keep writing! lovely lovely blog!

  2. […] may have gathered from my review of Mass Effect that I’m one of those irritating people who thinks that there may be more to Video Games than […]

  3. I bought the game, partially because of your comments Morgan. Unfortunately, Bioware seems to be bogged down by it’s Dungeons and Dragons origins. I was disappointed that they kept the same old levels, xp, hit points, etc. model. Also the physics environment was pretty klunky. While playing this game, I kept wishing that they had taken a bit of inspiration from the Bioshock design team.

    What I was expecting from this game, and what hopefully another design company will achieve with a game in the future, is the following.

    – No loading times or levels
    – No cut scenes
    – No funny skips (e.g. in and out of the ATV)
    – No character management screens
    – Way less equipment and more value placed on individual pieces (you could go through all of Bioshock with the original spanner!)
    – NPCs who make their own decisions about equipment and tactics

    Basically, I think that all that traditional RPG stuff gets in the way of a good game experience these days. RPG and FPS is blending, to the advantage of both genres.

  4. The thing that I most enjoyed about Mass Effect was its cinematic presentation. I liked the cutscenes, dialogue and NPC interactions. In fact, because of the immersive, cinematic flow of narrative I really didn’t pay much attention to the engine. It was sufficient to shoot some bugs and baddies but, on the whole, was secondary to the narrative.

    This is what is special about Mass Effect. I appriciated a game which placed story and character above action. Having said that, I didn’t notice any of the gameplay problems that others seem to…

  5. […] may have gathered from my review of Mass Effect that I’m one of those irritating people who thinks that there may be more to Video Games than […]

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