Review: Mass Effect (PC)
by Ashe Collins on January 12, 2009

944902_99714_frontMass Effect
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: EA Games
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Release Date: 05/28/08

Granted this game has been out for almost a year on the PC, and over a year on the Xbox 360, but I hadn’t had a PC that could run this effectively in my household until this Christmas when I got my new laptop. Only then could I really get in and play this game thoroughly and look in every nook and cranny it had to offer. And yes, since the downloadable content Bring Down the Sky was free with the PC version, that’s gotten lumped in as well.


Story
One thing Bioware has been really good at over all their years crafting RPGs is to tell a good story, and Mass Effect does just that. Depending on your class, gender, and profile selections during character creation, each time you place this game it’ll be slightly different. Granted there are only two endings, but what goes on getting to those endings is a great experience and slightly different depending on how you play it.

You’re given great options in dialogue and most of the attitudes you’d want to give the NPCs in the game are represented with the appropriate snark from your character. And then of course there’s the usual romance. If you’re playing a male Shepard you can choose between the slightly obnoxious and racist (she hates aliens) hot human chick, or the slightly naive and very blue and hot alien chick. If you’re playing a female Shepard you get to choose between Carth Onasi a slightly sensitive Metrosexual biotic boy or the slightly naive and very blue and hot alien chick. Ahhh, Lesbian sex scene for the win! Oh come on, if you had to pick between the slightly doofy guy with Carth’s voice actor or the hot alien, you’d go for the hot alien too. Cause let’s face it, any real sci-fi fan wants to get with the blue alien at least once. Where was I? Story? Yeah, sorry, got distracted with the lesbians.elizabeth-convo

You start the game as Commander Shepard, a career military person (’cause you can play man or woman in this) who’s being evaluated by the ruling council in the universe, which surprisingly enough, humanity isn’t on. You’ve been given a watchdog in the form of a Spectre, an operative for the council who works above the law, who is evaluating whether or not you’d be a good candidate for the Spectres, which humanity is also not yet involved with.

Let’s just say not all goes well on your first mission, and with much foreshadowing you’re thrown into the thick of things, trying to figure out what’s going on with a mysterious spaceship and the fate of the universe. Most of the NPCs you meet in the game have a back story to them and each of your companions that you pick up have their own unique back story that unfolds as you talk to them between missions. There is a definite sense they can go some really cool places with this world, and the information that they inundate you with at first seems a bit over-whelming, but is much more appreciated later on when you need it when making conversation choices.

I haven’t been this engaged in the story of a PC RPG like this one since Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic and it’s sequel. Bioware really are the masters of spinning a fantastic tale.

Story Rating: Unparalleled


Graphics
saren-looks-madWhile not the game of the year in graphics, this is a truly gorgeous game. The only thing that keeps it from getting an Unparalleled score is some of the repetition. Sure almost all of the planets are unique, and there are a ton of them, but they all have pretty standard outposts on them whether they’re underground or above-ground, you instantly know the layout of each of them in the side-quests, and just a simple re-texture doesn’t cover it. Armor is guilty of the same thing. Much of the scenery has really obvious repeating patterns you’d never see in nature as well.

But why are you rating it so high if there’s all this repetition, you ask? Because what they have put in looks freaking awesome! From the elegant but useful and functional look of the ships, to the amazing views of the Citadel station, to watching a planet set on the horizon of the moon you’re roving across, or the butt of the alien chick in your party as you sneak through another mercenary base, this game looks fantastic. It loses its shiny when you take the settings down a notch, and I did check that, but when you have it all maxed out, this game looks fantastic. The designs are original and unique and the texturing is done really well. That and it’s really hard to make an ugly character in character creation unless you’re really trying hard.marcus-fenix-shepard

I re-created the guy from Gears of War, or rather a close approximation, using some sliders I found online, so yeah, ugly is possible, but it still looks damned good. The character options are a bit limited, but I found this more fun than some of the others I’ve messed with over the years, like Oblivion, where it’s very hard to make someone look either attractive, or the way you had it in your mind before you started changing the settings. The game has a very cinematic quality to it, and I’ve heard people whine about the film grain, but the film grain gives the game a character and feel all it’s own. It just doesn’t look as good without the film grain filter.

