Mass Effect
by Dan Hunt

If this is the prochronistic 'Next Generation', then gaze upon the Next Generation, and despair.

Mass Effect once again proves that Bioware's ability to overhype a game is better than their ability to create one. Many things were said by Bioware leading to the release of this game. Tales were told, tales were given a spin, and tales became tall. I am not, of course, implying that Bioware are liars, but I am implying that they did make erroneous claims, and tell certain untruths. The universe of Mass Effect was to be an expansive and realistic gameworld (A tall order, following Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion) in which we could lose ourselves, in which was contained countless missions of varying means and objectives, that may or may not have been related to the main plot. This was a world so vast that we could play the game through twice and never see the same thing. This was a game so huge that we might miss an entire sub-plot, for ever, if we deigned not to speak with a giant reptile in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. This was a game where the players guiding morals and principles dictated the effect that their character had on everything around him.

This was, however, not the game that we received. Mass Effect was promised to be something so awe-inspiring that we could barely have dared to dream about it up until this point. It did inspire awe, yes. But for all the wrong reasons.

As every game is played via control interface and visuals, I will start my meandering diatribe in these mountainous regions.

The visuals, I'm told, are very nice. I've never actually witnessed the visuals myself, of course - thanks to Bioware's inability to check the restrictions of the single console it was being released on.

Sometimes a game is too taxing on the hardware it runs on; this will happen every now and then - mainly with PC games and poorly-done ports. Outside of that, however, there is little excuse for a game being too demanding on a console's hardware. Mass Effect falls into neither of the categories above, and yet the 360 will be unable to load graphics in time to display them - even after the frequent loading screens. Even taking a casual stroll through the game, the graphics will be unable to load themselves quickly enough - this might not have been such a gripe if not for the fact that almost every area was broken down by a series of elevators and doors to slow you down while the game loaded. It has been postulated that the only thing that could slow you down long enough for the game to load would be broken kneecaps. I find no flaw in that theory.

After a few hours of placeholder graphics (Which leads me to the conclusion that Bioware knew about the problem, yet ignored it anyway), I started to wonder if it wasn't my 360 that was screwed. The game was consistently aiming a floating pistol at people - a pistol that I can only assume was being held by a Shepherd who was still loading. The game almost became a 'Whodunnit' for me, as I sat there exclaiming; "Who the fuck just shot that guy? Why is he dead? What the fuck are they all looking at?" And also; "Why the fuck are Bioware still in business?"


If you're lucky, you'll see something like this.

So, despite being state-of-the-art, the graphics were a mess. The user interface was also a mess. Moving about the gameworld was a harrowing and noxious (Yes, noxious) task, thanks to the clunky controls and endless reams of doors and elevators. Controlling your squad through the interface at first felt clumsy, and then frustrating. After only a few hours I set my squad AI to full auto. I just couldn't cope with giving commands through that retarded wheel anymore.

Let us also, for one breif moment, discuss the AI.

This AI is unique in the fact that it doesn't even pretend to do what it is supposed to; which is to provide both allies and enemies with reasonable patterns of behaviour. This is not the case for Mass Effect. Enemy soldiers will break cover - while under fire! - to charge at your position, while your allies stand right out in the open, taking fire, trying to shoot someone who is behind a wall. Unfortunately, they will rarely detect any other enemies shooting at them, and will usually ignore any commands for them to take cover. I've never so much as fired a gun in my life; and even I can be fairly sure that these are not the standard military tactics.

Moving back to the interface. Assuming you survive your kamikaze (and annoyingly effective) enemies and your equally suicidal (though less effective) squad mates, you will eventually pick up some items. But, before you go getting too excited, let me tell you about Bioware's secret rules of items, which they will forget to mention until it's too late.

     A) You can only carry 150 items in total, at any given time, and will not be informed of this until your bags are almost 90% full.

     B) You have no inventory screen. Your inventory is accessed via the equipment menu.

     C) You may not decide how to organise your inventory. Items will be organised by rank - rank which is not always indicative of quality.

     D) When deciding what to keep and what to trash, you must constantly scroll up and down to check that you do not have a higher rank of any given item.

     E) You must waste a large portion of your time going through every category, and then every sub-category, trying to find stuff to get rid of.

     F) All items of a given type give the same amount of Omnigel. An antique AK-47 will give 4 Omnigel, and so will a prototype mega-nuclear-fuckblammo-cannon-rifle.

     G) You may sell all of your good shit at a vendor, just because you can't be asked with our shitty menus.

     H) You may not have a patch to fix any of this shit.

I had a lawyer give me a simplified breakdown. Translated, it means 'Fuck you, and thanks for your cash.'.

