Monday, May 4, 2009

Beaten : Mass Effect, a.k.a. the Moon Patrol RPG

I spent most of April playing the Platinum Hits version of Mass Effect, which I don't normally go for, except that the twenty dollar package includes a bonus disc with the extra mission "Bring Down The Sky", as well as game trailers and developer commentary. It's quite a value for such an incredible game experience.

Mass Effect is an action-RPG offering complex character development, richly crafted lore, and original alien designs that put the species found in both Star Wars and Star Trek to shame. As expected with an RPG, the player will spend a lot of time in menus and sub-menus, adjusting stats and upgrading weapons and armor. Fortunately, the design of these menus is fairly flawless and intuitive.

And that's good. The player controls a party of three at a time, with the main human character plus two members chosen from an eventual pool of six. There's a lot to juggle, as alien members of your crew require alien-specific armors and, based on their skill sets, will have different abilities that need developed. All of this item and character development work soon becomes second nature and doesn't really slow down the action overmuch.

A great feature added to the game to make item choices easier is the "Compare" button, which allows players to compare a new item's stats with the ones already equiped. This can be done with items just picked up as well as items in stores, even before the player purchases them.

The story starts out with a tutorial level that's a full part of the story, with the player thrown right into the action. The player encounters moments along the way where moral choices must be made through speech selctions. It's a basic good/evil character development tool, with consequences along the way that can have an impact on the story, but for the most part the choices felt like "be cool" versus "be a dick" to everyone.

Completing the tutorial lands the player on a gigantic space station that is the central hub of the game, with hours of exploration, lore to discover, and side quests to complete. Experience can be gained from learning lore and even opening crates, not just through combat, so I found the payoff for the tediousness of this part of the game worthwhile in the long run.

Finally, after all of that, the player is given a starship and turned loose on the Milky Way. That's when the game really opens up, and the previously linear pace of Mass Effect becomes a galactic sandbox. While there are three main story missions present at this point, there are also around fifteen star clusters to explore, each with up to five star systems, and each of those with not just planets, but some moons, asteroids, and other spaceships to check out.

It can be a bit overwhelming at first, but keep in mind that generally, there's only one planet in each star system that the player can land on. Some planets can be surveyed from orbit, which can yield minerals and other items that are presented in various collection quests. So in reality there are a lot less places to visit than at first glance at that galaxy map on the ship's bridge.

The ship itself doesn't land on the planet, rather it flies low and drops off the player and his two chosen companions in the Mako, a six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle that is a major part of the gameplay. The Mako is armed and can take damage, and OFTEN requires time-consuming repairs while out exploring. Using the buggy for battle against gun turrets or the giant, wormlike Thresher Maw critters found here and there can be challenging. I found hit-and-run tactics good for these encounters.

In addition to the guns on the Mako, it also sports some rockets on the bottom that can give it a quick boost into the air. This feature baffled me at first. Was its intended use to jump chasms? No. Was it meant for getting the vehicle unstuck in some of those rugged mountain areas? It worked for that, but did not seem essential.

No, it wasn't until I got the mission to Luna (Earth's moon) later in the game that the rocket-boost feature on the Mako made sense. It was a feature added to the buggy as a tribute to the arcade classic Moon Patrol. Driving around on the moon in that buggy, jumping with the boost for no apparent reason, made me think of Mass Effect as a modern day Moon Patrol RPG. Just sayin'.

When the player lands on a planet, there isn't a whole planet to explore, either. Rather, it's a large square patch of a planet in most cases - the exceptions are those main story missions, which can offer different, more directed areas to visit. The planets with the square patch offer lots of exploration. On the map there can be different things indicated - debris, settlements and bases, and the like - but only through thorough exploration of the bug square patch will the player find hidden mineral deposits and other surprises.

It does get tedious doing this on planet after planet, but the rewards are worth it. If the player is not into this sort of playstyle, however, the option exists to simply go to the main story mission worlds and rush through the game. The cost is not only missing out on hidden outposts and titanium deposits - all of the discoveries made during these expeditions equal experience, and in my through playthrough I was able to reach level fifty by doing this.

Experience does not come easy at first in this game. There's nowhere to "farm" it, and I found my party ill-equipped to face a hidden mercenary group I stumbled across on some remote world early on. After getting experience (as well as better guns and armor) from doing one of the main story missions, though, I was able to go back and get revenge.

Some things found on alien worlds will require someone in the party to have a high electronics or decryption skill, and fortunately any experience gained by party members on the ground is shared with those stuck on the ship. The opening of decrypted crates, the recovery of electronic items, and the surveying of mineral deposits all use a quicktime event where the four controller buttons are displayed. The player must hit the lit-up button on the screen fast enough to succeed in the sequence. Most of the ones I did on the first try, so the timer on these events may be more forgiving than found in other games.

If the player wants to skip the quicktime stuff, they can spend omni-gel on it. Omni-gel is acquired through normal gameplay, and every item acquired can be converted into it. So, instead of selling off all of the extra guns the party acquires, it might be a good idea to use some to make omni-gel. It also is what is used to repair the Mako, and to be honest that's where most of mine went.

Technically, the game is gorgeous, although indoor environments repeat throughout the game, and many of the planets one lands on look the same. I encountered a few glitches in my 42 hours of play. There was some lag on loading, one instance of a system lockup, some indoor snow on one icy world, and one frustrating expereince where I exited the Mako and was stuck in the terrain. Nothing too game-breaking though.

The characters and story are just fantastic - epic in fact, and as good as any sci-fi movie or television show to come around in recent memory. The four weapon types - assault rifle, shotgun, pistol, and sniper rifle are made more interesting by varied ammo types that have different effects. There's a whole range of "biotic" powers, too, but I did not explore their use in my playthrough.

The bonus mission, "Bring Down The Sky" is just one world - an asteroid actually, and can be done at any time once the player has the spaceship. It's a worthy addition and highlights one of the alien species not seen in the normal storyline. The bonus disc also has a feature about the future of Mass Effect, which seemed to indicate not only a sequel that's due out this fall, but more downloadable content for the first game. In addition, players of the first game have been put on notice to keep their saves - they will play a part in the starting of the second game, it seems. Awesome!

And I look forward to it all. Mass Effect is one of the finest games I've played this generation - a highly enjoyable RPG with lots of action that takes place in a masterfully crafted galaxy rich in history and lore. For the three weeks it took me to play it through, I couldn't put it down. There's so much more story to be told in that galaxy, and I can't wait to see what happens next.

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