Mass Effect or how I learned to stop worrying and accept my 360 is going to die

mass-effect-boxart.jpg“I RRoD YOUR CONSOLE….I LIGHT IT RIGHT UP!”

Music to Aid Reading

My relationship with Mass Effect is akin to the relationship a wife has with her abusive husband, trying to convince everyone that ‘Stan’s a real sweetheart’ when he’s not giving her black eyes. Mass Effect has conditioned me to look at only the bright side, to just remember the good times we shared before it started to come home drunk at 3am. I write this review after the third copy of the game I’d obtained decided to commit sepuku and stop working, so you’ll have to forgive me a little if I come across as a little mean spirited.

My story with Mass Effect starts in late December, with a Red Ring of Death crippling a neighbours console and allowing me to borrow his freshly purchased Mass Effect. The game had effectively killed his console, and to this date he still doesn’t have a fully functional Xbox 360 despite the best efforts of Microsoft’s repair service, my friend’s misfortune would start a journey that would become almost creepy in its masochism.

The First Disc I obtained would let me complete the first 4 hours of the game, allowing me to wade through all of the dull expository missions and offering a glimpse at the tantalising gameplay to be had. After opening up the game world I was greeted by my first ever Disc Read Error’, which popped up initially when I went near a specific object. Then it popped up when I loaded my save file, then it popped up when the game booted up. A quick try out on a friend’s 360 confirmed that the disc was, to use technical jargon, fucked. I then had the lovely task of explaining to my friend that not only was his Xbox 360 broken, but the new game he’d got for Christmas was also knackered.

 

Just to add, it is kind of hilarious that you know your Xbox 360 is in trouble when it stops making noise equivalent to a subway line. The deathly low hum and quietness which preceeded each Disc Read Error almost made me appreciate the 360’s usual ‘sounds of metal scrapping’ ambience.

So far, so fun.

In early January I signed up with LoveFilm, a UK rental service for DVDs and Videogames. The first thing they sent me was Mass Effect, which for two weeks played fine. I was able to complete the game twice over, on my third playthrough the Disc Read Error kicked in again. A perusal of Online Forums suggested some solutions, but I didn’t feel like boiling a disc I didn’t own. I sent the disc back, with a note explaining the problem and put Mass Effect out of my mind.

Then they released additional content for the game and my desire to rediscover the game kicked in, so I once again rented the game from LoveFilm and was able to get fourteen hours of play out of the game before the dreaded ‘Disc Read Error’ locked the entire game up, there was much swearing and moaning (largely because I’d bought the extra content and not had a chance to check it out) and the disc was promptly returned.

lol-cat.jpgSo what is at fault, my 360 or the disc itself? My Xbox 360 has never had problems with any other game, even Oblivion which was the bane of many launch consoles. A google search for the ‘Mass Effect’ + ‘Disc Read Error’ suggests the phenomenon is quite wide spread. It is quite impressive that within three years of its launch the Xbox 360 has found a game which it is apparently unable to run properly. Anecdotal evidence suggests this has happened to a lot of people, with a friend explaining how he had to pick clean the disc every five hours or so to get the thing running.

The Xbox 360 is a console I love dearly, but it is also a console purchase I both rue and lament. I’ve had my console since June 2006 and I’m feeling that a complete system failure is an inevitability. The 360 has a current failure rate of 40%, the famous Red Ring of Death becoming so prevalent as to become a cultural meme. It is plain shoddy workmanship on Microsoft’s behalf, a rushed release causing the console to ship with parts seemingly designed to cause the system to combust. In terms of content and software the Xbox 360 is a market king, it is just a shame the console was apparently built by mentally challenged kittens. But enough prattling, it is time to go back to Mass Effect.

Glorious Bastard Simulator

Mass Effect is for all intents and purpose Babylon 5 the videogame. On an aesthetic level the game borrows liberally from every 90s Science Fiction show around, with elements of Farscape, Star Trek and Lexx thrown into the mix, but Babylon 5 remains the strongest comparison. What this means is that Mass Effect is a largely joyless and high minded tour of a universe cherry picked from a dozen other sources. The first hour of play is a great example of this, with information thrown at the player in a desperate attempt to flesh out the universe. By the time you’ve finished the first mission you’ll have amassed dozens of pages of encyclopaedia entries on the world of Mass Effect.

masseffect1.jpgThe obvious mistake here is the notion that most players actually care about the political and economic status of various alien civilisations. Even I, groomed on overly chatty RPGs, was hankering to actually start shooting aliens rather than learn about their fascinating mating habits. It is an inauspicious start for a game that becomes exponentially better once its reins are in the hands of the gamer. After about three hours of play the exposition finally ends and you’re given the keys to your own funky Starship and told to take the fight to your nemesis, a malevolent alien secret agent and his army of organic hating robots.

Presented with a cosmos to explore and a team of psychics, psychos and aliens to travel with the game truly opens up and becomes its own beast. But despite the obvious lure of exploring the universe, the biggest draw is the interpersonal element of Mass Effect. When you’re not busy shooting aliens in the face, you’re partaking in hundreds of conversations. Whilst not as ground breaking as the developers would have you believe the conversation system is still immensely satisfying due to the generally excellent script and fantastically insane way your character can react to people. This is achieved by making your in game avatar as close an approximation to the player as possible.

