Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Mass Effect - Dust Forms Words Game of the Year 2007

It’s inevitable at this time of year that people ask me what I thought was the 2007 Game of the Year, and when I’m asked that question I answer honestly. It’s similarly inevitable that I then have to defend myself for some hours with my trusty shotgun, because my answer to the question isn’t Portal.

In the late part of 2007 when everyone was busily patting themselves on the back about how clever they were with a portal gun and informing random passers-by that the cake was not entirely truthful, a little outfit that you may not have heard of by the name of BioWare were engaged in sneaking a new product into retailers via the back door. They did it stealthily, with the acumen of ninjas, depositing little green boxes of mysterious happiness onto store shelves like a team of catburgling Santas. Shoppers worldwide were exposed overnight to a strange indy XBox 360 release by the name of Mass Effect, and a select few of them warily wagered their cash by purchasing a copy of this intriguing new title.

That’s exactly how it happened, I swear.

Well, okay, it’s possible that every man and their dog were salivating over the impending release of BioWare’s new game, and that I was indeed the only living human who had not heard of it until immediately prior to its release. But if you compare my gaming record to that of BioWare I think you’ll cut me some slack. They’re the company that made Baldur’s Gate, which despite revitalising AD&D as a computer gaming franchise completely failed to thrill me. They did Knights of the Old Republic, which was allegedly some sort of gaming tour de force, and Jade Empire, which by saying nothing about I can imply was in some way substandard. They did Neverwinter Nights. Neverwinter frikkin’ Nights.

I played and loved the Ultima series. The collected works of Lord British more or less completely fill the mental space I have available for tediously long bug-riddled western RPGs. Besides, only by occasionally casting veiled and unsubstantiated aspersions upon the works of a much loved developer can I maintain my longstanding gaming cred.

Anyway, I’m about to do an abrupt about-face on all that BioWare-hatin’, because Mass Effect is a game so amazing in it both its ambition and execution that I must instantly fall to my knees and worship the divine beings who presumably created it.

If you’ve played Star Control II, or Fallout, or Wing Commander: Privateer, you may have some idea of what I’m talking about. Of course, Mass Effect is in no way similar to any of those classics, and yet at every turn it’ll have you remembering the fun you used to have back in the days when you made a boot disk for each new game and could reasonably enjoy an epic sci-fi odyssey without reference to a walkthrough. Make no mistake; this is the finest western RPG produced in a very long time, and it is very easily the best game of 2007.

You’ll begin by creating a character, which is refreshingly free of stat-tweaking and revolves largely around picking a character backstory and then creating a physical appearance. My experience creating Captain Abigail Shepherd, earthborn infiltrator, suggests that the character generator has a disturbing obsession with making your character resemble Clea Duvall. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just a little odd. Then again, maybe it’s just me.

Once you’ve tooled yourself up an avatar you’ll be plunged into a gripping military-political space opera in which Earth is the red-headed stepchild of a galactic federation run by a Council of alien races. Not only is humanity not the leader of this council, but they don’t even have a voice on the damn thing, and try as you might you can’t find a single alien mystic who’ll suggest that humans have some kind of unique destiny among the stars. Naturally, this has human nationalism running on the high side, backed by a related wave of xenoracial tension, but before you can really get to grips with Mass Effect’s stunningly well-realised backstory you’ll be flung headfirst into the path of the Geth, a sentient machine race on a mission of conquest. Becoming the first human inductee into the Council’s elite police force, the Spectres, you’ll be pitted directly against the Geth and made the focus of human/alien relations at a turning point in history.

Mass Effect hits all the right notes for classic space opera: devastating alien invaders, interplanetary manhunts, dramatic galactic politics, psychic powers, ancient secrets left by extinct civilisations, space piracy, and romance with improbable non-human females. It does it all while putting you at the helm of a battleship and giving you command over a crew of not-uninteresting personnel. You’ll be bombarded with crucial decisions at every step of the plot, most of which have significant consequences and all of which are inherently interesting. What’s more, it handles these well.

If you’ve played a game that purports to offer you significant moral choices before, you’ve probably been frustrated that:
a) You’re not given enough information to make a choice based on the principles that matter to you;
b) That one choice is rewarded by the game significantly more than another;
c) That none of the outcomes feel appropriate for your character; and/or
d) That picking certain choices will prevent you from seeing some parts of the game later.

