Mass Effect Revisited

It took me two years, but I finished Mass Effect, Bioware’s science fiction RPG and the company’s follow-up to Knights of the Old Republic. I wasn’t far from the end – it only took a two-hour push to finally beat the main campaign – but finding those two hours had been a challenge when I was reviewing a new game every other week.

I’ve since scaled back my review schedule, and I’ve got to say that it’s been nice to slip into some of my old favorites and see what corners I might have left unexplored or (as is the case with Mass Effect) what stories were left untold.

Returning to Mass Effect what I found was an ending on par with the best space opera movies, and approaching that of some of my favorite books. The climatic battle leapt back and forth between the boss fight (against the series’ primary antagonist) and the massive star fleet battle taking place outside. It was well worth the two hours I spent playing it, and it was the sort of conclusion that left me wanting more. Thankfully, the sequel comes out in January 2010.

Looking back on the game, there was a lot I liked. The main storyline kept me playing, kept the game on my game shelf, and ultimately inspired me to return to the game a year later to finishing it. The game’s visuals were a step above any of the other RPGs I’ve played on the Xbox, and it avoided the freaky “uncanny valley” NPCs so prevalent in Oblivion and (to a lesser extent) Fallout 3. I loved the illusion of being able to go out and explore strange new worlds, even if the reality didn’t quite match up.

I didn’t mind the much-lamented “elevators from hell”, which were used to cover in-game data loads. I’ve certainly experience longer and more boring load screens before, and I enjoyed listening to the news casts in the elevator. Besides, the pauses were a great opportunity to grab a Mountain Dew, take a biobreak, balance my checkbook, whatever.

That said, the game did have its annoyances.

The gear selection was a headache. There were too many different kinds of armor, ammo and weapons and too many iterations of those armor. Some might enjoy that, but personally I hate browsing through a dozen different weapons, each with their own minor differences, to find the best one. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the inventory system itself wasn’t such a pain to navigate. If you kept up with it (which I usually did) it was manageable, but let that slide for a few encounters, and suddenly you’re spending a half hour sorting through crappy gear instead of doing more important things, like say, saving the galaxy.

While they gave you more equipment upgrades than you knew what to do with, there were no vehicle upgrades. Your friendly neighborhood eight-wheeled rover/tank was the same at the beginning of the game as it was at the end. It was functional, but I would loved to have been able to add some new missiles, better armor, extended jump jets and upgraded guns to the tank. Given how much time you end up spending in the tank, upgrades seem like a no brainer.

After playing Knights of the Old Republic, I came into Mass Effect expecting to control everyone in my party (and thus, gain full access to their skills and abilities). Unfortunately, the game didn’t allow that. You could use their weapons and special powers, but that’s it – forget calling upon their encryption powers to bypass a lock. I realize that they did this to give people a reason to play some of the more technical classes … but I’d rather have been able to play those classes through the members of my party, rather than having to play through the game a second time.

Finally, random worlds are cool. Random worlds that are basically cookie cutter copies of one another are not. At first, I was enthralled by this part of the game, since it greatly expanded the number of worlds you could visit. But in practice those worlds were just pale echoes of one another. They shared the same randomly spawned mountainous landscapes, the same smooth fauna-less terrain, and the same two or three random encounters. Gravity occasionally fluctuated, as did the toxicity of the environment, but never enough to make you feel like “wow, this is a brand new world!” Once the novelty wore off, I stuck to those worlds that were part to side quests, and gave up my wandering explorations. I’d love to get those back.

I’ve completed the main campaign, but I’ve begun replaying it from an earlier save for two reasons: 1) to get achievements and 2) to use those achievements to unlock new options for other classes. One of the cool things I learned about the game while doing some research for this article was that unlocking certain weapon achievements (like 150 kills with a shotgun) allows non-soldier classes (like engineer) to be trained that weapon. Normally engineers, adepts and other similarly skillful characters have a limited weapon selection; these achievements open up new options, and make them a lot more attractive the second time around.

I enjoyed Mass Effect. Its flaws were easy enough to ignore when I was engrossed in the story, and based on the Mass Effect 2 previous I’ve read, many of these problems will be solved in the sequel. It’s worth buying off the discount rack if you see it, and if you happen to have it sitting unfinished on your shelf, it’s worth a second chance.