A couple of people expressed an interest in what my opinion of Mass Effect would end up being, as a previous KOTOR fan, so now that I’ve had it for a while, and am about 10 hours into the game (according to my last save), I felt I had enough information to deliver on this request.
For the time-poor among you who are tired of my wordy postings, here’s the skinny version:
- Mass Effect is very good
- Mass Effect isn’t as good as KOTOR
What follows is an expanded discussion for those who care to know the whys and wherefores of the above conclusion through gratiuitous word abuse.
Firstly, like many RPGs, you’ll need a bit of time with it. Don’t expect to just jump in and love it from the off, it’s something that’s best savoured. As you get more into it, you realise that a lot of thought has gone into constructing the universe in which Mass Effect exists, in terms of the politics, the races, the history, and the imaginary technology. Looking at things and talking to people fills your ‘Codex’ with sundry information about the things you’re encountering, and it slowly builds up a pretty nicely rounded impression of the world you’re operating in. They’ve split the Codex into ‘Primary’ and ‘Secondary’ sections, the ‘Primary’ ones all have voice-overs and are obviously there to ensure that illiterate or simply lazy gamers who can’t be bothered to read anything get the base facts, the secondary codex is just text. Those with a limited attention span will miss out - I’ve read everything so far, and it’s almost always pretty interesting, and does make the game more enjoyable, as you recognise something that you previously only read about.
Graphically it’s very nice, obviously. Perhaps not quite Crysis-level, or even Assassin’s Creed (although that has a much more limited palette), but generally everything is rendered convincingly, whether it’s a seedy bar, a plush embassy or a frontier planet on the arse end of the universe. The galaxy map is particularly lovely, as you zoom from galaxy to system to planet level, again with every planet coming with a nice description, if you can be bothered to read it. Characters are very nicely realised, the only issue is the occasionally dodgy shadowmapping - but then I know what a bitch that be to get right. Oh, and being Unreal Engine based it has the bizarre texture pop-in after loading a new area - the engine loads lower mip maps first, resulting in a blurry environment for a few seconds until everything sharpens up. I can see how this is useful when dynamically paging data as you walk around, so the popping is in the distance as mips are needed, but when loading, I’d rather you waited an extra few seconds to load everything in the foreground fully, rather than pop it in 5 seconds after I’ve started. Bioshock had the same thing, although because I played it on PC the media was loaded a little faster from the hard drive so it was less noticeable.
As everyone has told you, there’s a lot of dialog. Personally I don’t see this as a negative - KOTOR’s dialog was among my favourite of any game. The ‘conversation wheel’ idea is a good one, as it’s quick to access with a controller and it pops up before you need to answer, keeping the discussions smooth. You don’t choose what to say exactly, it’s more of a ‘mood’ choice, in most cases they fall into the ‘nice guy’, ‘getting the job done’, or ‘complete hardass’ categories. If you enhance your Charisma or Intimidation high enough, then you can get extra options too, and occasionally extras if you’ve done something else related. I always like to see as many dialog options as possible in this kind of game, so I’ve been maxing out my Charisma and keeping my Intimidate fairly well fuelled, and both have come in handy and felt worthwhile having.
On the downside, the dialog isn’t as interesting as KOTOR, mostly because the main characters aren’t as interesting. I put that down to the military bias on primary characters - they’re all a bit too serious all the time, and there’s not enough character variation, since they all generally toe the party / race line. Whilst it’s all very well voice acted, the script just isn’t as interesting as KOTORs was - there’s nothing (so far) as good as the character arcs of Carth and Bastila, the off-the-wall banter of ex-Jedi Jolee Bindo, the twisted morality and honour of Canderous the Mandolorian, or the delightfully psychotic HK-47 (“I suggest that we slaughter all the meatbags, Master”). You’ll often come across more interesting characters in the game but they’re generally only cameos. This would be my primary comment to Bioware - next time skip the military bias for the main characters, throw in a scoundrel or two, a couple of moral opposites, something which differentiates them that isn’t just about their race or profession. Characters are about the people inside the uniform and underneath the alien freaky bits, and I don’t think they grasped that as solidly this time around, if the experience so far is accurate. Also on the ‘why it’s not as good as KOTOR’ pile is that obviously, it suffers from not being the Star Wars universe. They’ve done a very good job of creating a new setting, probably better than most people could, but it just can’t compete with KOTOR’s pre-built history about Sith and lightsaber waving. No way around that.
