Saturday, December 29, 2007

Mass Effect

I almost skipped Mass Effect. In a season utterly jam-packed with extraordinary games, Mass Effect was almost the only game I could put off without some ill effect. There were good deals on Call of Duty and Mario, COD and Orange Box were Live-enabled, and Assassin's Creed was a game from one of my favorite developers that I'd been looking forward to for years.

Mass Effect, on the other hand, would require a substantial investment of time, was strictly single-player, and well, I had a ton of stuff to wade through. I could put Mass Effect off 'till January, or whenever it got cheap. The only reason I picked it up when I did, honestly, is that the Limited Edition looked like it had a reasonable amount of interesting stuff, and it was getting impossible to find.

So, when I started playing it, it was ... it wasn't the right time. I was in the midst of five or six other games - shorter, focused, highly polished experiences. Mass Effect, on the other hand, was a game of tremendous scope, whose core mechanics simply aren't as polished as a game like Call of Duty 4, which has had a couple iterations to get it right.

The camera was the biggest problem, at the start. They've clearly cribbed a lot from Gears of War, but they did it really inelegantly. The camera appears to track with the character's locator, which means, for instance, when you're walking down stairs, the camera travels along the steps, instead of on a smooth slope down the steps. This results in the camera "bouncing" as you move down the steps in a way that feels completely robotic and wrong. The problems don't end there, but it's weird, because it's a lot of small problems that make the thing feel really unpolished and "off."

Still, the world you're dropped into has clearly had a lot of effort and love poured into it. Science fiction these days is really difficult to pull off. A lot of what people associate with sci-fi has become really cliche. Between Star Trek, Star Wars, Alien and Blade Runner, it's difficult to find a niche that feels original. Mass Effect manages to walk a really interesting line between Star Trek and Blade Runner, with a vaguely dystopic utopia. It's like if Syd Mead had made Blade Runner a nice place to inhabit. The music's Vangelis influences are obvious, almost from the start.

So, a mixed start. I was enthused about the story, but not all that jazzed about the game's presentation or mechanics. The presentation problems were legion, but it really boils down to a single problem: Mass Effect is a really deep, interesting game with a lot of systems that work together. The character and weapon customization have huge impacts on how you deal with combat and conversation, which are what you're doing the vast majority of the time. The problem is that there's almost no introduction to how to use any of the stuff.

For instance, Mass Effect gives you a relatively standard choice at the start of the game: choosing your character class. There's a short text description that tells you what your class does and why, in an effort to help you figure out which class is appropriate. The problem is, you have to make this completely irreversible choice that defines how you play the game before you've had a chance to experience any of the game at all.

So, when I chose the "Infiltrator" class, the description appealed to me - you're basically a sniper, and you'll have to work to find advantageous positions, and use your distance advantage to its fullest. Sounded great. But in practice, at the start of the game, it's incredibly frustrating. Sniper rifles are hard to use, and as a result, I died. A lot. "You suck!" you might say. You're right. I did suck. I had no idea what I was doing. Every time I got into combat, I just keeled over dead within ten seconds.

Part of the problem was that fundamentally, I didn't know what Mass Effect was. I assumed it was like Knights of the Old Republic at first, but it also looked like Gears of War. I didn't know how to play it. If I approached it like KOTOR, I died. If I approached it like Gears, I died. Over and over again.

The second problem was one of choice. The game gives you a couple things you can do, right after the intro. You can go to one of two planets, and you're free to make the decision however you want. The problem is, one is radically more difficult than the other, and I had no way of knowing which was which. If they told me, I was confused by this giant tidal wave of information - the new galaxy map, the new ship, and a wide variety of game mechanics that I was unfamiliar with.

So, I was in way over my head, but had gotten to a point where I could no longer turn back, and I was still completely confused as to how to actually play the game. The end result was that I died, over and over again, for reasons I simply couldn't understand. After a couple hours of this, I hated the game. It felt broken. It felt unfair. It was absolute misery, coupled with the fact that there's almost no intelligent checkpoint system, and if you weren't careful about saving, you could often lose an hour of playtime if you died. And since I'd die in a single hit during combat after ten seconds, it meant that every time I entered combat (where you couldn't save), if I hadn't saved before, I lost a tremendous amount of time.

Frustrating. Extremely frustrating - to the point where at this point, I strongly considered breaking the disc in two, throwing it out the window, and never playing it again. The lack of checkpoint saves felt like a relic out of the mid-nineties. The combat system felt utterly broken and horrible, and as much as I was enjoying the story, I hated everything else about the game.

If I had to rate the game at this point, it would have been something like a B:15. Like Top Gear, "Ambitious, but rubbish." (Though Top Gear would merit a much, much, much higher score - an A/100, without a doubt.)

I thought to myself, "How can anyone tolerate this crap?" It was such a disaster, I couldn't understand how it could be getting decent reviews, even if they were all talking about the fact that it was great in spite of itself. Penny Arcade even did a post on how Mass Effect dumps you into the ocean without ever telling you how to swim.

So, I gave it one more shot, at 2:30am one night. I read some board posts at GameFAQs trying to figure out what the hell I was doing wrong during combat. Lo and behold, after reading about a dozen posts, I got it. I understood that you had to target the biotic powers using the RB pause menu. I understood how the shields and health actually worked. I understood the weapon upgrades, the importance of cover, and how to properly use my teammates.

It was a sea change. Finally, the combat made sense. The inventory system made sense. The frustration melted away, and finally, the story and the mechanics worked together to form something that felt right.

Finally, I could experience the universe, the conversation system, and everything the game had to offer without seeing it through a veil of seething hatred. The plot and writing are excellent, if not extraordinary. In Mass Effect, Bioware's done the nigh-impossible. They've made a unique, utterly compelling sci-fi universe.

Post actual introduction to how the game's supposed to work: A/85.

The game's still got a lot of rough edges. The camera still sucks. There are a lot of really bad animation transitions. The load times take forever. The binary choice between good and evil can be a bit tiresome. But the things that are good are really good. The character animation, when it's not popping, is awesome. Their facial animations are excellent, and do a great job of making the characters feel real and believable. There are choices that matter in the game. Choices that don't feel like arbitrary bullshit, and that emotionally involve the player.

That sense of involvement makes the game extraordinary. You become the lynchpin of an incredibly epic story, and it leaves a lasting impact. There's a saying in the game industry - "A late game is late only until it ships, but a bad game is bad forever." To rejigger that a bit, Mass Effect's frustrating mechanics are only frustrating until you understand them, but the storyline is totally freakin' awesome.

When you play through the first time, play as a soldier.

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