Roughly ten hours into Bioware's sci-fi epic, Mass Effect, it hits you - this is the most complete, immersive, all encompassing, and awe inspiring video game you've ever played. Yes it has flaws, but somehow it becomes more than the sum of its parts. As the name would suggest, the overall effect is massive.
It's fair to say that my own personal anticipation of Mass Effect surpassed my hype level for any other game, ever. Not Halo 3, not Twilight Princess, no game before this has ever had me pushed that far onto the edge of my seat.
As previews and reviews began to trickle, and then pour in, leading up to the release of the game this past Tuesday, the potential of disappointed occured to me. I had built this game up in my mind to be damn near perfect. There's no way any game can live up to that.
And yet, after having a few days and several hours to experience the game, I've found something out. This game isn't perfect, but what is does it something almost no other game has done - it "perfectly" makes up for its own short list of flaws, making the few shortcomings it has practically irrelevant compared to the overall scope and feel of the game.
I'll give you a brief run down of the imperfect aspects of the game. There are occasional framerate issues, but so far they've been nothing major or especially bothersome. The most annoying, albeit not serious, technical issue, however, is the long loading times between areas on a map and the distracting texture pop-in that follows them. And occasionally, exploring around certain environments you are your squadmates can get stuck on objects or people, with your teammates even finding it impossible to simply walk around another NPC while following you. This is very rare, but still annoying.
And you know, that's about it. One whole paragraph of imperfect for a game, you really can't expect a game to have less than that. And as I said before, all of it is easy to overlook as you're playing the game, because these minor annoyances come and go in a few seconds, leaving you to continue enjoying a virtually flawless experience.
There are simple too many things that make this game great to harp on a few flaws.
"Atmosphere" isn't even an appropriate word to describe the places you see and experience in Mass Effect. The game isn't merely atmospheric, it's enormous, it's rich, it's epic. There have been "big" games before with wide open-ended environments, but never has there been a world, no an entire galaxy, so intricately and meticulously put together as the one in Mass Effect.
The game doesn't just feel big (even though it is huge), it feels deep and detailed. You don't just walk around, in fact, you can't just walk around; around almost every corner is someone or something interesting that feels genuinely relevant. And that's really where the game excels in pulling you in, everything feels important and many things, even side quests, feel absolutely crucial.
Everything from the graphics to the fluid animations, those aren't just technical achievements, but tools that help assist the storytelling process by creating life-like characters. Couple this with tremendous voice acting and intriguing moral dilemmas, and you have an experience that never fails to pull you in.
Almost immediately after the excitement of discovering Bioware would be utilizing a real-time combat system that looked like a squad based shooter, I think we all started questioning if it would actually work well. Many people, including most of the major gaming sites and publications questioned the combat system and most listed it as a flaw. Preposterous.
Not only is the combat system in Mass Effect not a flaw, it is hands down the best combat ever seen in an RPG, and comparable, in some respects, to the best shooters. It would be the best part of the game were it not for the tremendous conversation system (more on that later).
Just to be clear, this is still an RPG, and you can't treat it exactly like you would a regular shooter, not quite. There is a whole host of options to customize your battle strategy, from the type of weapons you and your squad have armed, to the types of armor, to weapon ammunition, armor underlays and upgrades, grenade modifications, weapon modifications, tech powers, special combat moves, biotic powers, and special biotic implants. If you choose to ignore all that, and neglect to command your teammates, you probably won't enjoy the combat very much. However, if you choose to take advantage of all those options, you'll be rewarded with one of the more satisfying shooters.
There is a learning curve. As I said, you have to understand that planning and preparing for each skirmish is not optional, it's essential. Simply taking out your gun and shooting won't work, especially if you're not behind cover.
One of the best aspects of the combat is directing your teammates. Again, I read more than once in a few reviews that the squad commands were not very effective, and some reviewers even suggested you ignore this part of the game altogether. Again, dead wrong.
Your teammates can be a tremendous help, and even more so when you, as Commander Shepard, do your damn job and give them orders. No matter where you order them, and even if you do nothing, your teammates will instinctively find cover as soon as a fight breaks out. They pick their targets and use their special abilities (tech, combat, or biotic) with an impressive level of of intelligence.
They won't maneuver particularly well (other than finding cover) by themselves, but again, that's why you're in charge. One of my favorite strategies is finding cover and laying down cover fire while I order my squad to get a better angle and flank the enemy, or vice versa. This is a simple manever, and nothing that hasn't been done before in other shooters, but unlike certain squad shooters, this actually works and works well. There's nothing more infuriating than playing a "squad-based" shooter where your commands almost always get ignored or fouled up (I'm looking at you Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six).
