Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Review: Mass Effect

Mass Effect (2007)
Developer: BioWare Corp.
Platform: X-Box 360
Purchase Date: 11/21/2007

Let me start off by saying that when you are reading reviews about highly-anticipated games like Mass Effect, you have to be selective about how you proceed with such an activity. When looking up game reviews, I often skip paragraphs and pay attention mostly to the categorized final scores to get a general sense of how a game is evaluated. This is especially true for big releases because they often get the reviewers a bit hyped, mentioning big revelations in the process to really entice your interest in the games. The reason why I mentioned this is because late last year, after I completed Mass Effect, I picked up my December issue of Play Magazine and found out that the review within contained a huge number of plot elements that are best discovered by the players on their own. Knowing these things will take away a lot of the actual freshness of the players' experience. With that said, I am a believer that a review should really focus on the overall experience of playing the game instead of dissecting everything that is needed to be known about the game. Thus, you will not find spoilers here.

An adventure that will take you to the farthest reaches of the galaxy!

Mass Effect is completely engrossing. It's the year 2183 and you play as an Alliance Commander summoned to assist with a seemingly routine mission on board the Normandy, a prototype ship, to collect an object from a human inhabited planet. From that point forward, the storyline expands into a sci-fi epic of galactic proportions. In your adventure, you will meet interesting characters, humans and aliens. You will learn the historical and current state of the galaxy and where humanity stands within its hierarchy. Mass Effect contains a mature storyline and it presents a number of interesting concepts about how life is perceived when analyzed in a scope grander than the constraints of Earth. Throughout your adventure, you may also be quite attached to your playable crew members because they are well fleshed out in terms of their unique personalities.

Decisions, decisions...

The game is fully voice-acted and the main characters are voiced to perfection with Raphael Sbarge and Seth Green being the bests out of the crowd. The variety of voices used for the supporting casts have made the game immune to the generic feel that plagued the characters found in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. I just love RPGs that do not require you to read conversations and this should be something that other RPGs need to strive for. The game contains a great soundtrack that fits the varying moods of the game as well. The decisions you have to make during the interactive conversations determine your alignment between "Paragon" and "Renegade". They can be translated as "lawful" and "unlawful". As mesmerizing as the conversations are, BioWare could have made the decisions more complex, subtle, and less obvious in their intentions. There are some genuinely cringe-inducing moments where you will be torn in making your decisions - it is unfortunate that there are not many of these moments in the game.

I'd play the game again just to drool over the graphics.

The one major thing that will immediately grab your attention when you first start your game is the graphics. To date, this is the best looking game I have ever seen. The film grain filter really helps - it is like you are watching a movie, though this effect can be disabled. The polygon count on each character is insane. The game captures the futuristic feel perfectly with modern looking internal and external structures from the expected flying traffic to the floating monitor screens scattered all over the place. Things are not so flattering when you land on non-civilized planets even though there is no pop-up in the draw distance and you can see clearly as far as the eyes can see. Little details like grass and jagged terrains do help make these occasions less flat and more inspired. The pristine graphical fidelity does come with a price: when the game loads a new area or even when the camera angles change, often time the polygons are left un-textured for a few seconds while the information is completely uploaded. This happens even during important cut scenes and can make the game look a bit ugly for a brief moment of time. There is also a bit of a slowdown though this is not as bad as I have heard others said it was. It doesn't bother me and it is hardly noticeable when you are looking at something this pretty right in front of you.

Each planet has its own descriptive analysis and history.

Mass Effect is a role playing game with the elements of a third person shooter and this combination works really well. It primarily uses the dodge shoot gameplay mechanics as seen in the popular Gears of War. Though it is a lot of fun to experiment with, it's also a little too easy. You can bring only 2 team members with you at a time and they are AI controlled. Throughout the game, I only provided them directions on the special moves to use and that seemed to be enough. Most of the time, they would often die suddenly because they were not very smart about leaving their cover at the appropriate time. You gain experience from fighting, discovering items, and completing quests. When you level up, you can have access to a multitude of customizable options for your characters ranging from damage resistance to the increase of damages dealt. When you completed the game, you can use the same character to play through it again with your current level intact. This is a nice little option to have but I am sure that many would prefer creating another unique Commander Shepard to start the game anew.

Exploring planets on the Mako is cool but the control is a bit loose.

Is the game perfect? No, it is not. I wish it was longer - I finished the game in about 40 hours, completing what I think is all of the available missions. I wish there were more impacts and alterations caused by the player's actions. I hate to think that it is a part of a trilogy because I hate waiting to play through a series this promising. Several places in the game feel rushed and inconsistent in the way the minimal loading time is handled - for an example, you would normally ride an elevator seamlessly as it takes you from one floor to another but there are instances when the game fades out, loads, then fades back in to the new location. Overall, this is best game on the X-Box 360 for 2007 and I enjoyed every minute I spent on it. I ended up being a full "Paragon" so I want to play the game again and experience how it feels to be a "Renegade". The fact that I am excited about going through the game again is a testament to Mass Effect's success.

RATING: 4 out of 5

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