Graphics Rating: Amazing


Sound
Bioware didn’t skimp on the talent on this end of things. From some amazing actors like Keith David, Lance Henrickson, and Marina Sirtis, to a fantastically futuristic score that smacks of Blade Runner and some really good effects when pulling the trigger or throwing someone across the screen, the sound runs the gamut. Until that great music starts popping up on every planet you go to that isn’t in the main missions list. Then it’s a bit annoying. Don’t get me wrong, it’s some great work but it can get repetitive if you’re going through every planet in every system that’s available to explore on your map. And I did go everywhere. I have a checklist, so there. A few more themes for those planets out in the boonies would have been nice.wrex-looking-mean

The other issue I have is the dialogue, and this has been in every Bioware game I’ve played since they made Knights of the Old Republic and including that one. Every few interactions with NPCs, the sound will cut out in the dialogue, either at the start or the end, which is ok and only slightly annoying if you have subtitles on, but really annoying when you don’t because you find them too distracting. They have yet to get this quite right, but it happens much less in Mass Effect than it did to me in KOTOR. So they’re getting there, but it cost them some sound cred.

Sound Rating: Incredible


Control and Gameplay
I find this game plays really well on a PC, despite everyone and their brother telling me I’d need an Xbox 360 controller. I have a MERC keyboard that I usually use to play with, and of course the mouse to look around and fire and such, but the basic layout of the keys works so well that I had no problem jumping straight to my regular keyboard to play without any real learning curve. Bonus on that. Usually the default layout is terrible and I have to go in and reconfigure it to something more passable to a control set-up.elizabeth-combat

As far as gameplay goes, there are many action combat engines out there for RPGs, but Mass Effect utilizes a variation on a 3rd person engine that at first felt a lot like Gears of War. Sure you can pause the action to give your squad mates limited orders, but most of the time, the standard AI on the PC version utilizes your squad and their abilities better than you can. It also uses a cover and shield system that works very well on the PC version. Cover provides protection so your shield can build back up, but at the same time you can return fire at the enemy by ducking around the cover, unless you’re using the sniper rifle which can leave you vulnerable, but also provide you with very satisfying one shot kills. There are Biotic and Engineering skills you can use besides your firearms, and I have to say using lift and throw on an enemy is very satisfying, especially when they crunch against the ground or a wall. Almost as good as blowing up key gas tanks or energy canisters in the area or plugging them with a shotgun. Where this differs from a shooter is that the game takes into account your ability with a weapon. Depending on range and how close you are to hitting your targeting reticule, you could miss and miss often. This is an RPG after all and not a shooter.

The other part of the gameplay falls upon driving around in a vehicle that looks like a cross between an APC and the mobile drilling machines from Armageddon. For the most part, the Mako responds really well, turning when you want, stopping when you want and engaging the thrusters quite well to break a fall or jump over a missile. Yeah you read that right. It even handles well on most of the hills. My two complaints with the Mako sequences, and these are outside of the main missions and only the sidequests, are it’s handling in mountains and targeting and firing in those mountains.mako-trap

Most of the time the Mako handles like a dream, until you’re climbing up a mountain or trying to maneuver around those steep cliffs and then it’s like driving a great lumbering moose. That was the only time I ever cursed at the thing was during those secondary quests looking for more minerals or anomalies showing up on radar. The other problem with that is the Mako has a certain targeting area. It follows your mouse along, but if you’re on a steep incline going either way you’re going to have a problem shooting the enemy in your sights. You’re just not going to hit them and be forced to move out of cover. It’s a minor annoyance, but it does shatter your amusing romp on the wilderness planets.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Great


