Thursday, April 14, 2011

Video Game Assessment: Mass Effect (2007)

Mass Effect is simultaneously a great game and a trainwreck. It is a beautiful game with terrible gameplay. It is rough around the edges with a diamond underneath. It has a wonderfully intricate story, but a haphazard and hard to understand world. It is the best of video games and yet it is a fleeting quality. It is one of the few roleplaying games that is hard to roleplay or even simply replay, but it does have an excellent story. How can a game be all of these things? I'll tell you.

Some people will blindly tell you that this game is a masterpiece without any hyperbole despite the migraine-inducing terror that the sidequests and the sheer brick of the background codex and lore information present. I guess I can't judge sidequests as equal to the mainquest stuff or can't say that mood-filling lore is necessarily a bad thing, but you want to know something, I will.

First, I'll start with the good: The characters in this game are absolutely fantastic as well as the settings and visuals. This is one of the most beautiful games I have ever seen and I really do enjoy simply looking at it. The characters look fairly realistic, easily better than most other games that I've played and/or seen and the actual graphics are just beautiful. There are no other words for it. Everything looks slick and shiny. The world looks better than real life even with some of the grit of real life too, making the scenery look even better with the realism coming with the fantasy. The characters all look and act like real people, and the alien characters are all really well done too, all basically being good answers to what aliens might be able to look like in a realistic science fiction world.

The science fiction here is well done. I'm not going to say fantastic because I don't think it really addressed the science without using the "Element Zero" argument, which is a bit of a cop-out science fiction-wise. It's much more of a Firefly/Star Wars kind of story than anything else. This game really reminds me of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic in almost a harsh way. It's a very similar world to Star Wars. The aliens kind of act the same, the universe is similar... Hell, even the story is pretty similar. There are Jedi substitutes in this game even if they don't have lightsabers to swing around. There are even similar "dark side" enemies. It's pretty ridiculous to see how much it takes from Star Wars. Not that it's a bad thing. It's works for the game and is pretty cool, but the taking so much from that series is still there.

So, now onto the negative and for all the positive things I've said, there are as many negatives. The positives do tend to outweigh the negatives, but they still certainly exist and are also incredibly headache inducing. The first big negative is the first one one would see in the game: the inventory system. It is a convoluted mess that took me the better part of an entire playthrough to actually understand. Sure, there is customization and strategy involved in many of the choices, but there thorough annoyingness for the player will just make the player wish they weren't there at all. In the second game of the series they went the exact opposite direction with customization, basically going passive-aggressive and skimping on weapons and armor to a ridiculous extent for an RPG. So, I claim that BioWare is a bit passive-aggressive when it comes to criticism.

Now, the whole weapon-armor issue is a kind of big deal, but nowhere as big as the sidequest issue. Now, I  liked this game a lot when it came to the story. It was really well done and engaging. I also, in games, tend to like doing a ton of sidequests as mood-fillers. I also use them to stock up on convoluted items and money and gels and everything else. I like that. I like doing sidequests. I've always been a 100% runner and that's what I like to do.  The sidequests in Mass Effect though are torturous. They're painful. I go and play the sidequests and they give me a headache. A game shouldn't give me a headache. Part of the problem is the infamous "Mako" space tank within the game that is fundamentally fun, but absolutely overused and really, when it comes down to it, not intuitive at all. The controls are wonky. The tank is not fun to play as. Exploration, although beautiful, is annoying, especially when most planets have a samey kind of look to them. Basically something that should be a small part of the game comes off as not only painful, but taking up way too much time for the rewards. So, a gameplay technique I've always employed and loved is basically punishing me. I don't like that. It took me out of the game. It made me want to play other games. Sidequests should never do that to a player. Seriously. Yes, they redesigned the sidequests for Mass Effect 2, but again, they went too far, basically taking all of the exploration out completely unless one doles out money for the DLC. What the Hell, BioWare? Why are you guys so passive-aggressive about criticism?

I will admit that the endgame is the best endgame I've ever played, bar none. It's fantastically well done, beautiful and memorable, and also flips the bird to all the terrible sidequests and gameplay one deals with throughout the game. Definitely worth it.

There's also a moral choice system within the game as well as origin story for the player character. They do tend to add customization, but ultimately are all really for nothing. They don't really change the game except in small aspects, so it's kind of a silly thing to add. There are also six classes to choose from, which is kind of neat, since half of them are hybrid classes of the usual "rogue"/"warrior"/"wizard" RPG classes. So, that's nice at least.

Anyway, Mass Effect is a good game with some bad elements to it. I like it myself, but still can't get over some of the bad elements in the game. This is one of the few games I came into this blog wanting to review because of it's great story and terrible execution. So, take my word on it, play at your own risk, but also realize it's one of the best stories and most beautiful graphics in games today, even if it does have a lot of issues with it.

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