Get the low-down on my first impressions of the Xbox 360 version of Mass Effect.
Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: Mass Effect is a lot of fun to play. In fact, if you have any intentions of playing Mass Effect, you might want to set aside a nice chunk of your day, because the hours are just going to fly right by you. Oh yeah, Mass Effect is one of those games. It manages to be a full-blown, action-filled romp across space, and yet it still finds time for a little bit of intergallactic soap-opera and traditional politics.
Let me get out of the way for you the thing that I first noticed about Mass Effect: it’s a great looking Xbox 360 game. Even so many years after its initial release, I am still impressed with the visuals this game offers. Complex models and great textures are just part of the package; you also get incredible effects throughout the game. Unfortunately this much doesn’t come without a small price. The game has a few framerate hitches at times, and there’s a good number of texture pop-ins. The thing is, none of this will really matter once you play the game. The little technical hiccups don’t detract in any way from the game.
The character creation process in Mass Effect far surpassed my expectations. This is the kind of character creation system we’d be more accustomed to seeing in a sports game. You can customize a bunch of individual slides for each part of your body. The most amazing part of the character creation system is that, given all of the possibilities you have for character creation, the game still implements your exact creation in the game’s cut scenes. It’s rather awesome to see your custom-made character in these prescripted cut-scenes, and it really gives the game that extra layer of role-playing goodness.
The gameplay in Mass Effect is great fun, but it also feels like it suffers from a little bit of an identity crisis. The game wants to give you all the decision-making abilities you’d find in a great RPG, but when you’re thrown into combat you’re just blasting your way through foes. The combat is actually quite RPG-heavy, but you’d never really notice it if you weren’t trying to find it. Things like aim actually have very little to do with Mass Effect; your only need be that you’re in the general area of the enemy you’re trying to shoot. Rather or not the shot will actually hit is handled by your stats, similar to the way it would be done in a more traditional RPG. Until this realization dawns on you, you’ll spend a little bit of time frustrated, wondering why your shots aren’t hitting even when you’re dead on the mark.
Okay, so maybe the third-person shooter elements in Mass Effect are light, but there’s no mistaken their presence. The game encourages you to use cover, something that games like Knights of the Old Republic never required. In fact, I suppose that’s not even accurate, because the game makes you use cover. If you try to play Mass Effect with guns blazing, you’ll die very often, and some firefights will even be impossible. Oh yes, and you’ll spend a lot of time behind cover, because Mass Effect has no shortage of awesome firefights, and every one of them manages to feel unique and interesting, meaning that you won’t get bored after the first three or four waves.
So let’s get back to the role-playing elements of Mass Effect, shall we? The game’s dialogue sequences gives you no shortage of options, and you’ll frequently find yourself controlling the flow of the conversation through these choices. Unlike the Bioware of old, Mass Effect does something a little bit different with its dialogue options. In the past games, you’d be given a choice of things to say; in Mass Effect, the choices merely reflect a certain tone and position, and the selection you make with regards to what to say isn’t exactly what will come out of your character’s mouth. Another improvement over previous Bioware games is the fact that you can make your choices while the other character is still speaking, meaning that the flow of the conversation doesn’t have to be broken while you try to decide what you want to say. This makes the dialogue sequences more smooth than previous games, which is nice considering the amount of dialogue you’ll be engaged in.
The game has a morals system in similar fashion to the other Bioware games, except this time around you’re level of goodness and badness aren’t on opposite ends of the same spectrum. Instead each one has its own scale, leaving you with more capability to end up in the gray area. It’s an interesting change over the previous games, because you won’t have to watch that spectrum move towards red when you make a bad choice or do something you knew was wrong. It keeps things interesting, and it allows for a wider variety of characters and attitudes, since you’re no longer tied to the old black-and-white system of morality.
The problem with Mass Effect from a gameplay perspective is that the menus are sometimes convoluted, and it’ll take you some time to figure out what everything means. I spent about 20 minutes trying to figure out what different things meant and did, and the instructions offered little in the way of assistance with this matter. That said, once you’ve taken the time to understand the menus, it all pretty much becomes second nature.
The sound design in Mass Effect is wonderful. Weapons really seem to have that pop to them, and the music is brilliant if not subtle. The best part of the sound design, though, is in the top-notch voice acting. All the actors did an incredible job delivering their lines with the sense of emotion that you think they should have, and you don’t have the same two or three voice actors reprising hundreds of roles. The sheer amount of recorded dialogue in Mass Effect is mind-blowing, and considering the fact that they squeezed that much audio onto a dual-layer DVD without sacrificing the quality is a testament to the things Bioware can do when they set their minds to it.
Oh yeah, and before I close out this article, I guess I should mention the Mako. The Mako is a vehicle that you use to navigate planets. I’ve only had one segment where I’ve drove a Mako, but let me tell you something: it’s rather frustrating. The controls feel over-responsive and loose. You can engage in combat from within the Mako, but if you can avoid it, you’re better off to not do that. I found that it was more effective – at least in the scenario I played through – to hop out of the Mako and do the combat on foot. It’s a minor flaw in a game that otherwise feels so polished, but it makes the whole Mako concept feel like a tacked-on afterthought.
So Mass Effect is great. Maybe you don’t need me to tell you that, but it’s something that I think needs to be said again. The game just oozes with a level of polish that not very many developers can fully capture in their games. And even for a game that seems at times to, perhaps, spread itself a little bit too thin, you won’t get the feeling that it didn’t work.
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