Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Mass Effect

Having dealt with Bethesda Softworks in my Skyrim review, it's now time for me to assassinate the other golden boy of modern video game role-playing, BioWare. The first time I played Mass Effect was on PC and I hated it. I was bored by both the story and the gameplay but I daresay my frustrations were compounded by technical issues on the machine I was using to play the game. When I eventually got an Xbox I decided it was time to give Mass Effect another go. It didn't annoy me as much this time around and I managed to slog my way through to the end but it didn't change my opinion that it has to be one of the most astonishingly overrated games of recent years.
As I said in my Skyrim review, big titles like this receive huge amounts of irresponsible praise. It is irresponsible in the sense that it lets the developers get away with too much. People simply love these games far more than they deserve, so the problem is really with people and not with games themselves, but it's nonetheless necessary to point out the flaws and take a moderated view not blinded by fanboyism. Of course, moderate discourse has become impossible in the age of the internet - you'd better love Mass Effect or else you're a troll. Well sadly I don't love Mass Effect. It's at best a decent game, maybe a little above average, but so much of it is cliché, generic, stock and unoriginal that I simply can't understand why it is treated with such disturbing reverence by so many people.
The much-touted story of Mass Effect is the source of a great deal of this adoration. You play as Commander Shepard, a person whose sex, appearance and past history is up to your choice, and get sent on a mission to save the galaxy from the evil Geth machine-people and their masters, the Reapers, who want to destroy all life. On the way you visit planets, accumulate a crack team of buddies from the main alien races and discover all sorts of mysteries and intrigues from around the stars. The story is okay, I'll admit. It didn't exactly blow my mind but it's decent. There's a reasonable amount of detail to the setting and some of the characters are fairly interesting. It's just not that fresh. Godlike aliens who want to kill everybody is as old as Lovecraft, aliens who are also spaceships goes back at least as far as Athur Clarke and machine people are hardly new. Just look at Terminator or something. If the Reapers reminded me of anything, actually, it was the Necrons from Warhammer 40,000. The point is it's really just an assemblage of pretty old science fiction tropes bundled together to push the right buttons. Mass Appeal would probably be an equally appropriate title. You can tell there's meant to be something in there for the Star Wars fan, the Trekkie, the Firefly enthusiast, the Battlestar Galactica fan, pretty much anyone. I've heard some people defend this and Dragon Age by saying that BioWare's current mission is to make the most generic science fiction and fantasy franchises of all time or something and I guess if that really is their intention then mission accomplished.
Some of the characters are good, particularly the aliens. My personal favourites were Garrus and Tali. Wrex too is interesting but the difficulty of keeping him alive in the Virmire mission was a frustration. Ashley and Kaiden, the two human characters, are deeply boring and when it came to the point where you're forced to sacrifice one or the other for the good of the mission I found myself challenged to decide which one of them I disliked the least. In the end even though I disliked Ashley more for being small-minded, bigoted, sycophantic and dull, I reasoned that saving her meant saving the Salarians who were with her, and I liked them. Kaiden was just one man, and I reasoned that by letting him get blown up I was really just putting him out of his misery due to those nasty incurable headaches he got from his biotic implants. So really in the end I found my conscience reasonably clear, but I wonder what it says of a game where the alien characters are far more interesting than the humans. I liked Garrus because much like my Shepard he was pretty no-nonsense and had the good old "if you want something done you'd better do it yourself" attitude due to being surrounded by idiots and bureaucrats. Tali was kind of endearing because of her quest and because her race, the Quarians, had a fairly interesting backstory. The one companion character I've neglected to mention was Liara, the Asari archaeologist "girl" you rescue. She kind of annoyed me; I tried to have a decent chat with all of the buddies between missions and she always came on way too strong. "Romantic" options are a big part of Mass Effect, allegedly, but since my Shepard was a man and Ashley was really annoying my only option was the far too intense Liara. You really get herded towards Liara's romantic plotline but I'd decided that my Shepard, being a jaded veteran whose job took up most of his personality, had a terrible anathema to romance or affection of any kind and had to shut down Liara's advances as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Indeed the only character I could fathom my Shepard possibly wanting to take things further with was Tali and that wasn't an option.
So there is the story and there are the characters of Mass Effect. Pretty standard really, with a huge dollop of escapism and the potential for wish fulfilment that I'm sure is what has accounted for a lot of its popularity among the geeky masses. Now it's time to talk about the gameplay. I hear you bleating that Mass Effect isn't about the gameplay, but blow that for a game of soldiers because it's a damn game so I'm going to review it as a game. It's not just a space opera movie with occasional thumbstick-twiddling. It's a game, and no manner of close-ups and allegedly "cinematic" use of shots is going to change that. The gameplay, frankly, is a bit arsey at times. Third person shooters have never really been my thing but I think part of that is because when you get right down to it the whole idea of third person shooting is a bit stupid. First person is good for ranged style gameplay and third person is good for action and close-quarters combat. Mass Effect uses the ever-frustrating "glue yourself to cover" style of shooting mechanics and while on Normal difficulty things are generally manageable enough I occasionally found myself having difficulty figuring out what the hell was going on, usually because Shepard's health was going down the drain due to being hit by a grenade because he wasn't in cover properly or something. You're generally just a bit slow as well and I was often begging for Shepard to run faster around the place, especially during fetch-quest type bits before action sequences. During combat you can give your buddies orders but that doesn't stop them regularly throwing themselves at the enemy and getting rapidly killed. Garrus in particular seemed to have the survival instincts of a mosquito and paper armour. One thing that really irritated me was the lack of a good party system. When you make planetfall you go out into the fray with two buddies while the rest stay behind twiddling their thumbs on the ship. I had six people in my crack team and I wanted all of them! It would have been way more fun taking down the bad guys with a group of seven rather than three, and simpler too of course, but obviously with more options and versatility. The annoying thing is Garrus and Wrex often had the best context-specific dialogue so I usually took them with me so I never really had a chance to see the rest in action. Maybe this is to encourage you to replay the game but screw that, it's not that good. I realise a memory issue might be a reason for only having a small team but dammit, I wanted all six of my buddies to be running around with me and it was always annoying that I couldn't.
