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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Review: Mass Effect

Mass Effect could benefit from more corridor combat. The shooter - a genre with which Mass Effect clumsily flirts - is oft criticised for its use of corridors to channel the player from one point to another. Bioware's new-found territory has people-funnels in abundance, yet, like the oilfields of Nigeria, Mass Effect's resources are misused by those who have taken charge of development. For example, rather than coupling claustrophobic corridors with the shock-value of a wall-bursting insect warrior, Bioware have chosen to relegate the man-shafts to the role of safe zone, and conversely every (disfunctionally common) lobby area predictably becomes an arena. Safe zones provide a welcome respite and a chance to save progress - there's no saving during combat, or even if there's a faint whiff of enemy - yet as only the deranged would deem Mass Effect a linear game, I would have expected Bioware to take advantage of the immediate quality-of-life benefits a modern corridor can offer.

With all major travel-tube related gripes out of the way, it's time introduce those unfamiliar with the game to its premise. It's a lot like Spore's creature creator, in that you take into your hands a lump of un-loveable clay (that's the guy on the box art, by the way) and mould him into an irreplaceable urn of great unfurling depth, history, and insight, or even into a girl. Soon, your evolutionarily triumphant Adonis will be in space, dominating lesser species (if you chose to be a carnivore/Renegade) or helping them out, perhaps by dancing (as a herbivore/Paragon). I ended up as somewhat of an omnivore, and Mass Effect excels in that it allows you to be both a Paragon and a Renegade - there's no arbitrary dichotomy between good and evil to be found here - and you might even find yourself sympathising or disagreeing with your friend over what constitutes Mass Effect's 'baddies'.

An online friend and myself reached consensus on the issue of AI teammate pathfinding when Steve remarked, "I wanted to summarily execute them quite a lot". Your buddies will both get stuck on objects and on occasion they'll refuse to budge from an unobstructed spot, seemingly disillusioned by the realities of space war. Perhaps Wrex - the token Klingon-alike character - expected blood, guts, and the horror (the horror), rather than the clinical character of this resurrections all round future fracas. Frustratingly, friendly fire is disabled.

Frustration was not the only emotion Mass Effect evoked in me. Melancholic moments froze me - Wrex like - with dejection. I'll reveal a minor (easily-missed) experience to you, but the most heart-wrenching hinge on your own decisions and will act as great engineering works on the flow of Mass Effect's Mississipi. I found myself on a planet under siege, ack-ack wounding the sky as synthetic troops assailed barely entrenched colonists. The dead lay underfoot, so it was to my surprise that I noticed one fallen fellow's gaze tracking my movements. I approached him and at that moment he was extinguished. I didn't realise this immediately, I'd assumed he was placed there to set up a 'fetch me 7 pints of blood' mission, so I did a silly dance, circumnavigating his cooling corpse in an effort to see his neck spring into swivelly action once more. Then, the event I'd just witnessed sunk in. I moved on, my resolve to thwart the siege hardened. Conversely, I felt a pang of anger directed at Bioware when an opportunity to free indentured torture victims was stolen from me as a single jail cell was unopenable, dooming the aliens within - this is not acceptable in a game you're claiming to be superior to a console port, Bioware! And while I remain full of ire: there isn't enough of a visual impact as a result of player decisions - when I restore a colony's desperately-needed water supply, I want to see the colonists quenching their thirsts when I return to town, Bioware! BIOWARE!

Because we don't yet live in The Future, Mass Effect's facial animation and general graphics wondrousness remain only close-to-perfect. Though generally 'awesome' is both an applicable and mandatory description for many of the game's panoramas and bleepy-bloopy Star Trek Original Series deco interiors, facial animation can't quite escape the ugly Scottish ravine. Disturbingly, the transition between characters' facial animations is handled rather haphazardly, the result being what appears to be a cast of incredibly nervous people who suffer from anxious tics whenever you speak to them.

It's a shame that this is one of those games which refuses to cooperate with 'return to Windows' commands, because the music is just terrible - the tracks are short but unfortunately they repeat. I prematurely ended each of my visits to Normandy (an Earth Alliance frigate and one of Mass Effects' hub areas) because my cochlea couldn't cope with another plinky-plonky soundwave collision.

The game has been played, the plinks, plonks, bleeps and bloops have been tallied, and we have a verdict. Mass Effect isn't the groundbreaking game I'd hoped it would be - it remains a accomplished RPG with a terrible inventory and fantastic graphics. The graphics and the inventory cancel each other out, leaving gamers with a good RPG that almost any gamer will enjoy.

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