Mass Effect: It Didn't get Better

I was a bit skeptical of Mass Effect so I didn’t pick it up until I found it at the Exchange at something of a discount. I called Pete, “Is Mass Effect worth $40?“. He said he thought it was. I’m not going to say he’s a liar. Reasonable people can disagree about these things. I thought that the experience started out slow, had a slow middle, and ended, well, slow.

Mass Effect follows a fairly standard RPG structure. The game interleaves mission episodes that are mostly combat with a combination of interactive and non-interactive cut scenes. We can cover these systems one at a time.

The combat missions in the game start badly and get more and more tedious as the game progresses. They start badly because the NPCs you are given as squad- mates all have different strengths and weaknesses, but you have no way to know which ones to bring on any given mission until you are already and on the ground and you can’t switch them out anymore. Then you can choose between starting over again or just slogging through. The game makes up for this insult by making the combat really boring.

Bioware has spent their last few games trying to move the standard Western RPG combat system away from turns, dice rolls, and little floating messages with hit points in them. In Jade Empire they were inspired by Kung Fu movies and fighting games and created a combat system that played like a really crappy Kung Fu movie or fighting game. In Mass Effect the paradigm is the science fiction squad shooter. The result plays like a really sluggish science fiction squad shooter.

Combat is split between weapons and force powers, er, “biotics”. The problem is that the weapons are slow and wimpy and the force powers, er, “biotics” have nearly no effect on your enemies as far as I can tell. I found I spent most of my combat time trying to figure out

1. Who the hell was shooting me and where they were standing.

2. Where the hell my squad went and what they were doing.

3. Fighting the radial menus instead of filling my enemies with hot lead and watching them meet a horrible bloody and violent end.

I was pretty much bored after 10 minutes of this and immediately dialed the combat difficulty back to Easy so I would not have to think about it.

The vehicle combat is even worse. The Mako handles like a Halo Warthog whose suspension and steering system have fallen out on the ground. It is nearly impossible to drive the vehicle in a straight line, as it prefers to swing wildly left and right and then flip over in the air after hitting almost any small obstacle. It is doubly impossible to hold the vehicle steady and shoot things at the same time. So here is how you end up fighting in your bad-ass space tank. Drive to point A. Park so you can aim. Shoot some stuff. Do this until the shields are low, then go hide to let the shields charge up. Lather, rinse, repeat until you want to die.

Mixed in with the main plot missions are a bunch of side missions that you find by exploring random planets until you find something do to. Then you land on the planet and do a tedious collection mission. If you are really lucky, you’ll have to drive the Mako to finish it. In the best of these missions, you have to make your way through three identical bunkers to collect and shoot three identical sets of items to achieve three identical outcomes before you are allowed to leave. After doing this mission I stopped doing any of the side quests whatsoever. I bet that’s a good ten or twenty hours of mindless repetitive tedium that I missed out on.

At this point, I really should have just stopped playing the game. But, the one small beacon of hope shining through this fog of mediocrity was that playing the interactive cut scenes really was enjoyable. The dialog system really is as good as everyone says it is. Sure, at the bottom it is pretty clear that these are the same old NPCs with the same old branching dialog and that if you walk up to them 500 times in the game they will say exactly the same thing to you 500 times. Also, it’s pretty clear that Bioware has reduced the actions of the player in choosing the next line of dialog to something akin to the classic “Name! Job! Health!” system in Ultima. But the end result is more than the sum of its parts, and every once in a while you can almost fool yourself into thinking that there are actual animated actors up there on the screen reciting the lines that you have written for them. That’s pretty cool.

Of course, whenever you get close to this state of nirvana, you notice that the actor’s faces look all splotchy and their skin sort of shakes and shimmers like a TV with bad cable as the rendering engine tries and fails to deal with real time lighting and texturing. I’m not sure why lighting models on faces are so hard, but I’ve never seen a game try to do sophisticated face modeling without failing in this particular way. The problem was really bad in Oblivion. It’s noticable, but not egregious here.

The game has other well known technical problems as well. Frame rate is spotty, there is a lot of draw-in. The environments all have that same “KOTOR industrial planet oil refinery” sameness to them. It’s not clear to me what all the cycles are trying to draw, but they are obviously working hard to do something which is then completely hidden by the underwhelming art design. Also, the corridors that you run through in this game feel cramped, and they are separated by long loading screens that look like elevators.

Ultimately, everything I’m complaining about here exists to service the plot and narrative of the game. So I guess I should complain about that too. Never, I think, have so many people worked so hard to create so many cut scenes and so much dialog in order to tell a story that is so utterly pedestrian. Yet again we must save the galaxy from an unseen enemy that reappears every few thousand years to do nothing but utterly destroy every living thing in the galaxy for no apparent reason at all. Yawn.

There is nothing here that even reaches the level of a by-the-numbers boilerplate Star Wars or Star Trek novel. The game is laboring so hard to be epic in scope that the whole enterprise spends most of its time collapsing under the weight of its own world building requirements. The writing and dialog start out at a high level, but pressed for time near the end of the game it degrades to something you might see profiled on Mystery Science 3000. And then, when you finally slog your way all the way to the end you find out that all of this was, in many ways, just a bloated prolog. The real fight will come in the inevitable sequel, or the game after that, or maybe in “Mass Effect 2010: Commander Shepard Meets Mork from Ork”.

As a final parting thought, I must catalog the last two unforgivable sins that this game commits.

First, it makes me spend a lot of time running through long hallways, or expansive sewers, or the great plains and there is no jump button to pass the time.

Second, it has dancing NPCs. Dancing NPCs should be summarily banned from all video games, with grave suffering inflicted on designers who violate the rule.

If I had known what was good for me I’d have quit then I found these two problems. But I thought the game would get better. It didn’t get better.