3/15/2008 11:15:01 AM
Mass Effect Xbox 360 Review
By Rich Dixon
In some ways, an RPG on the 360 makes no sense at all. After all, the Xbox fanboy has always been a shooter fan, which is why games like Gears, Halo, and Call of Duty rule the roost on Xbox Live. Those gamers like their action fast and furious, with a minimum of reading to go along with it. That would seem to spell the doom for any RPB on the console, which is perhaps why Microsoft has poured so much money into importing Japanese RPGs like "Blue Dragon" and yet has so little to show for it. Bioware, though, is the exception to that rule: the studio that made the beloved "Knights of the Old Republic" is back with another science fiction-themed RPG, and it's indeed selling quite well. So how does Bioware pull off a challenge that would seem to defy every other RPG maker out there?
They certainly didn't make a game that's easy to like. "Mass Effect" is a game that makes you wait. The story is the thing here, and they want you to navigate it step by step. There are uncounted dialog screens, and enough flavor text to fill a book with plenty to spare. Bioware was so invested in its narrative cutscenes that they don't allow you to skip them -- a vexsome fact, given that many of them are placed just prior to boss battles, meaning that if you die in the ensuing fight you have to sit through the cutscene all over again.
And there's a lot of dying to be done. Combat in "Mass Effect" is quirky, and you'll die frequently until you figure it out by trial and error. Eventually you get the hang of it and start looking forward to the frequent battles, but it will probably be four or five hours before you reach that point. So, all things considered, "Mass Effect" is an acquired taste. Expect to be playing for a while before you're sure whether you like it.
But once you get into the game, there's a lot to like. First there's the story, which is deep and interesting. You play as Commander Shepherd, a space marine who's soon promoted to the ranks of Spectre--a sort of intergalactic spy/bounty hunter/freelance cop, authorized to go anywhere and do anything in pursuit of justice. You are set out in pursuit of Saren, a rogue Spectre who just might be planning the extinction of all life in the galaxy. Saren has many allies, from the technological geth to insect-like monsters, and you have to fight your way from world to world in the process of unraveling Saren's scheme and stopping his machinations. Battle is sort of a compromise between the turn-based methods of previous Bioware games and live-action; the fighting takes place in real time, but you can press the left or right shoulder buttons to bring up selection screens that allow you to give orders to teammates, select a weapon, or deploy a power. After a little practice you'll find yourself using these buttons to collect yourself in the middle of a firefight and decide how best to proceed.
Of course, you have friends of your own. If you played "KOTOR," you know the drill: different people of various interstellar races will join your party over time, and when you set out on a mission you can select any two crew members to accompany you. Different crew have different capabilities, from the armor they wear to the talents they have to the weapons they're trained to use, so a big part of the game is picking out the crew members that best complement the way you want to take on the various challenges you encounter. And, of course, this is an RPG, so there are tons of little quests and errands to run in which you can collect loot (that you can later sell for credits) and build up experience that allows you to boost your players' talents. "Mass Effect" is not a game you should be rushing through; the later battles are difficult enough that you'll want to max your characters before taking on the final boss. But the missions are varied enough that it never gets boring, and over the course of many hours of gameplay you actually develop a real fondness for the characters you control. Without giving away too much of the story, at one point late in the game you are confronted with a difficult choice: with two people in danger, who are you going to save? The fact that the answer to that question was obvious to me--there was no way I was going to let one character die--says a lot about how emotionally involved I'd become in the game. And, at the end, when the final boss was beaten and the credits were rolling, I actually felt a little proud of the characters that had overcome so much to reach that point. They're fictional, but they're ass-kickers, and I liked them.
Technically, the game is up and down. There are plenty of high points; graphically the game is pretty (with a few glitches here and there), and the conversation wheel is a definite advance that I expect to see many other games pick up. There are consistent signs, though, that the 360 doesn't have the horsepower that the engine requires. Load screens pop up frequently, occasionally the graphics freeze at the outset of a battle while the engine tries to catch up with the action, and frequently (too frequently, really) your characters stand in elevators in a transparent ploy to give the game more time to load the next area. While these are annoyances, and they are frequent, I found them to be minor glitches on a game that otherwise was a great experience.
If you like RPGs and are not allergic to science fiction, you'll want to try "Mass Effect." It's one of the most impressive console RPGs ever created. Since it's the first part of a trilogy, too, there's a lot more fun to come.
Graphics: 9. The human facial models are probably the best ever seen in a video game.
Sound: 9. You'll recognize some of the voice work, and it's all well done.
Gameplay: 8. A little too much walking from quest item to quest item, but the fighting is fun and well-balanced.
Story: 10. An excellent story that's gradually revealed, involving rich characters and many interesting settings.
Replayability: 9. As soon as I finished the game, I started again with a new character. What does that tell you?
Overall: 9.0. "Mass Effect" is very ambitious, and hits most of its targets.
Mass Effect Xbox 360 Review