The PC edition of Bioware's sci-fi role-playing game is about six months unfashionably late to the Mass Effect party, but we can forgive it because it has been taking the time to make itself really presentable. More than just a down and dirty port, Mass Effect for PC comes with some minor mechanical improvements to address many of the issues that plagued its Xbox 360 counterpart. The final product is a competent third-person shooter with many of Bioware's trademark RPG elements, rich in plot, heavy in dialogue and highly recommended for all fans of epic science fiction sagas.
Full credit goes to Bioware's writing staff for creating a deep and original narrative which, while not always wholly engaging, is at least fleshed out with a ton of detail to create an almost fully realized universe. In the far distant future, humanity has moved out and colonized other worlds and in the process encountered many other sentient alien races who are totally unimpressed by us. They are so unimpressed that they refuse to grant humankind a place on the galactic council, or even a representative in the Spectre squad — a group of highly secretive special operatives who function outside of the official channels to solve tricky problems for the council. As the game begins, the trouble starts when a Spectre goes rogue, kills another agent, hijacks an ancient artifact and leaves an angry robotic army in his wake. Enter you, the elite veteran whose job it is to race around playing "Where in the Milky Way is Carmen San Diego?" by following the breadcrumb trail of mischief and mayhem left across many alien planets by the villain.
This cat-and-mouse story line isn't bad, and there are even some nice twists that veer into hardcore science fiction territory. It's worth it to play Mass Effect all the way through to experience the ending, which is climactic and easily comparable to other celebrated work from the same genre. Overall, Bioware proves that it has the edge when it comes to dramatic storytelling in video games by successfully creating a universe populated with thinking, feeling, multidimensional characters with fairly complex political and racial views and managing to engage players' feelings in a way that's absent from many other games.
On the downside, if you've played any of Bioware's RPGs in the past, for better or worse, you'll be in fairly familiar territory. Predictably, there are certain characters from your party that you'll be able to flirt with to lead to an awkward romantic encounter that feels somewhat out of place and reduces these characters from interesting sidekicks to sexualized prey. Then there's the black-and-white nature of Bioware morality, where you're either the Good Samaritan (Paragon) or a baby puncher (Renegade). Admittedly, given the limits of time and technology, it's admirable that Bioware even allow us this degree of choice, but at the same time, it's frustrating that the nuances of human ethics can be reduced to choice A or choice B. On top of this, unlike their previous games, the choices you make don't even impact the look of your character or the abilities that are granted, so they cease to be significant. To be fair, there are plenty of moments where you must make key decisions with some fairly weighty moral implications, and these prove to be the most satisfying and meaningful moments in the game.
Mass Effect lets you play as the Jane or Joe Generic Hero, but I preferred the alternative on offer, which is the ability to play as Dr. Frankenstein and tailor create my very own look. By adjusting sliders left and right, you can tweak everything about your character's facial appearance from the color of his facial hair to the location of his scars. I ended up with a character looking like the bastard offspring of Lou Diamond Phillips and Keanu Reeves, with a big scar across his chin from when he presumably fell on his face after missing a step while carrying in the groceries.
Once you're satisfied that your character looks sufficiently unlike a child predator and more like someone who would save the entire galaxy, you can choose your class. The usual RPG suspects are cunningly disguised under different names; there are essentially three classes, with three others that are hybrids of the first three. The Soldier is your no-nonsense gun guru, while the Engineer is a hacker-turned-hero who uses his tech abilities to break electronic locks and turn turrets to his advantage. The Adept is the space-faring evolution of your garden variety mage who uses biotics instead of mana to hurl stuff around like a toddler in a tantrum. The class you choose actually has a significant impact on the way you'll play the game because weapons, armor and special abilities are limited for each class in different ways. The customization doesn't stop there either because you can select one of three different autobiographical backgrounds. This isn't just cosmetic because at various points in the game, other characters will inquire nosily about your past, and this is just one of many ways that allows Mass Effect to boast a high replayability factor.
You'd better get used to chatty NPCs, however, because Mass Effect comes with a dialogue script so large that it probably has its own gravity and moons. At every opportunity, characters will divulge the trivial details of their mundane lives to you as if you're a talk show host, and just looking at highlighted objects in the environment creates an information dump into your electronic journal that burgeons to the encyclopedic proportions after only a few hours of gameplay. Of course, bloated conversations are a point of pride in Bioware's RPGs, and if you've played either of the Knights of the Old Republic games or Jade Empire, you'll be fairly used to wading neck-deep through a quagmire of verbal diarrhea. Usually I'm a proponent for quality writing in games, but in this case, less is more, and Mass Effect could really use a dialogue diet to trim down on its excesses. You can of course skip the talky parts and opt to not go on the plethora of optional quests, but you'll inevitably end up feeling like you're shortchanging yourself and missing the point of the game.