Briefly touching on the subject of Omnigel, suffice it to say that Omnigel can be defined as some sort of wicked useful space alien plasma gel. Apparently, by melting down all your high-tech guns, you can use the refined materials to unlock doors, boxes and disarm nuclear warheads. Sure. Apparently the combined intellect of several spacefaring races is insufficient to design a door-lock that doesn't fall apart when someone rubs their mysterious space goo on it.

As it falls under almost the same category, let us consider the actual items and equipment in the game. Aesthetically, it was disappointing. This is not an important concern for me - I did, for a short term, equip my John Shepard and his manly visage with a pink spacesuit. I'm not averse to wearing outlandish raiments when they bestow worthy statistics upon me, and thus, I don't find a problem with Mass Effect's fug-ugly equipment. The problem is; it all looks the same. I saw somewhere just in excess of five different rifle models, and perhaps the same amount of skins, throughout two playthroughs of the game. The same can be said of the other equipment - most of the gear you pick up is an 'upgraded model' of earlier material, and looks exactly the same.

It should be noted, for Bioware's admittedly meagre defence, that there may be in existence ways and means around the UI problems. Our kind shall never discover these tricks, however, because the game lacks any kind of comprehensive tutorial. This is not a problem unique to the game, admittedly; videogames always seem to oscillate between too much and too little explanation. Mass Effect falls into the latter category - far too little. The scant tutorial you get (which comes after the first few firefights, I might add), tells you how to use the cover system, how to crouch, and how to fire from cover. These may seem like useful skills until you take into account that the cover system is made almost completely redundant by the kamikaze A.I. In all honestly, you might as well just strafe around like a twelve-year old in a Halo 3 Slayer match. With that being the case, then perhaps the tutorial would have served better if it instructed you in such essential learnings as; playing a game and howling expletives at the same time, and the always-tasteful Corpse Hump technique.

The interface, AI and graphical problems might seem trifling - and they are. You still have a huge and non-repetetive universe to explore, all the while being mindful of the fact that your actions can change the outcome of things, right? Well, actually, no. Before we even get into the lack of difference choice makes to the plot, let's get into how little your dialogue choices make a difference. There are many, many places where 3 or more of the dialogue choices have Shepard say the same thing, in the same tone and manner, and get the same response. What Mass Effect gives you is just an illusion of choice. The same can be said of the rest of the game. Regardless of what choice you make, your main mission will always have the same objectives, on the same planets, with the same people (bar a few that you can kill off at various points). We'll get into the main plot in detail later. At this juncture, suffice it to say that no matter what you do, everything ends up the same way. Bioware also seem to harbour illusions of a random selection between two missions upon entering a constellation meaning that two peoples experience of the game will be completely different.

But hey, you've still got a huge universe to explore, just without the player choice and with an embarrassment of technical problems, right? Actually, yes, yes you do. Unfortunately for you, that universe is a barren and empty wasteland. Most planet maps are fairly large, but they have nothing in them. A few rocks to mine, maybe an encounter here and there, and most planets have a mission in them - which will invariably have you shooting down the same enemies in the same rooms - it should be mentioned that there are only four kinds of 'dungeons' (for want of a better word) to crawl outside of the ones seen in the main plot. A warehouse full of crates, a mine also full of crates, a sort of laboratory-storage place - Bioware broke the mould by filling this one with boxes, and finally, a spaceship - which may or may not contain receptacles.

So what do you have left now? No choice, nothing interesting to do, and the games glaring technical faults will fuck you sideways while you do it.

What about this overarching plot that the game forces you into? That must be worth something.

I don't know how he got this published.
Well, no. The plot is about as deep as a rain puddle, and almost as original.

For a start, Drew Karpyshyn isn't a great writer - the prequel book (Mass Effect: Revelation) is decidedly poor work - it was a tedious exercise of my will to stay awake while yawning 'MacGuffin' every ten minutes. And the current sum of the franchise's overarching plot - ancient ruins of a space faring race, spec-ops team saves the world from an even more ancient race that's been locked in dead space, etc - sounds a lot like Halo to me. Before the Halo critics or fans start jumping up and down, frothing at the mouth with rage, let me say that I do not consider the overarching Halo plot to be some sort of modern sci-fi ground-breaker. It just needs to be said that the two overarching plots are very easily comparable. It would be easy to shoot that comparison down by getting into detail about events and other minutiae in each plot, yes, but it would also be easy to reconstruct it by describing the sum of the currently revealed plot of both franchises up - at the same time.