You are Shepard a human who has been recently inducted into what is essentially the galactic version of Spetnaz. As well as having a fully customised appearance you can also take your Shepard down distinctly divergent paths. Through your actions and dialogue you’ll find yourself going down the path of either Paragon or Renegade, opening up new dialogue options as you become more versed in either charming or intimidating people.

The Paragon path is a path of diplomacy, opponents are talked down, people are charmed, and pistol whippings are scarce. The Renegade path is a far funner prospect, essentially allowing you to turn your Shepard into a mindless sociopath.

masseffectb.jpgAfter initially creating a male Paragon character, which looked like a Chinese Anthony LaPaglia, I chose to make a Renegade character on my second playthrough. Opting to create a female character, Freud would have a field day with that; I decided to become as ruthless and insane as possible. Whereas my Paragon character kowtowed to harassers and always looked for the path of least resistance my Renegade character destroyed all in her path. Certainly I never expected certain dialogue paths to diverge so much depending on the different stance I had taken.

A conversation that had once led to me reclaiming the corpse of a widower’s wife now allowed me to pistol whip the widower for his insolence. A calm negotiation with a crime boss became a full blown firefight when playing as a Renegade and a diplomatic mission to an isolated commune turned into a virtual Waco within seconds.

It is just a shame that the actual firefights in the game are never as thrilling as the conversations leading up to them.

You got a real pretty mouth, shame about them there broken gameplay mechanics

The actual gameplay mechanics are nearly broken, and have a difficult slope akin to a brick wall. When you first start exploring the universe you’re relying on sheer luck to guide you through, with your AI controlled team mates making combat almost random. You can storm an enemy base and watch as your team operate like a futuristic SWAT team, taking cover and generally proving to be valuable assets. The same fight can also have your team mates running around randomly as they get shot to pieces, seemingly oblivious to the hordes of enemies around.

More times than not you’ll just order your team to a safe little alcove and take the enemy on yourself. What doesn’t help is that the game is entirely based on equipment and as such the start of the game is inversely difficult whereas the end levels, when you have become properly tooled up, are a walk in the park. An early side mission where you take on five enemy installations spread around a galaxy features one firefight which is harder than anything else in the game. It is just another example of the game being needlessly obtuse and irritating and it represents the duality at the heart of Mass Effect. There is a basic game engine underneath all the sheen, with cover mechanics and a character development options but they are not particularly well implemented.

Conceptually Mass Effect is fantastic. It gets the aesthetic and minutiae down perfectly, the game is beautifully designed, the story is engaging, the story missions are fun, and the music is a fantastic homage to the synth scores of the 1980s. But a soundtrack which nods its hat to John Carpenter can’t mask the fact that the game is often not very fun to play. The five main story missions are fun enough, requiring lots of talking and involving some nice and epic battles, but the side missions which provide the real length of the game are needlessly repetitive and piecemeal.

There are around sixty side missions in total and maybe a dozen of them are actually fun to play. Conversely all of the fun ones are found at the start of the game. The early side mission involve you busting up gun smugglers, tracking down rogue AIs, threatening blackmailers, planting bugs, all good clean fun. Once you get into the game proper the side missions devolve into standard search and destroy quests, with the exact same mechanics used over and over again.

Land on planet, drive around planet in useless tank, find objects of interest, head towards fortress (which come in all of three varieties) and kill anything you meet. There is a generic back story to each side mission, but they are never interesting enough to distract from the mind numbing monotony.

There is literally nothing more to the side missions than shooting things and surveying metals, the only change being in what the enemies look like and whether the planet will kill you if you step out of the tank. There are occasional attempts to spice things up, but these come in the form of Thresher Maws which are essentially ‘One Hit Kills’ with personality, huge worms that burrow around certain planets and spit acid at you every now and then.

mass-effect-skyline-big.jpg

 

Me and You, Just Chillin’ on this Ancient Alien Space Station

What makes Mass Effect great is the ambience of the piece, the exploration and joy of discovery. Walking around the Citadel, a huge space station that the first few hours of Mass Effect take place in is a pleasure which is never replicated in the game. Whilst it is silly to wish for a game in which you just wonder around and chat with people it really is Mass Effect’s key strength, to the point where you’re rushing through the shooty bits to get back to the talky bits.

It is something of a critical flaw when a player is more concerned with chatting to some washed up alien in a strip club than saving the universe from an evil mechanised death squid.

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2 Responses to “Mass Effect or how I learned to stop worrying and accept my 360 is going to die”

  1. ME Advocate Says:

    I think u probly either suck at video games or are bitter about your 360 cuz mass Effect is one of the best games ever, and the AI is pretty immaculate. The only problems are the damn texture delays on the cutscenes. I hate that crap.

    Oh yeah I know lots of ppl who enjoyed the politics and economy of the citadel races

  2. There is not much game behind the eye candy. The basic mechanics are very simple and also flawed, but not in the “yet still incredible fun” way, but the rather trite one. 😦

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