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Game Review: Mass Effect

Knights of the Old Republic was about my favorite video game of all times. I've been a gamer since Pong, so that's saying something ok? It brought together the brilliant conceit of being AWESOME with giving you JEDI POWERS. Really, it was a ground-breaking game that had a tightly written plot, excellent gameplay, and technical excellence. Plus you got a lightsaber!

The publisher, Bioware, realized they had a huge hit on their hands, and were not slow to repeat the formul. Unfortunately, KOTOR 2 was done by LucasArts, which explains why it had none of the verve of the first, and was poorly written. (Which can be said of nearly everything that has to do with Lucas and Star Wars. Yes, I'm pushing my glasses up on my nose - shut up!) They also published Jade Empire, which tried to do for Wu Xia what KOTOR did for Jedi - only it was uncreative and sort of flat. Part of the problem was that ...eh, you know what, it doesn't matter. Let it go - it was three years ago! Bioware also did the Neverwinter Nights games, which were favorites of mine - though an entirely different kind of game than KOTOR, but with some similar features; heroic plot, only one or two party-members, inter-party romances, etc. (I still have a crush on Bastila from KOTOR.)

So Bioware puts out Mass Effect, their first RPG in the KOTOR format for the Xbox 360, and I'm a little excited, but a little guarded. Will it be KOTOR, or Jade Empire?


It's about 80% KOTOR and 20% Jade Empire. The magic that's missing probably has something to do with the fact that, when I was seven and my mom asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered "A Jedi Knight!" and not say, "A biotic sentinel!"

The setting is far-future science-fiction, in which the discovery of ancient alien ruins on Mars leads to reverse-engineering "Prothean" (long-gone galactic race) mass effect drives; big engines that create "zero point energy" and render something massless so it can break the light-speed barrier. Humanity breaks out onto the galactic scene, where many races have gotten together to form a grand council that basically presides over a loose galactic government. Misdeeds do happen, however, and this leads to various wars, scuffles, and bio-engineered genetic cleansing. The ultimate authorities of the council are Spectre Agents (Special tactics and reconnaissance) big bad dudes that answer to no authority than the council itself, operate outside the law, and generally have a license to kill and be killed. Naturally one of them goes rogue and threatens the entire galaxy - just as, coincidentally, you come onto the scene.

Which is good, because you're a Big Damn Hero. That's part of the Bioware genius - constantly swabbing the player's ego talking about how awesome you are. And you are awesome! Depending on your background choices in a clever character generation sequence where a database has gone corrupt, and you're asked to confirm details - you can be a good guy hero, or the sort of gritty, no-nonsense hero who gets it done by any means necessary. And this is another part of the Bioware formula - morality choices. Good guys accumulate "paragon points" based on their upholding not just the will of the council, but also the law; whereas "Renegade" heroes are willing to break some eggs to make some omelettes. And they're willing to break those eggs with plasma repeater guns, you know? This is different than the dark side vs. light side iin KOTOR - getting Paragon points won't take away your Renegade points. Skills and missions open up when you have a certain rating in one or the other, so it makes sense to concentrate on one morality choice. But, there comes a point at which you're maxed, and yet still have choices to make. What to do? Why, total reversal of character, of course! In a way this is a bad choice; a good roleplaying game should reward consistency of character, rather than min-maxing. But it's a minor nit-pick.

You also choose your profession, which is either soldier, engineer, or biotic. Soldiers obviously specialize in weapons and combat gear. Engineers can fiddle with enemies shields, overlaod their guns, decrypt secrets and fix stuff. Decrypting secrets is vitally important - the rest is useful or not depending on how well you use it. Biotics are basically wizards, though some vague nano-technological/psionic explanation is given. Yeah, yeah - it's a spell, ok? Biotics can fling gravitis singularities, warp reality, armor themselves, throw stuff around. They get no combat training at all though, which is a price you pay. There are also classes which combine any two of the above classes.

You'll make a party out of two other NPC's - and unlike KOTOR, you can't take them over and issue them commands directly - though you can use a radial command bar to make them switch to a particular weapon, or trigger a particular ability. You can also let them do that automatically, though the computer's AI can be dumb. Brilliant, Liara, you just throw a black hole ...right at that crate!

Gameplay consists of nested conversation trees with multiple choices for most interactions, and being given missions. There's a quasi-linear storyline - you have to stop the evil Saren, but you can proceed to the "check points" in any particular order. There are lots of side-missions that you can ignore, complete, or put off till later at whatever pace you decide. Quickly events transpire such that you're trotting across the galaxy solving mysteries and fighting crime - in a space-ship flown by Seth Green. And it's worth noting that the voice-acting is superb throughout the game, as good as I've seen in any franchise - another one of the Bioware touches. Indeed, some of the voices will be familiar. And there are other familiar tropes, too: an alien that announces the inflection of his words before saying them is a lot like the murderous 'droid in KOTOR.

Still, it's a sharp game, and a great example of the superb formula that Bioware has developed. I'm hooked!

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