Bioware's cataclysmic handling of the controls even managed to ruin the MAKO Jeep. I'm all for jeeps - especially when they've got chainguns and cannons mounted on them. Bioware managed to ruin even this however. There's a lot of shitty mini-games in every genre of that will have you driving shitty vehicles. They are usually over quicly, and seldom have to be repeated. I thought I had seen the pinnacle of shitty vehicles in Halo's four-wheeled steering abortion that is the Warthog. Unlike the Warthog, though, Mass Effect's MAKO doesn't invariably land every jump upside down. Despite that, it is still a traumatic and excruciating task that you are forced to repeat, time and time again.

Fighting in the MAKO is a challenging experience at first - mainly because you are, as is the norm for Mass Effect, given no instruction in how to use it. I was about 20 hours into the game before I even found the zoom function. I don't feel that I am at fault, or can take any blame for not looking for it - who would expect to find a zoom on a chaingun-mounted cannon? Despite not knowing about the zoom, the chaingun and cannon were still very useful for me - provided I could either sit still or drive straight towards the target while I fired. The aiming and the driving are both controlled by the same stick. Apparently Bioware couldn't envision a situation where you may want to fire at something and not drive towards it. A lot of things that encountered in the MAKO are designed solely for vehicular combat - so you'll be making awkward circular strafing manoeuvres around them while firing wildly with the cannon that is near-impossible to aim.

Not to mention that the physics engine is extremely poor, and, just like the rest of the game, has its own large portion of bugs and inconsistencies. There was one part of the game, for instance, where the physics engine didn't seem to load the gravity - and I'm sure there was supposed to be gravity, as when I reloaded, it was miraculously there again. And then there was the time the MAKO managed to get stuck vertically to the wall. That was certainly a fun experience. The character creation at the beginning has a huge impact on the rest of the game. The customisation of appearance is leaps and bounds above what we saw in Oblivion, and this is probably the only marketed quality that Bioware delivered on. However, the customisation of class is severely limited. There are six full and separate classes, but the severely limited A.I. means that you will almost always pick the Soldier class. Even then, some skills are made almost completely useless because of the kamikaze enemies and their frustrating habit of charging straight at you. For example, taking Sniper Rifles as a main skill may seem like a good idea at the time - after all, the game is offline and you can use the weapon without having your ears sodomised by some mouthy 14-year old who's having a tantrum over it. But taking Sniper Rifles is not, in fact, a good idea. At the outer edge of the gun's effective range, your allies (and here comes another wonderful A.I. flaw), even those with appropriate equipment and talents, will just stand there while you're shooting at enemies who are able to use their assault rifles at greater ranges with better accuracy. And guess what - now that you've put those points into Sniper Rifles, you can't ever un-spend them. Ever. Looks like you're restarting the game then, unless you want the player character to be just as perfectly useless as the A.I. squadmates.

The pistol skill was also lacking, as was the shotgun. Shotguns have been traditionally used in games to give the player a high-firepower option in close-quarters combat. This was not the case in Mass Effect, however. Shotguns were regularly outperformed in damage, shots before overheat, accuracy... in fact, they were pretty much useless next to rifles. By the time you manage to collect some of the top-drawer weapons in the game, you should have realised that a rifle wielding soldier is pretty much the only viable class/weapon combo. Seriously, don't even bother with anything else. If you do, you may be laughed at.

Thanks to your less-than-stellar squadmates and the unending hordes of kamikaze enemies, you'll find yourself reloading a few timeswhen playing the game, and as the autosave system is irregular and unreliable, you'll have to save it all manually. And, because Bioware can never injure without insulting, if you save before a boss fight, for example, you'll usually have to sit through reams of poorly-worded dialogue and half-hearted attempts at motion capture acting every time you reload. Joy.

The overall verdict is that Mass Effect is a game that should have been scoring just below average in most reviews; a plot that is essentially the same old sci-fi crap, graphics that are state of the art, but flawed, poor AI, sub-standard controls, restricting game mechanics and less replayability than we previously believed. But, thanks the relentless trundle of the atrocious hype machine, we have probably the most overhyped game since (gasp) Daikatana. Ok, so maybe that's a little harsh. Certainly the most overhyped game since Halo 2, however.

All that said, it was a nice idea. A nice idea that was poorly written, designed, and left with an almost frightening amount of problems that should have been hammered out in the alpha-testing phase.

So after stripping away all the hype and the press, and other assorted bullshit, what are we left with? A sub-standard shooter with poor A.I., framerate problems, a plethora of glaring technical faults, and a mostly one-track and uninteresting plot.

Oh, and I guess there's that sex scene everyone who isn't a gamer seems so interested in - assuming it can load in time, of course.

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