Review: Video Game: Mass Effect

July 17, 2009

The review I write of any piece of art is going to focus more heavily on the narrative aspects of the work because that is what I am interested in. All media has some sort of narrative, whether it’s a simple or understated one, like in a painting, or complex and fully fleshed out, like most books. If you’ve kept up with this blog, then you know that I expect video games will be the primary means of artistic expression in another generation or two, just as movies have replaced books for the majority of the population. Bioware has made a good effort of shuffling this process along by releasing Mass Effect.

The opening title screen is what sets the mood. A slow, synth-orchestrated intro of a sun rising over a view of a planet from orbit, with the title slowly fading in. My first thoughts were “Blade Runner” due to the sublimely sublimated soundtrack. It continues to get better through the entire game. The voice acting for the different player and non player characters is superb as well, compared to games, and acceptable when compared with movies.

Graphics are good, with minor loading issues that eventually fill in as you enter areas.

The game play is good. Combat feels like a slower paced third person shooter, but it can be hard to determine what is going on around you unless you constantly pause the combat. At the end of the game, I was able to single-shot kill most enemies with an upgraded shotgun, and I skipped some of the larger side missions. The game deserves a derogatory mention of the way you collect weapons and armor from enemies and manage the resulting inventory. I couldn’t program it, but I could think of 10 different ways that other games have handled it better. The elevators are clever disguises for loading screens, but due to the inability to do anything inside of them, they are just as sharp of a break in the experience.

The main bread and butter of this review is the narrative and dialogue system. First, the narrative.

There is a slight build up of escalating mission goals with Shepard, a special military agent, leading a hunt for a rogue agent, which slowly turns into an epic “save the civilized galaxy” story. But like the best dramas, the plot is somewhat inconsequential. The secret to most good narratives is the characters that the plot works around, and while the nature of the primary character that the player controls is somewhat malleable, it is the group of other adventurers that accompany Shepard that shine.

The female Chief Petty Officer with a family history she’s living down in the military; the wanna-be tough cop Turian who can’t respect the rules; the wandering Quarian who has to find something before returning home; the Krogan who is the last of a dying species and working for whoever pays; the naive anthropologist looking for the nurturing relationship her mother couldn’t give her; the Lieutenant who has to come to grips with the limitations he has placed upon himself; all these characters are enough for individual short stories, and Bioware takes its time and spends considerable resources fleshing each one of these people out. The result is a rich tableau of interconnecting stories, even amongst a galactic backdrop. Bioware is concerned with the villains as much as it is the protagonists, as the enemy agent, Seran, has a fascinating story and psyche that is revealed through clever cut scenes and interaction.

The game requires you to weigh the needs of one companion against the other. For example, one time you are forced to make the choice on which person, who, after this much time together you would call most of your companions friends, you have to volunteer for a possible suicide mission. If or when a character dies, you feel the loss and your other companions deal with it as well, either through viewing your subsequent actions differently, or supporting you.  The game is not afraid to have plots that don’t end happily, or some which are never completely resolved, which gives a feeling that there is more going on in the galaxy than even one extraordinary person with a space ship full of extraordinary help can accomplish. This is a good thing.

Also notable is the considerable amount of pregenerated history and lore the game comes packaged with through the use of a Codex or in game encyclopedia. The characters talk about their surroundings, history, life styles, and other people as if they were real people. Bioware’s money on hiring a “professional” writer to flesh out the timelines, details, and “fluff” necessary to create a believable world is well spent.  Obviously Bioware is setting this up for a trilogy, as stated in press releases. Other media, who have not taken this much effort to create the setting in which the story takes place, have watched their sequels ring hollow as the continuous “make it up as we go along” approach results in an unweildly narrative with a reliance on plot devices to close holes, instead of believable decisions by the characters.

The dialogue system, I’m sure, will be incorporated into future Bioware products quickly, due to the ease of use the system brings to dialogue. A small circle with choice appears at the bottom of the screen with various selections that indicate the general nature of the response Shepard will actually give. An example is necessary. During a hostage negotiation, Shepard can respond a couple of ways. The choices available to you are “You don’t have to do this.” “Can we talk this out?” “Go ahead, I don’t care.” What he actually says, is “Just put the gun down, let the hostages go, there are other ways to deal with this problem,” or, “Let’s talk about this. Tell me what we can do to resolve this so no one gets hurt,” or, “Shove it, bad guy. I don’t care if you blow their brains out or not, I’m still going to kill you afterwards.”

This system works 99% of the time, with the occasional “No” turning into an angry retort you didn’t expect, or a “Yes” being said with more sarcasm, and offending someone you didn’t mean to. Regardless, the system works more than most of the time and makes the dialogue interesting since you are not hearing Shepard re-speak the exact words you just read. This keeps conversations more interesting than in some games, and provides an immersion that there is a real narrative that your character is an actor in the events with real decisions, not just a puppet on strings for some omniscient player.

In whole, Mass Effect was a wonderful experience for the 32 hours it took me to finish. I did two thirds of the optional content,  and could have spent another six hours in the universe if I chose, but unfortunately many of the side missions are a bit repetitive. If you focus on just the character driven ones, instead of the “random ship is hit by random pirates. Go investigate at random point,” then your experience will be a bit shorter than mine.

I am anxiously awaiting Mass Effect 2 which has been announced. The characters and story are well above the average, and I hadn’t had this much fun in a role playing game since Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer. It mixes the best elements of Blade Runner’s exploration of humanity, Star Wars’ space opera, and Star Trek’s exploration of possible futures within an interactive experience that none of those movies could provide in their native media format.

I recommend Mass Effect to anyone with a computer or XBox 360 who enjoys a great story, role playing games, science fiction, or easy shooters.

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