Saturday, September 04, 2010

Mass Effect: Debrief

It's true: it's taken me until now to play through Mass Effect.  Yes, it's been around for more than two years--in fact, I think I got some sort of second anniversary discount when I bought it back in May.  Yes, a veritable legion of my friends has tried to convince me to play it for those last two years--and friends whose video game opinions I generally respect.  Yes, I pretty much adore Dragon Age: Origins--and in the grand Bioware tradition, Dragon Age is basically just Mass Effect dressed up as fantasy.

I don't know why it's taken me so long.  Part of it was probably my lack of time over the last two years; part of it was that I anticipated the game having too much shooter influence for my tastes--even though shooters are de rigueur in video gaming these days, I haven't played one I really got into since Perfect Dark back in 2000.  Of course, my friends were completely right on this one.  Mass Effect is a very good video game.

I've argued before that every Bioware game plays the same, and Mass Effect is no exception.  It follows the now-familiar structure: a short in media res prologue that gets the action going; Act 1, which takes place in some beacon of civilization, establishes the central conflict of the game, and builds your party; a massive Act 2 that occupies the majority of the game and features four parallel main quests in the far reaches of the setting; a climactic Act 3, which features some major plot revelations and sets up the final battle; and a short Act 4, which is basically the final battle with a short lead-up.  There are lots of side assignments you can do, many of which involve your characters and getting to know their stories better--including some that lead to romance subplots.

At around 35 hours, Mass Effect is a little shorter than I expected it to be.  Maybe that shows the background that I game from--I grew up on JRPGs like Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy series that, even back in 1995, routinely lasted for 50-60 hours.  I sunk 110 hours into Final Fantasy X, 120 into Oblivion, and I don't even want to know how many (but probably at least 150) into Morrowind.  I didn't explore every nook of every isolated planet to find every side quest in the game, but I did put reasonable effort into finishing all the ones I bumped into.  You could probably stretch Mass Effect to 40-45 hours if you dragged a fine-toothed comb over it, or you could probably speed through it in as few as 20-25.

But that would be a mistake.  Bioware might come across as the poor man's Bethesda when it comes to crafting open, dynamic, and explorable worlds, but they're still far and away better at it than virtually everyone else in the business.  There's a lot going on in Mass Effect, between history, setting, and characters, and it's worth it to explore as much of it as is feasible.

Mass Effect doesn't suffer from nearly as many difficulty issues as would plague Dragon Age: Origins just a year later.  Both games scale their difficulty, so that your enemies get tougher as you do--except that the only thing that happens to your enemies is that the numbers go up.  As you become more powerful, it's not strictly about the numbers, it's also about the additional things you can do.  My mage character in Dragon Age was very much tilted toward "things" rather than "numbers," so the beginning of the game was unreasonably difficult (I would routinely die to a wolf ambush), while the end was almost trivially easy (because of all the resources at my disposal, I never felt seriously threatened by the final boss). 

It might be a different approach to the character that I took in Mass Effect that made the difficulty more even throughout, or it might be that Mass Effect is just balanced better.  Either way, the difficulty is appropriate at virtually every stage of the game, and I definitely felt seriously threatened by the final boss here.

Aesthetically, the game is decent to good.  The music is passable, but it's no Jeremy Soule soundtrack (a la the Elder Scrolls games).  As for the graphics, I turned the resolution up to 1280x1024 and all the other settings squarely to "medium," and I think it struck a nice balance of looks and performance, at least on my system.  (My computer is only about a year old, and relatively powerful--but by no means a gaming rig.  If you have a machine legitimately built for gaming, you'll be able to crank all the settings up with no problem.)

The controls are reasonably intuitive and mostly explained over the course of the "prologue" act, with a the exceptions of a handful of the minigames and a couple vagaries of the Mako tank.  (In fact, there are plenty of vagaries of the Mako tank.)

But what you're really playing this game for is the story, which is executed brilliantly.  It unfolds entirely sensically from the prologue to the final act, and even though you're clearly dealing with some world- (or galaxy-) changing stuff, you never really feel overwhelmed or in over your head.  The plot toes the line between a self-contained story with an exciting climax and satisfying resolution and a first installment of a trilogy that's obviously part of something much bigger than itself.  It works on both levels, and the best sign of its success is how excited I am about playing Mass Effect 2.

Currently listening: "Somebody Told Me", the Killers

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