I just finished playing Mass Effect, a Bioware science fiction role-playing game for Xbox 360 (what I played) and now PC. When I bought my Xbox back at Christmas, I knew that Mass Effect was on my short list of Games I Wanted. It had received high praise and excellent reviews; the commercials made it look like the sort of game I would enjoy—I like science fiction, and I like combat as long as the game isn’t all combat. So a couple of weeks ago, I bought Mass Effect at about half price on eBay and began playing.
Many reviewers hailed Mass Effect as the best game of the year. I wouldn’t go that far, but then again, I‘m not a gamer, and my experience in games this year hasn’t been all that much. It is definitely one of the best games I have ever played; however, it does have several weak points that prevent me from enjoying it as much as I would like. I’ll cover those later.
Mass Effect may have the best story of any game this year. As a RPG, you get to play a character and make decisions that affect the story and the character’s development. In Mass Effect, you get to customize your character’s sex, appearance, first name, and military training. My character, Lance Shepard, was a vanguard. I felt this would give me a nice balance—I‘m not good enough at combat to be a soldier, but I didn’t want to fully devote myself to something like a technical or biotic role. Vanguard seemed to be a good “best of both worlds” choice. Of course, I can always play the game again, with a different character class, make different decisions, and see how the outcome goes from there. This is definitely one of Mass Effect’s strengths.
The story is classic science fiction space opera. It does use the old “ancient enemy returns after millennia” plot, and the enemy does happen to be a species of sentient machines (that seems rather popular these days—that isn’t our immersion in technology talking at all…). So it isn’t too original in that respect. However, you have to give Bioware points from the sheer depth of the Mass Effect universe. There are several distinct species, each with a clearly-defined culture, history, strengths, weaknesses … I don’t know how many people worked on the writing and arts for the game, but they went all out. Each of the planets visible has a little description of it, and sometimes a little relevant history. They’ve thought out how the eponymous technology works, what other technologies we have; they named the various weapons and ammunition upgrades … the amount of information packed into that game boggles my mind.
So it comes as no surprise that there will be spin-off novels and sequels—the universe of Mass Effect is too rich to not do that. It would be such a waste. Apparently Bioware’s got Mass Effect 2 in the works, with more planned after that. And I will buy them, as long as they continue to be this good. Because it’s enjoyable. And hopefully, each one will improve on the parts that hindered my enjoyment.
The first thing I noticed was the lack of a tutorial. Not being a very experienced gamer, tutorials are helpful to me. Some people may not need or want them, which is why having optional tutorials is a fair compromise. Mass Effect just throws you into its combat interface, and it took me some time to get used to it. Oh well.
Some portions of the game got very repetitive. Now, I went all out and did almost every possible side assignment. Had I not done that, maybe it wouldn’t have felt so repetitive. I am, of course, talking about the Mako vehicle used to get around the terrain of alien planets. That was boring, and in some cases, rather difficult. There were also some combat situations in which I repeatedly died, causing me to get frustrated, but that isn’t so much bad game design as my own ineptitude.
But please, please, please, Bioware … please release the next game with a way to skip cutscenes. I can stomach the corny dialogue, but the fact of the matter is simple: I do not need to watch the same cutscene several dozen times over when I die and my last save point is before the cutscene. Since you don’t let me save during combat, I cannot save after the cutscene, so I’m forced to watch it over … and over … and over. It also harms the replay value of the game, since I don’t necessarily want to watch a cutscene now that I know what it says.
Apparently the PC version corrects some of the game’s flaws, and hopefully Mass Effect 2 will have smoothed out any other bugs (parts of the physics engine kind of seem weird; I occasionally got stuck in spots I shouldn’t have). Mass Effect is, overall, a great game with a couple of serious flaws (did I mention I’d like to be able to skip cutscenes?). It’s not for everyone. If you dislike RPGs in general, this game isn’t going to change your mind about them—your ears may start to bleed from the almost endless expository dialogue. But if you like RPGs, and if you especially like science fiction, Mass Effect promises you adventure.
I‘ve tried out all of my Xbox games now (except Forza Motorsport, because I don’t do racing games), just to get a taste of what each one offers. Here’s my opinion on each. Keep in mind that I haven’t completed any of them, and I‘m not a gamer. So my evaluations are based on different values than that of what a hard-core gamer or fan of a particular title might look at.
- Assassin’s Creed
- I really enjoy the freedom of movement in this one. Fighting is also pretty exciting. Being able to automatically scrabble up walls and along ledges without a lot of conscious control pushing makes the gameplay more enjoyable. The tutorials provided throughout the beginning are helpful, especially to a gaming newbie like myself. However, the constant cutscenes detract, and the entire frame story is worthless. I would rather that it was actually set in the past, instead of being set in the future with a simulated past.
- Halo 3
- I‘ve never played any of the other games in the Halo series. The story looks easy enough to follow. I prefer FPS to third-person games like Assassin’s Creed or Tomb Raider, but I‘m going to need a lot of practice before I get used to the controller. Having separate axes for movement and view make it harder for me to look around, since they were one and the same in all the PC games I’ve played. Trying to endure some combat (and dying frequently) has reminded me why I‘m not a gamer. I tend to just run in a straight line toward the enemy I’m trying to destroy while holding down my fire button and hoping that I kill them before they kill me. Stupid, I know. But I just have no stealth or strategy.
- Marvel Ultimate Alliance
- Just tried this one out. I haven’t actually played very far. However, it is somewhat confusing. I couldn’t find any tutorial or practice mission to get used to the controls; it sort of threw me into the fray and expected me to be able to play. Um … no. Not very idiot-friendly, unfortunately. And I‘m more of a DC person anyway. :P
- Tomb Raider: Anniversary
- I remember playing the original Tomb Raider on my brother’s PlayStation 1. It was fun, even though I was rubbish at it. This Tomb Raider is even better. The graphics and movement detail is much more realistic, which really makes the game. Figuring out the next step in each level is a bit harder (but that’s what strategy guides are for ). I also dislike the checkpoint-based type of saved game. I’m a save-anywhere type of person, because I tend to die a lot. And it just gets annoying redoing a bunch of complicated acrobatic moves every time because I can’t save a bit further in the process.
- Viva Pinata: Party Animals
- Amazing game. Outrageous French accents, crazy fun activities—I can’t wait until I can try this with a friend. It reminds me of Mario Party. The commentary provided by the pinata hosts is somewhat annoying, but the races and challenge events themselves are fun. This is a good distraction and a nice break from all the shooter games I have.
Oh, and my Xbox has to stop giving me options. Options make me paranoid. I spent an hour yesterday fiddling and switching back and forth between display resolutions to see which one made DVD playback less smooshed. My regular DVD player just played the video, but can Xbox do that? Nooo. It has to give me choices and options and things to configure, which is fine for some people, but for me they just invite paranoia. Oh well … I think it’s fine now.
Back to not doing any work… .