Mass Effect sees all these problems coming, and deals with them with an efficiency and charm that makes you wonder why no one was able to get it right before. For the first time in a computer game you’ll genuinely feel like you’re roleplaying, and not just guiding an avatar through a series of opportunities for power gain. It’s a thrilling experience and one that justifies the game all by itself. You’ll probably want to tell your friends about who your character is and what they’ve done, and that’s one of the keenest signs there is that a game is doing something right.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. When you’re not butting heads with alien politicians or negotiating the release of hostages, you’ll be schlepping around the galaxy in your aforementioned battleship and exploring a surprisingly staggering amount of distant planets. Both your primary questline and the large number of sidequests will require you to land on planets, which is where you get to try out the Mako. The Mako is a lunar-lander type buggy with a large gun and some questionable physics, and by using it you can cover a massive amount of ground quickly and take down some of the game’s larger and better armed enemies. You employ it in an exploration-style game mechanic wherein you’ll be uncovering such things as buried artefacts, lost data probes, and hidden space pirate bases. The Mako handles like a balloon, has jump jets, and can fall an infinite distance without suffering, even if you “get air” off the top of the planet’s highest mountain. Driving it is a blast.

You’ll of course regularly have to go toe to toe with enemies, usually on foot, and this is where the game breaks out another can of awesome. In your basic combat you’ll control a squad of three (yourself and two buddies chosen from a party of up to six). Combat is largely in real time and works a lot like a first person shooter with dice rolled behind the scenes to reflect accuracy and damage. It requires more hand-eye coordination and tactics to land a shot than games like Tabula Rasa or Auto Assault but it’s more loose than your average FPS. You can also pause combat at any time by bringing up the heads-up-display menu, and you can reaim your weapon while paused. You can also use your “biotic abilities” and issue commands to your teammates while paused. Using this pause menu to full effect is absolutely key to engaging the game at its intended difficulty, and this fact isn’t well explained, so casual gamers could easily get frustrated while learning.

Biotic abilities, by the way, are also a little confusing, as they’re all based on manipulating mass (hence the game’s name). You’re limited to making things lighter, heavier, more or less solid, pushing things around, and creating singularities. That may not sound like much but once you realise how it all works it’s pretty awesome. The game heavily emphasises cover (to the extent of having a Gears of War-style “snap to cover” mechanic), and there’s nothing quite like making the crate your enemy is hiding behind float off into space to give you an instant edge. Pulling baddies out from behind cover with a singularity is great too. However, the game does a poor job of explaining all this, so if you’re like me you may not even realise what all this biotic tomfoolery is about until the final third of the game.

Oddball learning curve aside, once you know what you’re doing combat is more fun than sticky-taping kittens to each other. It rarely feels tedious, and you’ll often be spoiling to get into a fight just for the fun of shooting things. This is great, as a lot of the sidequests are of the “go to Planet X and kill Target Y” variety, and the fact that killing Target Y is inherently fun really makes the game pacing run very smoothly. Besides, Target Y is a jerk. I hate that guy.

The game looks great, although it’s not necessarily an artistic tour-de-force. Character costuming is ripped straight from genre classics like Star Trek and Babylon 5, and environments are functional more often than eye-pleasing. I want to say, though, that the bog-standard planet surfaces you’ll explore look amazing. Considering that there’s really only two textures at work, being a ground texture and a skybox, they will nevertheless absolutely blow you away. On some planets you’ll just want to stop playing and take it in for a while.

The music is absolutely appropriate for an epic space-opera, and while not quite falling into gaming’s greatest soundtracks it remains a worthy accomplishment that adds a lot to the game. Sound effects are generally great, and the voice acting is wonderful. Much has been made of the presence of Seth Green and Marina Sirtis in the game, so I should say that their roles effectively amount to mere cameos, but the other actors who you probably haven’t heard of who do the bulk of the voice acting rise amply to the occasion.

Probably the worst flaw in Mass Effect is that, like pretty much every western computer RPG ever, it has some unfortunate bugs. Notably, you’ll regularly get stuck on the level geometry, occasionally to the point of needing to save and reload. It’s not crippling, but it’s disappointing.