Replayability
There is a LOT to do in Mass Effect, even just sticking to the main quests. It’s easy to miss things, and there are checklists out there to make sure you’ve hit every system and planet, but on top of that, each time you create a new character with differing classes, back story and gender, the story changes slightly. There are different secondary missions available to you, differing love interests, even the way you’re treated is slightly different by the NPCs you encounter. Then of course, depending upon how you play it, being a Paragon or a Renegade can and will create differences. There are also achievements that you can unlock that give you different benefits the next time you start a new character and others that are just there to brag about.elizabeth-weapon

I’d say Mass Effectt is good for a number of play-throughs, with at least two just for the differing experiences of seeing what the Paragon or Renegade have to offer. Me I’m planning on playing this for awhile, and if it’s anything like my gaming relationship with KOTOR, I’ll have replayed it 6 or 7 times before the sequel even shows up on shelves.

Replayability Rating: Great


Balance
Balance can be a fine line in an RPG. Many are too hard at the start and then insanely easy towards the end, some easy to start and then impossible at the end without the special gear throughout the game. I found the difficulty settings on Mass Effect to be very telling, and very accurate. ‘Casual’ is just that. It takes very little effort and you don’t really even need to use cover and very few times is medi-gel needed to get your hit points up. The enemy AI is, well, retarded and will charge you now matter how armed you are and end up dead fairly quickly. From Casual it moves further and further up to Insanity, which has to be unlocked by a play-through. As you up the difficulty level, the more competent the enemy AI is, and the more you have to use strategy instead of just bum-rushing them all.

The bosses aren’t insanely hard either, but you have to use different tactics to fight each of them, which is refreshing to see in an RPG, action or otherwise. I grew kind of tired of having to grind my characters up just to survive the super blast of the final boss so they could deal 50 million damage to it over the course of an hour’s combat. I like being able to exercise a bit of combat strategy and have it work effectively taking the bosses down. Overall I’d say depending on which difficulty level you’re playing at, Mass Effect has nailed that delicate balancing act.

Balance Rating: Amazing


Originalitymarcus-bridge
It’s a whole new universe and Bioware made it all up on their lonesome. Granted, the linear RPG isn’t new, but the Mass Effect universe is, and the new exploration means as well as throwing in actual combat-ish moves like cover into the action RPG is new as well. This game has a lot going for it in the originality department, but it loses some points as it has the feel of a game I’ve played before, KOTOR. A group of assembled aliens traveling around in a spaceship landing on different planets trying to stop the bad guy from taking over the universe, where you can wander your ship and talk to you teammates. Yeah, and it has biotics, which work amazingly like Jedi powers. Really all the game needs is lightsabers (surprisingly you don’t get any melee weapons even though you can go toe to toe with enemies) and some dark Jedi to give it that total Star Wars feel. And yet, it feels like something completely new and different.

It’s like the designers went into Blade Runner, Aliens, Star Trek,Star Wars and any other good sci-fi out there and took what they wanted and what they thought would work and made it their own. Which is really what any good sci-fi does, and that, of course, is steal from Doctor Who. :P But even when you’re seeing things borrowed from other sci-fi and media, it’s almost always an homage and never the same as we’ve seen it before. The Geth aren’t exactly the Cylons, they’re much more evolved than the Centurions from the old show. The bug-like Rachni popping out of the floors has that same creep factor that it did when you were watching Aliens the first time and all those Xenomorphs dropped out of the ceiling on Ripley and crew. Biorware took what worked, made it their own and presented it in this new way within their own universe and that’s really what it’s all about.

Originality Rating: Classic


Addictiveness
Very few games, and I do mean VERY few games, will get me to play them to completion on my own within a week unless I have to for a review. This one, much like KOTOR did so many years ago, had me playing whenever I could, wherever I could (it IS on my laptop you know), and then after the first time I beat it, having invested 36 hours into it already and having pulled an all-nighter playing this and only this, I went in and made a new character so I could keep playing it. Most games hold my attention for a few days and then get shelved until I come back to them in a month (games I review are obviously an exception) when my interest returns.sovereign-reigns

Not Mass Effect. My wife has basically become a Mass Effect widow, and with me going to second shift I’ll get even more uninterrupted time to play this game while she’s at work. Yeah, I’m an addict, and I don’t care. No meetings for me, just more Mass Effect. I’ll have to be careful because I have a tendency to really overdo it with things I love, and I’m sure my co-workers, friends and of course, my wife, will get sick of hearing about this game pretty quickly.

