Friday, February 1, 2013

Mass Effect

Our hero, Commander Shepard

I just finished the original Mass Effect (2007), and it was great fun. If you've ever wanted to star in a science fiction movie, an action movie, this is the game for you.

True, that's both good and bad, since games aren't movies. Indeed, in some respects, Mass Effect makes a better movie than it does a game. But I'll get to that in a minute.

If you haven't played it, the science fiction setting and story are great. Human beings are the new kids on the block in a multi-species galactic society which uses ancient technology from a previous, long-dead civilization.

The Citadel Council

As Commander Shepard - a character who can be male or female and any race (human only), since you can customize his/her appearance - you're the best humanity has to offer, and you're given an assignment by the Citadel Council as something of a test.

That leads to a threat to all life in the galaxy, and a story which continues to play out over the next two games in the series (although this one does come to a satisfying conclusion). As a game, you follow the storyline without being able to affect it much. In that respect, it's more like a movie.

The action is regularly interrupted by cut scenes, too, where you just watch your character do something, with no control over him at all. In fact, even in conversations, where you usually do have choices, it's hard to tell what your character is going to say. I was continually surprised by my character, even when I was supposedly guiding his side of the conversation.

Tali, Liara, and me

It rarely makes much difference, anyway, since the story has already been written and the ending is predetermined. I don't like that in a game, since games aren't movies. But it's hard to complain too much about a game I really enjoyed - and, indeed, one of the few games I've ever finished (although, at 43 hours, it was only about one-fifth the length of Fallout: New Vegas).

Still, as long as I'm complaining, I should note that Mass Effect, for the PC, is a later port of a game designed for the Xbox 360, and I think it shows. I didn't like the controls, I didn't much like the combat (especially before I got used to it), and I hated the little mini-games when decrypting or lock-picking.

Handling inventory was awkward, and managing companions was worse. Admittedly, you keep finding useful loot - better equipment than what you've been using - throughout the game, and that's always fun. The circumstances were rarely plausible, but finding loot is almost always an important part of the experience in role-playing games, so keeping that interesting throughout the game is a big positive.

But I became probably the wealthiest soldier ever, because I seemed to have no reason to spend the money I received from selling the extras. Only at the very end of the game, just before the final battle, did I buy anything at the ship's store, and that was mostly because I'd maxed out the amount of money the game would even track.


One reason I hadn't played Mass Effect earlier was because I refused to buy a product with the SecuROM DRM they originally had on the game. (That was removed when the game went to Steam.) But another reason is because I'm really, really bad at this kind of game. I didn't grow up with video games, and if you did, you might be surprised at just how bad a person can be at this stuff.

I played Mass Effect on the easiest difficulty settings, and that turned out great. Admittedly, I had to roll my eyes at the hero worship directed at Commander Shepard, when much of the time I was just fumbling around while Tali and Liara took out my enemies. But I'm not so macho that I won't accept the help of two good women. :)

But even then, I played the 'soldier' class of character, because pointing and shooting is absolutely the limit of my ability in a game. In fact, I never used even the very limited powers I did have (which you can set to hotkeys), except for occasionally pushing the #2 key, to restore his shields, when my character complained about it.

Lovely, but bleak, alien worlds

So forget about biotic powers (which are too much like magic for my tastes, anyway) or anything like that. That's just beyond my game-playing ability. So I let Liara and Tali handle the biotic and tech powers automatically - and do the shooting, too, often enough. (Much as I enjoy seeing enemies floating helplessly out of control, thanks to Liara's 'Lift' power, I have a hard time hitting them with a weapon unless they remain perfectly still.)

Note that I took Liara and Tali on nearly every mission, because I needed a mix of biotic and, especially, tech skills. Those two just complemented my character. I would have enjoyed using a mix of characters, but the others just didn't work as well for my particular party (since my Commander Shepard was a soldier). Tali, in particular, was absolutely critical.

Incidentally, Liara was my sweetie. There was even a tasteful sex scene between my character and that lovely 106-year-old alien. Ashley, another of my companions, wasn't too pleased about that, but she was a bigot and a theist - not my type at all. (Actually, she was a soldier, just like my character, so I didn't need her on missions. Besides, I just like aliens.)


And yeah, I do like aliens. I'm a science fiction fan, and exploring a galaxy full of interesting aliens is my idea of heaven. Just exploring planets was great fun, even when they were uninhabited (which was most of the time).

The Mako was a little wheeled vehicle - large enough for a three-person away team - my ship could just drop on a planet. (I'm not sure how we got back up into space again.) I had a great time driving it around, looking for minerals and other interesting items and locations.

True, there wasn't much on these planets. Starflight 2 had lots more to find - certainly far more plants and animals. But that's one of the downsides of modern graphics. When you can't just use your imagination in a game, a detailed ecology is too expensive to model, even in mainstream games by wealthy multinational corporations.

Some things, though, I still couldn't understand. Why weren't there tracks where wheeled vehicles had been in regular use? And why did bodies just disappear whenever we shot enemies? There's something creepy about shooting people - or even machines - when they just... vanish afterwards. I'd rather face the results of my actions.

I'm bad at parking, too

But it was still fun to drive the Mako around exotic alien planets. I was bad at it - again, I didn't like the way the controls handled - but I'm not a very good driver on Earth, either. Besides, I don't think it was possible to crash. I never found a slope that was too steep to drive down, and only rarely one that was too steep to drive up. And although I was careful most of the time - simply for role-playing purposes - it seemed that I could drive full speed through pretty much any terrain.

Of course, this was the same vehicle which could be dropped onto a planet from a moving spaceship! But there were technological reasons for that which made it perfectly plausible that driving off a cliff would not be a big deal, either.

Best, though, was just interacting with aliens. As a SF fan, I can't get enough of that. And much as I complain about linear storylines, about how games aren't movies, this story was good. The fact is, a game doesn't have to be one thing or another, since there's room for all kinds.

Interacting with aliens

Mass Effect is like playing the hero in a movie and, really, that's just great. And although I'm hopelessly inept at this kind of gameplay, I could still set the game to "casual" difficulty and have a great time. Even the fact that the game was relatively short was a good thing, at least in my case, since it meant that I was able to finish it (and you really don't want to leave halfway through a movie, do you?).

It was just a lot of fun, which is why I plan to start Mass Effect 2 as soon as I get this posted. :)

Note: Here's my review of Mass Effect 2. And you can find my posts on other computer games here.

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