Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ode to Mass Effect

Spoilers ahoy. Watch yourself.

Last year, one of my most anticipated titles coming out that holiday season was BioWare's epic space opera RPG, Mass Effect. I was looking forward to a space-based RPG as opposed to your typical swords and elves fantasy setting. I had recently finished their last RPG, Jade Empire, and enjoyed it immensely. Mass Effect's universe looked interesting, I love a good western RPG, so basically it looked like everything I could want.

I preordered the collector's edtion, and it was with great excitement that I fired up the game for the first time. The graphics were excellent and I loved the old-school synthesized style of the music.

And yet...

I started noticing issues. The game wasn't doing much to show me how to play. I had no idea until much later that you could add upgrades to weapons and armor. The combat in general was a bit bland. The Mako vehicle was extremely frustrating to drive. The optional planets were boring and lifeless, they contained the same three buildings ALL OVER THE GALAXY. When loading scenes and areas it sometimes took several seconds for the textures to finish streaming, making the game look like it belonged more on the N64 than the Xbox 360. Most of the time, the characters talking have no expression and fall squarely within the Uncanny Valley.

The main quest was the most compelling part. Tracking down Saren and unraveling the mystery of the Reavers and Protheans was exciting, and the story kept me wondering what was going to happen next. The final space battle against the Reaver ship amidst the Citadel was truly epic, and ranks as one of the few endings to a game that actually lived up to and exceeded everything that came before it.

I completed the game, happy, though slightly disappointed that the many issues detracted from what could have been a masterpiece.

And yet...

I am in the midst of my 5th playthrough, with my third character. The first 3 were with the same character, a female, leveled up to the max and trying the different good/evil conversation options and using a combination of biotic powers and short range weapons. The 4th was with a male soldier decked out with heavy weaponry. My current character is a female engineer, master of technological attacks.

Playing as a soldier is pretty boring. Doing so makes the combat into a substandard shooter. It's when you start using biotic or tech powers that the game gets interesting. Lifting an enemy into the air, then throwing him across the room, or better yet, off a cliff, never gets old. Hacking an enemy geth so he turns around and begins firing rockets at his friends is great fun.

More than anything, though, the universe and people inhabiting it continue to draw me in. BioWare went to a LOT of effort to flesh out the history and motivations of the various races, and of many of the characters you come across. It feels like a real world, with real people.

My favorite parts of the game are on the Citadel in the beginning and on the first part of Noveria, one of the main quest planets. The Citadel is scattered with quests. They're quick, but bring up a variety of situations for you to resolve. They often require a high conversation skill to get the best or most interesting resolution to the quest. Noveria, though, really showcases BioWare's writing ability and questmaking skills.

Noveria is a world controlled by amoral corporations doing research across the planet. The side quests are made so that it's very tempting to choose the mercenary, look-out-only-for-myself path. If you do your utmost to stay on the straight and narrow, there might not be any benefit whatsoever. No experience points, no money, nothing. Being evil, on the other hand, makes it possible to backstab and betray nearly everyone you come across. Agree to smuggle illegal weapons into the port for a merchant, then sell it directly to his customer. Agree to place a computer virus on a businessman, inform the businessman of the plot against him, then tell your contact you planted the virus AND demand more money. In 5 playthroughs, I'm still encountering new outcomes to these quests.

In addition to things like that, the companions you have with you can change how some conversations play out. The order you choose to do quests can change other quests. The back story you choose for you character changes some quests and adds completely new ones.

Basically, if you only play the game once, you're missing out on a fairly large amount of the content BioWare created.

So I suppose that explains why I keep coming back to the game. I still feel like I haven't really described some of the undefinable appeal this game has for me, but I think I got the gist across. Even with the flaws listed above, I truly love this game. It sweeps me away to another world, and it's a world I can lose myself in.

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