Welcome to Should I Buy?

Alright people, this is a blog I started several months ago and had nothing to put on it. But Extra Credits and the Escapist Podcast convinced me to try my hand at game reviewing instead. Now, those of you know who know me know I’m poor, so I can’t review recent games. So here I am, having migrated from blogspot to wordpress for a more professional system and to make it easier for people who want to follow me.

Instead I’ve decided to start the Should I Buy? series. Basically, I’m going to look at games you can pick up preowned or through digital distribution services such as Steam for reasonable prices. So if you’ve been wondering if you should try that game your friend won’t shut up about, or was all the rage a year or two ago or anything else, I hope to offer my opinions to help you make that decision.

OK, so, that’s what I’m trying to do here so let’s get started. Today I’d like to talk about the Mass Effect. It’s a Third Person Shooter/Western RPG hybrids from Bioware. This one’s available on the 360 & PC.  The game has you tracking down a former galactic agent-turned rogue named Saren and attempting to stop evil schemes.

The plot is your standard Bioware affair. For those of you unacquainted with Bioware storytelling, let me explain. Your basic Bioware game follows this basic formula:

1) You play as a man or woman from relatively humble origins with vast potential and natural leadership skills.

2) At first you wander around a starting area, following a simple introductory quest and getting the bare bones of the game world explained to you in terms of both game mechanics and the various peoples, factions and problems of the game world.

3) There’s a large battle of some kind where you gain two companions, one male and one female. You then escape and the core threat of the game is revealed. You get inducted into a special organisation of some sort that gives you the right to wander around the game universe doing pretty much whatever you like. Whether this group is are the Jedi, the Spectres or Grey Wardens, the concept is the same.

4) You’re given a series of smaller tasks which will give you strength and information necessary to defeat the main threat. As you travel to these locations, you’re asked to make a series of decisions that are either Good or Evil and you gain new companions. These companions represent all the possible combat classes in the game.

5) Once you’ve done all these tasks, you proceed to the endgame, defeat the threat and the ending details the results of your in game choices for individual characters and groups.

So that’s how it works. Shepard must stop Saren, you become a Spectre (an agent of the galaxy’s central government unbound by law), you go to different worlds and collect information until the final confrontation.

Bioware are known throughout the gaming community for their writing. It doesn’t reach the depths of an exceptional author or screenwriter but it’s competent and some of the best in gaming. Occasionally they’ll come up with a particularly great character or scenario that elicits real moral complexity or an emotional response, but don’t expect it in every quest.

As for what the writing’s like in Mass Effect, its strength isn’t in the main quests or even in the interactions you have with your fellow crew members, instead it’s in the fantastic sci-fi universe they’ve created. Instead of just giving us ‘Space Elves’. ‘Space Dwarves’ and ‘Space Orcs’ we’re given five primary races, and a handful or minor ones.

Humans are the newcomers to the galactic scene, having made First Contact about 40 years ago. However, their individuality, flexibility and motivation has seen them achieve a level of political clout most races haven’t built up in centuries. This has lead to a lot of the other races being wary of humans, and not readily accepting them as they think they’re growing too powerful. And the humans feel resentful that they’re being held back.

The other primary races are the Asari, a monogendered species that live for millenia and are masters of diplomacy, the Turians, a collectivist race of duty minded people with the galaxy’s strongest military who evolved from an avian species and the Salarians, a short lived race renowned for its intelligence and ability at science and espionage. Together these races comprise the Council, a governing body that oversees disputes between all the other races in Council Space.

Finally, there’s the Geth, a race of sentient machines. The other races make for great background detail though, and get a few spokespeople.

Each of these races more or less live up to their assigned ‘hat’ and tend to act alike. Still, the game is quite happy to take its time in explaining how their biology and psychology works, making them feel less like cardboard cutouts.