Again while they occasionally have some decent storytelling behind them most of the sidequests are very repetitive. You land on a planet, drive around a confined and often difficult-to-navigate area of terrain, you find a base of Geth or other dastardly foes, you kill them, and then you get some dialogue. The spaceship boarding operations added some variety but the fact that all the ships are identical killed this somewhat too. It was easy to get stuck on planets trying to get to your destination with borderline-impassable mountains in the way and the fact that you can operate only in predefined spaces on the ground rather than anywhere your feet could conceivably go in real life is regularly frustrating. This was compounded by the Mako, your vehicle for ground driving sections. Plenty of people complain about the Mako, and the fact of the matter is that it really is rubbish. The guns are very inaccurate and the controls border on the absurd. The left thumbstick (on the Xbox) drives the Mako with a push forward and turns it with left and right. That's all fair enough. The right thumbstick adjusts your view so you can look around. Unfortunately for some reason they decided that pushing the left stick forward shouldn't mean it makes the Mako drive in the direction its front is facing but rather that it should make the Mako drive in whatever direction is "in front" according to the camera. So you can be pushing forward to drive along, spot a big Geth nasty to your left, turn the camera left for a snipe with the cannon, and then suddenly the Mako's driving on a new trajectory, usually off a cliff or into a wall. There are effectively two separate, potentially conflicting methods of steering and it's incredibly off-putting. The gameplay, or at least the combat, is definitely not the worthwhile part of the game, and the story is not good enough to completely compensate for it in my eyes. A bit of half-decent character development or an occasional mildly-interesting plot revelation often feels hardly worth the half hour of punishment you usually have to suffer in the action sequences required to achieve said goals.
The problem I feel is that there's too much delineation between the combat and dialogue sections of the game. Every action sequence feels like just an obstruction between the story bits, which are the better part of the game, and since most gameplay segments basically involving hiding behind cover and taking pot-shots at enemies on the other side of the room, and then rinse-and-repeating for multiple rooms in a row, things can get practically like a rail shooter at times. The repetition starts to grate after a while but the more story you get the more it feels like interactive fiction rather than a game. I honestly feel like Mass Effect is a fundamentally hollow experience where the unspectacular gameplay is never sufficiently payed off with a plot that's particularly original or challenging.
What else is there worth mentioning? The graphics are decent of course, but I'd be surprised if they weren't in the current generation. Character customisation is okay I guess. The physical customisation certainly encourages your character to be a bit too "Hollywood" in my opinion but maybe that's meant to reinforce the game's pretensions of cinema. Powers and abilities are all right but a bit tricky to manage on a controller and the role-playing elements don't force you down one path or the other. I was glad that 'Paragon' and 'Renegade' progression was not mutually exclusive because I wanted to cultivate a believable character of rationality around my Shepard. I've got to say that I don't think the music's particularly good at all. It's unmemorable and strives a little too hard to be futuristic. The best is probably the galaxy map theme.
Overall Mass Effect is an adequate game. It's worth playing for a reasonably long and detailed story. That being said the combat gameplay is pretty mediocre, the vehicle sections are extremely off-putting and the plot is really quite unoriginal. It's mild entertainment and nothing more. The only explanation I can give for this game's popularity and success is that modern video game players just don't know any better. Ignorance cultivates the kind of hysteria which surrounds games like this. Modern geekdom is a culture of sheep where growing need for accessibility has promoted ultimately shallow experiences as better than what they are. The depth of backstory is of course impressive but as I've stated if you've read any science fiction from even fifty years ago or more not much is going to surprise you. Maybe they're relying on people who haven't, which wouldn't surprise me in today's moron culture. Overhyped and overrated, to me personally it is an emblem of how uncritical and easily satisfied we have become as a culture. Some decently-written characters and pretty graphics aren't enough to make a game great or even especially good in my eyes. This has been a generation of overrated games in general where mediocrity is lauded as genius but I could give a few examples of games from recent years that I think do things better. Red Dead Redemption has better third person combat. BioShock has a storyline with more depth. Fallout: New Vegas has better role-playing. Mass Effect's main strength is, as I've said, it's fairly decent characterisation, coupled with some pretty respectable voice acting, but it's not a game-maker for me. I guess the thing is if you want escapism by being a space hero or you're after a generic tribute to space opera and mass-market sci fi then sure, Mass Effect is fine, but please don't act as if it's one of the best games of all time. It's not.
Oh actually one other thing that was good were the planet descriptions. This is going to sound super nerdy of me but genuinely one of my favourite bits in the game was reading all the different geological, atmospheric, mineralogical and historical details and curiosities they'd invented for the planets. I'm quite serious. I find that kind of stuff interesting.

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