Saturday, May 23, 2009

Mass Effect (PC)

As my Xbox360 purchase has been put on hold yet again, kind of indefinitely this time, I went with the PC version of Mass Effect. Unlike Bioshock Mass Effect does not support a gamepad, so I had to go with mouse and keyboard, which however worked quite fine, as the UI of Mass Effect has been changed quite a bit to work well with mouse and keyboard.

The game puts you in the shoes of Shepard on a quest to save the galaxy. RPG typical you can create a custom character at the start of the game and as always I chosed to pretty much skip that step and go with one of the provided default character. I never quite understood what the point is of having the choice happen before the game and not actually in the game itself, as is for example the case in Gothic 2. Having to make a choice about your characters abilites before the game even starts is not only time consuming and annoying it also forces you to make descisions about powers and abilities that you have no idea about how they will influence story and gameplay. Its bad game design that has its place in western RPGs for way to long and I would strongly prefer it if games would just skip it and leave customization to the gameplay itself.

Once beyond the character creation the game actually starts and luckily leaves most of other RPG issues aside. The fighting in Mass Effect is not just third person shooter like, its pretty much a straight third person shooter, including cover mechanic and tactical commands for your squad members and it plays suprisingly well. The fighting is also seamlessly inegrated into your normal gameplay, so you can pull your weapon whenever you like.

Aside from walking on foot you also have a vehicle at your disposal, which seems to be a 3D version of that thing you drove in Moon Patrol, with which you do exploration on other planets. Driving around in the Mako is a little less perfect then the shooting, as that vehicle seems to be pretty much weightless and it bounces around like crazy when you hit an obstacle, but it does its job very well of giving the game some varity and scale.

While all that driving around and shooting is lots of fun, the game however has some really annoying problems with the way it handles death. The first one is that you can die really quickly in this game, some death are instant one-hit kills, if you don't dodge a blast you are dead. Which by itself wouldn't be that bad, but combined with the lack of proper auto-save, unskipable cutscenes and a terribly long death animation slowmo can get extremely annoying. The game also does not allow saving while in the mid of a fight. So you are basically stuck with retrying the same fight over and over again till you figured out what kills you and how to avoid it. The good thing however is that you can toggle the games difficulty at any time, thus basically reducing the one-hit kills to simple shots that destroy most of your shields, but let you life, thus giving you the needed time to properly plan the attack and evasion. On the "Casual" setting the game is really easy and those issues pretty much never arrive, but on the higher difficulty they can be pretty much game breakers.

The dialogs are another huge part of this game. Mass Effect features an innovative dialog wheel that along with great character art gives the game a cinematic feel. The dialog wheel unlike normal dialog selection always pops up before the last line of dialog has ended, so you can smoothly chain dialog together without interruption. Similar to Kotor the dialog in Mass Effect features good, neutral, evil choices for dialog, which happen to be mapped to the top and bottom part of the wheel and thus allows easy selection without convusion.

The dialog wheel is however not without problems. One small issue is that there is a noticable disconnect between what your character says and what is displayed as choice on the wheel. Due to the good/neutral/evil answers that is never really a practical problem, but it often feels unnecessarily confusing. Another issue is that already selected dialog options aren't removed from the list of available selection, thus leading to accidental repetitions of dialog, made worse by the lack of a proper skip button. You can skip dialog by pressing space, but as space also happens to trigger the next dialog line you might end up accidentially selecting an option instead of skipping dialog, it would have helped if those two functions would be on separate keys.

The bigger problem however is the dialog itself. The good/evil separation causes the dialog to always be flat and predicable, you hardly ever need to chose an answer, instead you just go with the default depending on if you play good or evil. The dialog also just goes a little to smooth, if you select the good answer, the result will pretty much always be good, unexpected consequences just never happen in the whole game. The dialog also happens to be a little to exposatory for its own good, you can asks almost every character about their backstory, the universe and everything and they will happily chatter along. But while you might gain some information that way, thats just not how dialog should work, you are talking to a character after all not an encyclopedia.