In many quests and general interactions, you get to choose one of two moral actions. These are more complex than most games. Neither are black and white moralities. The first is Paragon, the game’s ‘good’ setting. These actions make you look for peaceful solutions, uphold the law, mediate arguments and be generally accepting and tolerating of other peoples and races. The Renegade Shepard is much more ruthless and pragmatic in his dealings. Doing good deeds don’t erase your bad ones and vice versa, so a Renegade Shepard who takes the time to comfort a distraught team mate doesn’t lose his reputation as a cold blooded killer.

And many decisions you make in this game have consequences in the next. For good or ill, we won’t really know the consequences until the final part of the trilogy plays itself out.

Another thing about the game’s writing. The level of scientific fidelity is amazing. Each planet you look at has got a brief description of its gravity, history, biosphere, temperature, year length etc. Plus the Codex explains a lot of how the game’s science works. This is a great attention to detail to those who like this kind of thing, but people not looking for that can skip right past it.

Now finally, to gameplay. This is a mixed area, and it feels that there were conflicting ideals on how it should be handled. For example, the game bills itself primarily as an RPG, but you’ll need to pilot vehicles and engage in hectic, cover based firefights to proceed. On the other hand, each character has a skill tree of techniques that you’ll have to consider carefully at level up time. It’s easy for fans of either genre to feel alienated, but if it clicks for you then you’ll find an enjoyable system that allows you to custom build your squad and then test it out with on the fly tactics.

Though if that’s not your thing, select the Soldier class and blast through everything on Casual difficulty with your assault rifle.

The various classes within the game suit a variety of playstyles, and playing as each different one offers up several different approaches to combat that are all perfectly viable. Experimenting with your squad composition can also be fun, but the game has a limited number of battles available so if you want to try everything you’ll have to trudge through the game several times.

Gameplay does lean more on the side of RPG than shooter though. The combat is competent but not as detailed as a dedicated shooter. Pure shooter fans will likely be frustrated by the intrusions of statistics and special abilities.

With both combat and story you’ll get out of it what you put in. Anything from casual play to the most intense of challenges are catered for.

That said, there are some definite downsides to the way the game plays. The vehicle sections break up the endless processions of corridors and chest high walls and allow for some nice set pieces, but the Mako is weak, the gun is difficult to aim, controlling it is more a matter of keeping it going in the general direction you want than any actual finesse and trying to repair it during a firefight leaves you severely exposed.

Another is the inventory system. Killing enemies or opening containers can give you up to six pieces of equipment, and you can only hold a limited number at once. This wouldn’t be too problematic, but so many of them are redundant. Again, this could have been salvaged but poor design just make it a frustrating mess. When you open a container, you take everything or nothing. You can’t compare what you’re getting against what you’ve got, and often you’ll already have four of whatever you’re picking up.

Even if you know you only want one item out of the bunch, you can’t manually discard or destroy the rest on the spot. Instead, you’ll have to enter your inventory and manually check and then destroy every single item you don’t need. At times, I’d avoid opening containers just to avoid this, even if it meant walking around with underpowered gear.

Aside from a few simple commands in the item management system, why couldn’t Bioware have included a filter that only gave items of a certain strength depending on your level? The items do scale with you, but they’ll keep handing out redundant gear for far too long. Also, a system that limits the equipment drops to what’s usable by your immediate party would have been another solution. Possibly as an optional filter.

These gripes aren’t deal breaking though, so long as you’re engaged enough by either the plot or combat. The game’s also very cheap to buy now. Steam will let you download it direct to your computer for £10 and places like CEX it’s available second hand for less than that.

My recommendation? Bioware are a great studio that make great games, though if you’re a casual player you may be put off by the depth on offer. Shooter fans who don’t mind something more cerebral, give it a try, RPG fans that don’t mind getting their hands dirty, this is a great investment. Story lovers, sci-fi nuts? This is a game you’ll enjoy the sheer detail and great writing of. And casual players, hell it’s cheap. Unless you’re really on a budget, why not give it a try? It could be a great stepping stone into either genre for you.


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