Today I finished Mass Effect.
I have a hard time describing how good it is. On one side, I’m coloured by the immediate after effects of completing a good game, so I can’t really say for sure if it’s actually better than both Knights of the Old Republic games, but on the other hand it sure feels like it right now.
First of all, the storyline was perfect. The plot structure was impressively open until the end, the branches felt significant, the choices were often difficult, the characters were compelling and interesting, the acting and writing was thoroughly sublime, every piece of dialogue was somehow littered with terrific animations and cinematic camera work, and the intrigue was mysterious and exciting.
But KOTOR lives up to most of that (except the animations and the camera work). One of the things that elevated Mass Effect above KOTOR in my opinion was its far more realistic approach to the science fiction genre. Of course Bioware was tied down by the Star Wars license on KOTOR – though I doubt they were sorry to work with that license at the time – but honestly I think I’m starting to get kinda tired of Star Wars. At least after playing Mass Effect and being reminded how interesting sci-fi can be when you take the sci part seriously. In ME you can’t just touch your ship down on any planet you come across and walk right out the door, you’re dropped onto planets with no oxygen in a 6-wheeled all-terrain vehicle for you to explore in, and every bit of advanced technology is explained in the expansive codex you’re equipped with. Most of this stuff is a great read, especially the descriptions of the planets you pass on your travels.
So much for the story, but the gameplay is where Mass Effect is really set apart from the KOTOR series. I’d almost become so used to the “click-and-sit-back” combat of traditional western RPG’s that I’d failed to notice how boring it actually was. I’m not a big fan of strategy and top-down tactical combat, I prefer to aim and shoot like any action gamer – not that I’m particularly good at it, but I’m much more entertained by it than simply pressing “Attack” and waiting for my avatar to dispose of the enemies.
Mass Effect has taken a page out of Ghost Recon’s or Gears of War’s book and replaced the typical RPG combat with something more tactical where you have to aim your own weapon and command your team members around with a nicely simple interface. I haven’t actually played a Ghost Recon game (yet!) but from what I’ve heard about it, Mass Effect is definitely closer to that sort of tactical combat than Gears of War’s macho frag fest. I’m afraid newcomers or RPG die-hards might be scared away by Mass Effect’s action, and I know some action gamers find it quite inferior to games like Gears or Halo, but personally I enjoyed it a lot – it was the perfect mixture of action and tactics for my tastes.
That was just a brief overview of what makes Mass Effect a clear Top 10-game in my opinion. It does have weaknesses – the uncharted worlds could’ve done with being more fleshed out, possibly at the expense of their impressive numbers, the scavenger missions were so excrutiatingly anal that even I chose to ignore them, and the vehicle parts were generally substandard – too linear and too… half-assed. The MAKO controls were counterintuitive and it sucks that enemies can shoot at you long before you can even make them out on your monitor, let alone fire back at them. It would’ve been nice with hit-animations for the enemies, but I understand the game already has a ton of content and asking for even more animations is probably not quite fair – but at least some blood particles or something then, just a bit more feedback on my hits.
Overall, an excellent bid for an action-RPG with emphasis on RPG instead of action (as opposed to the otherwise also quite nice Bioshock), and definitely currently the best reason to buy an Xbox 360. It’s also the first Xbox game I’ve played that actually incorporates the achievements in the gameplay by giving you gameplay-bonuses for some of them. It’s a damn tragedy the game isn’t out for PC and may never be – it deserves to be played by more people than own an Xbox 360.