Your team is responsive, sharp, and your options are plentiful. If you use all this to your advantage, you'll be in for an incredibly satisfying experience.
As I said when talking about the combat, this is an RPG, and as such there is a lot of talking - and it's brilliant. This is probably the best part of the game, which is maybe the first time anyone has been able to say that about talking in a video game.
Everything is voice acted in this game, and voice acted so impossibly well I couldn't help wondering about the effort and budget it must have taken to get this many good voice actors on a game. It's not just the main characters, but every last person you talk to sounds real, believable, and interesting.
To say the quality of the voice acting is Hollywood standard may even be an understatement. There was one instance where you're able to talk with the pilot of your space ship, the Normandy. The pilot goes by the name Joker, and is voiced by Seth Green. I won't give away what the conversation is about, but I will say at one point it becomes serious and personal history gets brought up. Seth Green performed one particular line so well I thought to myself, "Damn, forget Hollywood, Seth Green has never acted that well before in his life." It gets that good.
The method of progressing through conversations is just as fluid and realistic as the voice acting that comes as a result of it. By now I'm sure most of you know how it works, moving the thumb stick in a direction to convery a general tone or reaction, and letting the voice work take over, almost always nailing the expressed feeling perfectly.
Often times people will be turned off by lots of "talking" in a game. Honestly, if you don't enjoy the rich, engaging conversation in this game then you don't just dislike talking in games, you don't just dislike RPGs, you hate communicating with people in general.
First and foremost, above all else, I have to say this: Drew Karpyshyn is a genius, and officially the best writer in the video game industry. Karpyshyn, the lead writer for Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire, also took the reigns on crafting the story for Mass Effect, in addition to authoring the prequel novel, Revelation.
It's just now becoming the trend for lead designers to be the face of a project, similar to the way a movie is sold to audiences based on who's directing. But as story and character development becomes more prominent in games, writers have to start being acknowledged more and praised. Now certainly, a whole team of people worked hard and pooled their creative talents to craft the Mass Effect universe, but if you read Revelation it becomes obvious Karpyshyn was the one driving this thing. He should be awarded author rock star status for what he's done here.
There have been good, deep, plots in games before, but never of this size. No story has ever been this big, not in a game. Almost every system, planet, area, and person has a story, and this is really where it's clear a whole team of people were at work, crafting this universe down to the smallest detail, in fact, making it seem as if no detail could be considered small.
And that's where the truly impressive part comes in. In a galaxy so vast, with interesting content at every turn, the concern has to be that the story would grow too big, too spread out, and collapse on itself, with the writers unable to tie it all together in a way that makes sense. I haven't played all the way through the game, far from it, but after reading Karpyshyn's work in Revelation and playing through some of the game, I can be almost certain that won't happen.
This is again where Karpyshyn's touch can be felt. If you read Revelation you'll notice that while it has to first be fit into the sci-fi genre, what it really is is a mystery. I don't want to make this a review of the novel (we'll do that another time), but suffice to say Karpyshyn showed a knack for starting off with seemingly unrelated strands of plot and character and weaving them together into a steady stream of story. Ten hours into the game, I'm beginning to notice that same pattern.
As I was exploring one of the many planets you can travel to in Mass Effect, following a lead on the rogue Spectre agent Saren, there was a point where I began to wonder where it was all going, if anywhere. But as I kept investigating, kept talking to people, leads started to develop in places I didn't expect, issues that I saw as side quests led me to points of interest in the main quest. Eventually it didn't even feel like "side quests" and "main quests" but instead one big world of interconnected people and places.
Most importantly by the time I had dealt with all the business on the planet, everything had been tied together, and more than that, there had been major revelations about Saren and my primary mission. In particular, one detail that I had originally considered small, blossomed into a major clue and plot point.
The true beauty of Mass Effect is that it isn't just great story, it's great storytelling, and that's especially appreciated by those of us who know the two don't always come hand-in-hand.
The Effect Is Massive
I like that phrase, The Effect is Massive. I like to think I coined it, but I can't be sure if someone else, somewhere else, beat me to it. Regardless, I think it encompasses what makes Mass Effect great.
It isn't just how big the environments are, it's how interesting they are. It isn't just the speed of the combat, it's how much detail there is behind it. It isn't just how good the conversations sounds, it's how fluid they are. It isn't just great story, it's great storytelling. There's something about this game that makes it more than it is, more than the sum of its parts.
There's something about this game, something that could make it game of the year.
The Effect is Massive.