I am an RPG player. It is worth mentioning this up front as something relevant to the review which is to follow. I enjoy the genre of RPG’s enough to call it my favorite. Now, I say this because I realize that not everyone is like me. One of my best friends confessed to me recently that while he used to be an ardent RPG player in his younger days (when his life generally consisted of boredom and peer hatred in high school instead of daily responsibilities and peer hatred at work) now he simply has no time for serious gaming commitments that last for more than a few hours. Well, apparently, despite having a full and satisfying life, not much has changed for me. Somehow, I am still able to get into, enjoy and complete plot heavy games. Perhaps such a predisposition toward narrative games has skewed my critical perception. If you are inclined to think so, then consider this a caveat for the following sentence, but as it is I shall offer no more personal context for what I am about to say. Mass Effect is the best game I have ever played on any console.
Before I attempt to support such a sizable claim let me say that I am not beyond admitting that the game is not perfect. And yet, the fact that it still manages to captivate me so overwhelmingly, despite the minor imperfections, only strengthens my belief in its greatness. So, before I gush about the game too much, let me get those minor imperfections out of the way. It would feel improper to say what I want to say about the game and then at the end throw in a couple of petty complaints.
1. Driving your all terrain vehicle on the similarly jagged surfaces of multiple planets does indeed get tiresome. The execution of the game-play for the MAKO (the name of your ATV) as a whole is not fully fleshed out. The fact that once inside the MAKO pausing the game becomes impossible makes for extremely difficult battles. More then once I was forced to resort to zooming past enemies without killing them in order to progress through the game. Also, as many reviewers have already noted, it is a shame that, unlike everything else in the game, the vehicle is not upgradeable. There is no reason why this should be so. The good news is that, ultimately, this mistake can easily be corrected. I will eat my hat if, in the sequel, BioWare does not revamp the driving portion of the game.
2. Commerce is entirely neutered throughout the whole game. I think in 50 hours of play I bought four or five items/upgrades. There is simply no need to buy and sell when everything you need, including the most advanced equipment, can be obtained through basic exploration. As a person who very much enjoys the item hoarding/collecting aspect of any RPG I should have liked to find some expensive items in shops that would not be available to me through any other means. There is something inherently satisfying in saving up for a piece of equipment for a good while, then purchasing it and instantly improving your capabilities.
And that is it folks. As far as I’m concerned everything else is right with Mass Effect. I’m sure there are other charges that those people who are clearly wrong would level against the game, but as my circular argument already demonstrates those people were wrong to begin with. (Some have also complained that the shooter components are lacking, and that the weapons are not diverse enough, but they are forgetting that this is an RPG and not Halo. Also, they don’t know what they are talking about.)
So, with the ultimately insignificant negatives out of the way, let’s get to why Mass Effect is better than Chocolate Jesus.
The narrative, the innovative third person shooter component, the characters, the planets, the insanely cool intergalactic travel, the intricately fleshed out NPC’s, the unprecedented cinematic visuals, the plot twists, the villain, the simple but deeply satisfying leveling system, the mature and cinematic score, the innovative conversation wheel, and the 100% voice acted dialogue are all superb. Not only that, but the manner in which all of these components fit with each other makes sense. The game and its world feel organic.
With such a plethora of outstanding features it is impossible to point one’s finger at a single aspect of Mass Effect and credit it with the game’s greatness. It is a combination of elements that makes this one of my favorite experiences in gaming. Indulge me in a comparison. Let’s take the Knights of the Old Republic series… this already seems like a natural comparison since Mass Effect was supposed to be KOTOR III. Rather, BioWare did not make KOTOR III because instead they made Mass Effect. BioWare, in my not very humble opinion, is the King of western RPG makers. They have a brand; a signature style; a certain type of game they are great at creating and loved for producing. If BioWare offered no innovation from their earliest efforts I, and thousands like me, would still keep buying their games. But the good folks at BW seem very uncomfortable with resting on their laurels. If the two KOTOR’s and Jade Empire were not enough to convince you of this, Mass Effect certainly will.
After playing the game twice it is obvious to me that the makers of Mass Effect wanted to unburden themselves from the restricting mythology of Star Wars and all the emotional and narrative baggage that comes with it. They wanted to create a new SciFi world. A world with more than two dimensions. Something much more akin to Asimov or Card then Lucas and Saturday morning cartoons. And I am here to tell you that they succeeded beyond my, and probably their own, expectations.
The world of Mass Effect is absolutely captivating. Everything in it breathes with new life and energy. I was not at all surprised to find out that the lead writer for the game is writing a Mass Effect novel. I’ll be buying it when it comes out. The diversity of the different races and the depth of detail in chronicling their evolution have no equivalent in modern console gaming. My favorite aspect of SciFi and Fantasy fiction has always been world building. In the end, it is why we all love Tolkien and Heinlein and even Star Wars. I mean who would actually argue that the plot or characters of Star Wars aren’t as old as storytelling. Some Star Wars characters are actually offensively two dimensional. This, in turn, stems from the fact that the central Star Wars principle, the Dark and Light sides of the force, lacks any and all subtlety/complexity and fosters two-dimensionality. And yet, I still love Star Wars because of its world. I love the world of Star Wars, not Luke or Vader or what they do.
And now imagine a game that creates a world even more exciting than that of Star Wars and populates it with fresh, multidimensional, complex characters with lives full of difficult and unpredictable choices that lead to very real and logical consequences. A world full of depth where good and evil are as grey as they are in real life and there is no need for exchanges like:
“But Anakin, the Sith are evil!”
“From my point of view the Jedi are evil!”
There is no need for such blatant explication in the world of Mass Effect because its foundation has already moved past superficiality. This is not to say that the characters we meet do not conform to the many standards of different adventure narrative archetypes. (As a matter of fact, Mass Effect borrows some concepts from Star Wars.) But they do it in a distinctly fresh way while the player is always aware that change, evolution and transformation are always an option. Change, not in the simplistic sense of switching from one side/allegiance to another, but something that resembles a continuous cycle of choices, where past wrongs are not forgotten and your current actions may not have immediate consequences but rather might haunt or reward you in the future.
Mass Effect replaces KOTOR as one of my top ten favorite games of all time because it combines captivating atmosphere with perfectly executed game play and an engrossing narrative far better then anything else I’ve ever encountered on a console.
Mass Effect is the Firefly of video games (if you don’t know what Firefly is, take some time to find out). I had said about Assassins Creed that it is fun to be in the world the game creates and that you could suck on that long and hard. Well, unhinge your jaws boys and girls because that goes double for Mass Effect.