Another big issue with the dialog system is that the choices you have available are the result of your RPG stats, if you don't have invested any points in Charm, you won't have a certain answer available. That doesn't sound so bad by itself, but it caused the game to basically run into a brick wall for me a few times, when the lack of choice means that you can't actually say what you want to say and the dialog thus gets into a loop. There was a key scene in the game where I had to basically had to decide about the life or death of an NPC and the lack of choices predetermined the outcome for no good reason. This was hugely annoying and frustrating. Luckily I had a few level points left, could use an earlier save and invest everything in Charm and thus go past that point with a satisfying selection, but it was a huge immersion breaker non the less and feelt just utterly arbitary dialog restriction. Similar issues happened before a few times, but luckily after having maxed out Charme those issues where completly gone and the dialog become much more enjoyable.

In terms of overall story the game is a bit of a mixed bag, it starts out interesting and it ends in a great final, but what happens in between feels a little arbitrary and disconnected. There are to many quests that have little to do with the main plot and feel like a waste of the characters time. A story that basically consists of a race against time just isn't the best place to put random side quests and exploration into.

One thing I liked quite a bit was the decryption mini-game, which is used to open some crates to get the items within. The game happens to be basically a circular version of Frogger, where you start on the outer ring and have to move your cursor to the center while obstacles rotate around and a clock ticks down. What makes the game work is that it provides a good amount intensity for the few seconds it takes to solve it. The controls also happen to be very simple and direct, so if something goes wrong it is basically always your fault, not the games one. It is so far the best mini-game I have seen of its kind. Mini-games in most other games almost always ended up being to boring or chumbersome to use and took the intensitivy out of the game, instead of increasing it (see Bioshock).

While much the above might all sound quite negative, my final take on the game is however pretty much nothing but positive. The game picks bits and pieces from the RPG genre, Gears of War, Full Spectrum Warrior, Moon Patrol, Star Control 2 and plenty of more and combines them into and absolutely awesome epic space adventure game. For all the faults that the game has, there are simple enough workarounds that lets you enjoy the game to its fullest. The dialog might not always be as gripping and interesting as in the best adventure games out there, but thanks to the terrific character art and voice acting it is still way more interesting then your average RPG. Not each piece might be the best you can find in its genre, but the simple fact is that there just isn't anything that combines as much as Mass Effect does. There just isn't another shooter around that also gives you great dialog and free space exploration.

My first play through the game took around 16h, focusing pretty much only on the main quest and that was fun enough, but the game really truely gripped me when I went back and sank another 10h into it doing each and every side quest I could find. The combination of old school exploration gameplay with modern day shooting and dialog is simply something that absolutely clicked for me and I didn't have that much fun with any game in quite a long long while.

Update: I played through the game now again for a second time, this time choosing the adapt class instead of soldier and going mostly with evil choices in dialog instead of the good ones. Overall it doesn't really change much, most of the quests you get stay exactly the same and even if you reject a quest in the dialog you will often still get it into your journal, as the game doesn't really allow you to be a bad guy. Some of the adapt powers seem kind of useless, lifting hardly ever worked and stasis seemed pointless, throw and singularity on the other side, when leveled up to the max, could be kind of fun. The assault rifle however continued to work best in fights. I however did discover a tiny few quests that I have missed the first time around and I learned that the licenses you can buy in shops are actually useful, as they increase how many grenade and medigels you can carry. On my first play through I pretty much completly ignored the shops and thus licenses. The shops themselves however still feel overall useless, aside from the licenses there really is never anything interesting to buy, as the gear you will find in random container is good enough and gear in shops always way to expensive. Another thing I learned that its a good idea to switch of the auto-leveling for your teammates, as that will allow you to increase their electronics and decryption skills which you need to gather items from containers.

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