On to the combat. It’s far more action-oriented than KOTOR, obviously, with the third-person perspective and direct control of your main character, instead of the indirect queueing of actions that KOTOR did. At first, it’s tough to get used to, and you tend to die an awful lot. That’s because it looks like a shooter, but playing it like one is suicide. You can do the Gears of War (and everything that copied it since) take-cover-and-pop-out approach, but unless you get smart about organising your squad and their powers, as well as your own, you’ll probably fail. This is particularly true if you don’t pick the ‘Soldier’ class, which I didn’t - I never play a ‘meathead’ class in any RPG I play, because I find them the most dull to play (they tend to have the most direct correlation of success simply meaning accumulating raw power, rather than more interesting aspects). I’m an Infiltrator which means majoring on tech skills, I can currently only use pistols and sniper rifles rather than the more destructive assault rifles and shotguns, and until recently could only wear light armour. Thus, in a stand up fight I snapped like a twig at lower levels, and still do now if I don’t plan things right. 😕 You realise quickly that the ‘switch gun / power’ buttons are just like the pause buttons in KOTOR and give you the room you need to plan your attack. Your squad mates are averagely intelligent (sometimes they do stupid things but mostly they’re tolerable) and if you balance your squad well you can get along fine. At first I didn’t like it that much, but now I’m used to it I wouldn’t say it’s any better or worse than KOTOR’s system, they’re just a bit different. Sometimes I think it would be nice to be able to take more direct control of companions rather than just having the 4 simple commands, like you could do in KOTOR, but at least now the AI is a little better than KOTOR was so I didn’t feel the need to do so quite as often.
The missions are fairly varied so far, and I’ve taken the time to go off and do plenty of side-missions; even now I still have a handful of them in my back pocket to do. Most of them are fairly simple affairs - rescue this person, kill that one, find this, explore that - the palette is expectedly limited to the sort of thing you can do in a computer-based RPG. Still, I found them quite engaging and have felt rewarded after having done them - either by closing a subplot element or finding something I wouldn’t have seen had I just stuck to the main plot (e.g. finding and disabling a rogue AI on the main station, having read about the rules that govern them and the background of the Geth). I actually find it quite compulsive to hunt these subplots down in fact, but that’s the RPG’er in me.
There’s a few dodgy bits, like the parts when you’re exploring a planet in your tank / buggy being a little dull at times and linked to this, at one point there’s this Thresher Maw fight (think a mixture of Tremors and Starship Troopers) where be beastie has the potential to come out of the ground directly under your vehicle (instant death with no way to avoid it), which really should have been tweaked better. Occasionally there is a difficulty spike for non-Soldier characters - the problem is that whilst your team can die and recover, if you die, it’s game over (unlike KOTOR when the game was only over when the whole party was dropped). Thus, if you didn’t choose the hard-nut Soldier character class, with his instant ability to wear good armour and take a pummellng, if you’re dropped in a situation where a stand-up fight is the only option (say, a part where you start the encounter off surrounded with almost no cover), it’s a lot harder to make it through. There has only been one occasion of this so far that was extreme enough to annoy me, but it really shouldn’t have been there - if you’re going to allow a varied character class set up, and have a rule where PC death means game over (rather than party death), you shouldn’t create an encounter that is biased towards one type.
However, none of these niggles stop me from highly recommending Mass Effect, if you’re the sort of person who likes a good Sci-Fi RPG. No, it’s not as good as KOTOR, for many reasons, but then (in my view), nothing else available right now is either. Mass Effect comes closer than anything else does - it’s a very solid, very engaging game which has had an awful lot of thought put into it, and if you’re the kind of person who likes getting a bunch of background information about the world you’re playing in, don’t mind doing a bit of reading, and like poking around looking for side quests as well as having a very solid main storyline, you’ll like this. I’ll happily continue to sink many an hour into this game and come away from it satisfied each time, even if I can’t help gazing at the copy of KOTOR on my shelf now and again and sighing wistfully.