When you're not reading yourself to sleep, you'll be blasting your way through diverse alien worlds on your various quests. For the most part, these action sequences work like your standard third-person shooter with WASD keys for movement and the mouse to look, aim and shoot. The easily accessible number keys can be assigned to your various special talents that become unlocked when you spend your experience points on various attributes. These controls are intuitive, work seamlessly, and are apparently a significant improvement on the console controls, giving PC gamers one more reason to gloat to anyone who will listen.
On any mission, you'll always operate with two other squadmates, who you'll get to handpick before you enter a world. Sadly, they prove to be about as useful as a bicycle for a fish. When they're not getting in your way, they're standing behind you and firing into cover points, or worse, at your back because their bargain bin artificial intelligence wasn't programmed to comprehend the idea of maneuvering into a position to get a clear line of fire. They'll spend more time dead on the floor than fighting, unless you choose to use the micromanagement system, which consists of holding the space bar to pause the action and bring up a tactical menu. From here, you can order your squadmates around and force them to use their various abilities on targeted enemies. While this works, it tends to interrupt the flow of gameplay, and I found it more fun and feasible on normal difficulty to play it as a one-man army.
You'd think that having mastered interstellar space flight, humanity and alien-kind would have found the time to create some kick-ass futuristic weaponry, but in Mass Effect, you're equipped with the standard arsenal of pistols, shotguns, assault rifles and sniper rifles, all of which can be pimped out with various upgrades. Despite the above gripes, combat is responsible for the bulk of fun in Mass Effect. You can employ strategic cowardice and use the game's well-implemented cover system to hide behind conveniently placed objects, emerging to take aim with the right mouse button. Combat is generally good-looking too, with plenty of ooh- and ahh-factor special effects, especially when the magic-inspired biotics are used to lift and throw enemies around like the worthless rag dolls they are.
Before you even get to the fun part, however, you need to actually get there, and this is usually accomplished by driving the game's vehicular rover, the Mako, from point A to B. Sadly, it handles like a drunken cow dancing on a pogo stick in the middle of an oil slick. It bounces and slides around incongruously over the bumpy terrain and gives you very little sense of real control. The Mako has a 360-degree gun turret, but the engineers forgot to add the ability to fire up or down at enemies, meaning you'll have to be on more or less level terrain to hit them. You can hit the space bar to use the Mako's vertical jets to jump into the air to avoid oncoming rockets, but this made me feel more like Mario and less like a sci-fi action hero. The slippery controls and awkward combat garner the driving segments an award — for the most likely to result in physical rage-induced damage to your computer hardware.
True to the rules of RPGs, when the dust settles after any battle, you'll get to scavenge for loot. Largely thanks to my ignoring the voluminous online help system, I didn't realize until I'd almost finished the game that you had to press the inventory button to pick dropped items from the ground, but it didn't appear to affect my game very severely. The weapons and armor you collect level up appropriately with your character, and while you do earn money, I found that I didn't need to spend any of it on the massively overpriced items for sale at the various shops littered around the galaxy. The best feature of looting is probably the many different body armors that change your character's entire appearance. The worst part might be micromanaging your entire party's rapidly mushrooming inventory of weapons, mods and ammo via the somewhat-clunky menu interface.
One particular absurdity in Mass Effect is the minigame that you play to open locked chests and lockers. This involves moving an arrow icon toward the center of a circle while avoiding the rotating blocks. Honestly, 1981's classic Frogger was better than this irrelevant and annoying distraction. Thankfully, you can skip these portions by smearing the item in question in omni-gel, which is a multipurpose glop derived from your many unwanted weapons; it can also be used to open locked containers, perform repairs to the Mako, and spike your hair into a faux-hawk.
By far Mass Effect's strongest suit, as the screenshots can attest, is the quality of the visuals. In the outdoor segments in particular, there are countless scenic Kodak moments to complement your pummeling of bad aliens. The sci-fi geek in you will surely appreciate the awesome-looking, stylishly choreographed FMVs that punctuate the story. By comparison, the interiors are adequate but often tend to look a bit flat, drab and repetitive. Meanwhile, the characters are nearly all excellent in their detail and variety. The Salarians look a lot like the classic aliens of probe-related abduction notoriety, while the Krogan, for all their mass and amazing texture work, come off as impressively intimidating. Subtle grimaces, smiles and other facial animations add a great deal to the emotion, which characters deliver when they talk or glance at each other expressively. The icing on the cake is that Mass Effect is extremely well-acted, with some serious talent lending their voices to the game, such as Seth Green, Keith David and sci-fi heavyweight Lance Henriksen. A completely capable and oftentimes absorbing soundtrack rounds out the first-rate presentation quality with some excellent future-themed tunes that wouldn't be out of place in "Blade Runner."
Mass Effect is an ambitious crossbreed between a sci-fi RPG and a third-person shooter, and its many strengths outweigh some small but nonetheless significant flaws. It is similar in many ways to Bioware's other RPG outings, and if you enjoyed Knights of the Old Republic in particular, Mass Effect is probably a good way of spending the 40 hours or so that it takes to complete the game, which you might otherwise have spent inspecting your navel for scraps of enlightenment or beating up virtual prostitutes for refunds.
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