Addictiveness Rating: Amazing


Appeal Factor
Bioware has a good habit of churning out quality product, and even with the unrealistic DRM (although I do like being able to play it without the disc in) in place by EA, the PC version has a lot going for it. From streamlining the combat from the 360 version, to improved controls with the Mako, the free DLC, and being one hell of an RPG in a PC market lacking many exceptional ‘next-gen’ RPGs, this game more than has a niche. I know a bunch of Xbox 360 owners who bought this game over again on PC even though they had it on the Xbox so they aren’t always tied to the TV. The appeal and the addiction is there folks. Even now.

Appeal Factor Rating: Amazing


Miscellaneous
Crashing and bugs. Having played through this on Max settings with a stock laptop (including stock drivers – yeah I didn’t even upgrade those) I only had Mass Effect crash out to desktop 4 times in a total of 36 and a half hours of play-time. Compared to Oblivion and other PC RPGs, this is pretty phenomenal. I’ve heard of other people having all sorts of problems with it, but running this in Vista-64 with little to no problems I was astounded. Demiurge did a great job bringing this over to PC, with just a few quirks that could use some work.

Whenever it did crash it was when i was talking to someone, so it’s probably my sound drivers there. I had a few other oddities that didn’t really affect gameplay, and by few I mean 2 oddities. Once on the bridge the XO was floating. I don’t mean he was high or anything, but he was about 5 ft off the deck floating in the air next to his console. I was highly amused by this and walked circles around him for awhile and then after I talked to him he was back on the floor again.marcus-in-game

The other time, Liara (the blue alien chick) was determined to engage in combat with anything and everything after I’d put weapons away and tried to rally her. She wouldn’t stick by me, just stood there with her weapon out looking all blue and hot and angry. After I jumped in one of the many elevators in the game she started behaving again and I haven’t had her or any other team member do that again since.

I realize many people have been having problems with this and I have to wonder if it’s their systems. This game requires a LOT of processing power. I really don’t think a single core is up to it even if they have a single core listed as the minimum requirement. It pushed my dual cores to the max 90% of the time I was playing. Up to date drivers or the recommended ones for this game would obviously be a must. For a 360 port to the PC though, this has been an incredibly smooth game and I have to give the programmers their due for this.

My other misc. that really doesn’t fit anywhere else, are the Easter Eggs that Bioware threw in. From the Star Trek III reference I caught, to the DLC Bring Down the Sky feeling like Armageddon with alien invaders, one of the alien races being stuck in a flotilla of spaceships after having their homeworld wiped out by their own robotic creations ala Battlestar Galactica, this game has references all over the place to the classics. They even reference a few great fantasy stories I’ve read. They’re not always obvious, but they are fun and gave me great amusement.

Miscellaneous Rating: Classic


The Scores
Story: Unparalleled
Graphics: Amazing
Sound: Incredible
Control and Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Great
Balance: Amazing
Originality: Classic
Addictiveness: Amazing
Appeal Factor: Amazing
Miscellaneous: Classic
FINAL SCORE: CLASSIC GAME

Short Attention Span Summary
Gaming Rexes are sad!Mass Effect is an addictive, original, sci-fi action RPG that really delivers a fantastic story that any sci-fi or RPG fan can appreciate. The PC version has fixed a few bumps and glitches that were present in the 360 version, and although it needs a beast of a PC to run, is well worth having and ranks right up there with the other recent PC RPGs that have hit the market the last few years. Do yourself a favor and get this game.




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Ashe Collins

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