Ok so it’s been out on the PC for over a year now. And on the Xbox 360 even longer. But I only just got round to playing Mass Effect, and speaking as someone who has become gradually disillusioned by the RPG genre, I was completely blown away by what is an absolute creative masterpiece. It’s also the first console port I’ve played that isn’t a total, head-spanking mess.
Having been weaned on the proverbial teat of Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, Mass Effect was the ideal vehicle for my re-entry into the fantasy saturated world of RPGs. Not a single mention of an elf, a goblin or a magical spell of any kind, which, when you tot up the ratio of fantasy to non-fantasy RPGs and MMORPGs being released, is actually an incredibly refreshing thing to be faced with.
Although not the primary appeal of the game, I was very excited about getting stuck into the combat, as this was the first RPG in some time whose combat wasn’t semi-turn based, with you and your opponent standing in front of each other taking it turns to click the attack button and bop the other with a big sword. Incidentally, this is also why I have never played a single MMO in my entire life. As narrow minded and ill-informed as it might sound, the whole World of Warcraft phenomenon passed me by entirely because it, and others like it, are completely hinged on this dice-roll combat, which usually results in static battles that are very dull to watch. That may seem like a petty reason not to play a game, but I remember feeling incredibly disappointed, angry almost, at how misleading the cinematic trailer for Warhammer Online was. There was a Dwarf breathing fire on hordes of charging Orcs, an Elf ducking and diving in combat with another Orc, some Priestly looking fellow clashing metal with a tall, angsty looking guy, blocking and parrying attacks, growling some incantation that ignites his hammer into flames as his head gets impaled by a mace. “Great”, I mused, “this really captures the raw and gritty spirit of Warhammer”. Wrong. I later discovered after watching a clip of gameplay footage that, once again, combat consists of you standing in front of your opponent, queuing up attacks and abilities, taking it in turns to hit each other.
The idea behind all this is obviously that the battles are supposed to be representative instead of literal, and the focus is on preparation for them; maximising your chances of victory by gaining the right abilities, items and skills beforehand by doing quests and gaining xp. With so much focus on the preparation, however, the battles themselves seem like foregone conclusions and woefully anti-climactic.
Mass Effect, on the other hand, manages to maintain this fundamental role playing format whilst integrating an action-based, third-person shooter mechanism. Although not the first to do it, it blends the two together beautifully, and in spite of the occasionally cretinous AI, it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable system that doesn’t undermine the importance of either preparing for the fight or your own personal skill employed in the fight itself. This formula works perfectly, as much like Deus Ex, it rewards adequate preparation as well as good aim, with both being equally important requisites for victory. Squad management took too much of a back seat, however, with very little direction for your comrades actually being required (with the exception of the occasional remedial request, such as moving out of the way of incoming gunfire).
I can hear the WoW fanboys protesting already, and I do realise that I am making a somewhat tenuous comparison here. But there is really little reason for developers to rigidly stick to this dice-rolling mechanism anymore, especially with APB and Dust 514 on the horizon promising to raise the bar and successfully blend action with role-playing in an MMO context. Don’t get me wrong, I was a huge Neverwinter Nights fan- but I enjoyed it in spite of its combat system, and don’t see any reason to grudgingly cling to this for sentimentality’s sake. With this in mind, is a Mass Effect MMO really that difficult to imagine? If implemented in a similar way to EVE, with varying concentrations of AI controlled ‘police’, then it is perfectly feasible, with no changes to the fundamental principles of the game or the addition of the traditional dice roll-combat being required (hint hint Bioware).
It has been generally agreed that Mass Effect is a great success both critically and financially, but in the year after its release it was still subjected to a continued torrent of criticism, some justified and others not so.
Amongst the most baffling was from Eurogamer’s very own Kristan Reed, where the game was accused of failing to gradually ease the player into the world and prod them in the right direction when things became a little overwhelming . Not only does this show little awareness of science-fiction and of RPGs in general, it criticises the game for something that is actually one of its biggest strengths. Mature players don’t want to be patronised with continuous explanation, exposition or “prodding”. They want to be plunged into the world they are interacting with headfirst and allowed to explore it at their own pace without having the illusion shattered with reminders of what you ‘should’ be doing. That may well turn off the more impatient players, but this isn’t a game about action necessarily- it’s a game about dialogue, narrative and exploration, which Bioware have achieved to near-perfection in almost all of their titles, particularly Mass Effect.
I would, however, be the first to concede that the Mako is probably the stupidest vehicle ever designed in any game. Ever. Seemingly indestructible, it has a mounted gun that can only aim horizontally as well as having the mind boggling ability to climb almost sheer cliff edges with ease. It does some of the most ridiculous things that not only defy gravity, but tell it to fuck off and give it a big kick in the nuts. The side quests became somewhat repetitive after a while, and the DLC has added little in the way of substantial material. These are forgivable flaws, however, as the fully-fleshed out plot, reactive narrative and diverse, detailed characters redeem it spectacularly, and make it one of the most enjoyable titles I have played in years.
It also has a pretty good sex scene. What more could you want?