The game clocks in at about 30 to 40 hours of play, which, by the way, is how long games of this sort SHOULD go for. 120 hours is not a good length. I’m looking at you, Square-Enix. That 30-something hours is also completely grind-free. Every last minute is relevant and inherently fun. You’re not going to feel obliged to do something dull in the expectation of a reward later. And, if you absolutely must use up two non-stop weeks of your waking life on a single game, there’s enough replay value in Mass Effect to sustain a couple of repeat playthroughs, seeing as you’ll probably want to see what happens if you make different choices, and try out another backstory, career speciality, gender, or squad makeup (all of which have significant impacts on the course of the game). The game unfortunately makes you choose between keeping your levels and progress for a second playthrough OR playing a character that looks different and has a different backstory, but it's a reasonably minor fault in the scheme of things.

A lot of RPGs, by the way, drop the ball when it comes to pacing the ending, sticking the majority of the game’s grind immediately prior to the climax. Sometimes that results in an ending that isn’t properly reflective of the pacing and scale of the remainder of the game. Mass Effect, so that you know, has an absolutely fantastic ending, with sublime pacing, and alternate resolutions based on your actions which all feel rewarding and appropriate. It’s absolutely true that Mass Effect has great gameplay, but I need to say a number of times that it’s the story and character that are what make this game excellent.

In 2007, Portal aimed at a relatively easy to achieve target, and absolutely nailed it. If Mass Effect is slightly less perfect in its implementation, that needs to be seen in the context of the exponentially more ambitious goal it has aimed for. This is the game that western RPGs have wanted to be for nearly thirty years, and if you own an Xbox 360 you have absolutely no excuse not to get a copy.


Anonymous said...

I'd been getting Jade Empire and Mass Effect hoo-rah in my inbox from bio-ware for a while before there was even decent screenies available...
I got onto their list when I registered my cd keys for NWN, Both add ons, and NWN2.
I was actually disappointed with the end result, considering the direction that they appeared to be taking when news of the game first launched.
Haven't played portal yet, my computer that is capable of running it is geographically inconveniant at the moment.
I am, however completly into StarWars Legos. (and so vey happy that this week, Lucas Arts have announced Indiana Jones Lego game is in development!)

Greg Tannahill said...

Bioware wasn't responsible for Neverwinter Nights 2. The praise or blame for that falls solely on Obsidian, who they licensed it out to.

Lego Indiana Jones? But we still haven't seen Lego Batman, which they announced was in development ages ago! I assume they're waiting for The Dark Knight to be released, or some similar nonsense.

Anonymous said...

...you are looking at someone who waited over a decade for the Sam and Max sequal...
And That only happened because Telltale took over from Lucas Arts.
(another game that is waiting for me to have clost proximity with my good computer again)

Obsidian might have made it, but Bioware still let me add my cd keys to me NWN profile on their website!

Josh said...

Totally agreed on Portal. Yeah, I loved it and found the monologues as well done as anyone (and of course, the end song) - but it was ten hours of play, and pretty restricted play at that.

I appreciate a team getting their mechanics, especially innovative ones, right, and want Portal to get all kinds of praise ... but GOTY titles seem like they should bring together a lot more than just a handful of good ideas.

Greg Tannahill said...

Sim - I've got a Sam & Max Season One post coming too. Short version - loved it, but it took time to find its feet.

Josh - Portal is an absolutely faultless game. It is perfect. It achieves what it was aiming for 100%. It's just that 99% of 340 is still higher than 100% of 50. It's not so much that Portal was short but that it was unambitious. Even the portals mechanic didn't exactly feel like it was pushed to its limits. Granted, if it had pushed further it might have been less good a game, and they probably made the right choice leaving it as we saw it, but equally there's just that chance that it could have been even more awesome than it was.

Anonymous said...

So there is now a release date on SW lego indiana jones of 1st June for the PSP in the UK. (don't really care about other platforms right now, but it's got cover art!
The complete Lego SW on PSP comes with an Indiana Jones door in the Bonus section AND we have unlocked him as a playable character in the game...
SO! Now way more believing it than I believed in NWN2, or even Dreamfall. I SEEN it! It's Coming!!

Anonymous said...

(and it's so totally not 12:02 here!)