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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (402)

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The Deep Paths: Labyrin... 3/5
The Vagrant 4/5
Avadon: The Black Fortr... 2/5
Mass Effect 3 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2 3.5/5
Mass Effect 2.5/5
Knightin'+ 3.5/5
Indivisible 3/5
Final Fantasy XIV Onlin... 2/5
A Total War Saga: Troy 3/5
Stardew Valley 3/5
Soulcalibur VI 4.5/5
Owlboy 3/5
Battletech 3/5
Bloodstained: Ritual of... 3/5
The Legend of Zelda: A ... 4/5
Hob 3/5
Assassin's Creed Odyssey 4.5/5
Ittle Dew 2 4.5/5
Luigi's Mansion 3 4/5
Xuan-Yuan Sword: The Ga... 3/5
Star Trek: Bridge Crew 3.5/5
King's Quest: The Compl... 3/5
Strange Brigade 4/5
Metro Exodus 3.5/5

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Mass Effect   PC (Steam) 

Massive Affective Disorder    2.5/5 stars

Back at the dawn of what would become the dismal 7th Generation, BioWare, the development team that single-handedly revived the concept of Dungeons & Dragons-based RPGs on PC under the guiding hand of publisher, InterPlay, had been cut loose in the wake of said publisher’s untimely collapse. Adrift and in the mood to make foolish decisions, BioWare actually sublet the D&D license for which they had been such wonderful stewards to Atari (delenda est) and moved on to making a ‘Star Wars’ themed RPG and a stand-alone Orientalist RPG called “Jade Empire,” both of which were targeted at the original Xbox, and both of which danced dangerously close to the line between RPG and Action, frequently stepping over it.

Their debut title for the 7th Generation’s Xbox 360, however, would be a sci-fi game that was NOT related to any established IP, but would be an original creation, all the studio’s own… that is until BioWare’s lack of stability and resources as they bounced from publisher to publisher ultimately saw the team land upon the tongue of the voracious Electronic Arts, at which point EA gulped-down BioWare like a light snack and shunted the well-chewed remains into a stomach designated for “RPG Developers,” where BioWare would be joined by the likes of Mythic Entertainment, among others. EA would dub this semi-digested pulp the “BioWare Group.” BioWare did manage to squeeze that new Xbox 360 sci-fi IP out the door in 2007, right before EA’s jaws clamped down, though EA was responsible for the PC port a year later as well as the outrageously-late PlayStation 3 port in 2012.

That game was “Mass Effect,” the first in a planned trilogy of sci-fi games taking place in an original universe, seemingly as a complement for the studio’s other original IP, ‘Dragon Age,’ which was to be a fantasy series taking place in a different original universe. Both “Mass Effect” and “Dragon Age: Origins” stirred up the passions of long-time BioWare fans as well as gaming neophytes, myself among them. But then I actually played “Dragon Age: Origins” and decided that the studio had lost a significant amount of its magic touch.

With “Mass Effect” launching on a platform I wouldn’t have been caught dead playing, and being ported to PC four years before I realized that PC gaming was no longer the torturous experience it had been from the ‘70s to 2005, the game never really hit my radar. However, with the release of the sequel on all platforms (except the Wii) simultaneously, I was suddenly confronted by a tsunami of new ‘Mass Effect’/BioWare fanboys who insisted that it was the greatest “RPG” ever, yet every screenshot I saw appeared to be nothing more than a generic sci-fi Shooter of some sort.

With some reluctance, I ended up purchasing the “Mass Effect Trilogy” on EA’s Origin PC gaming client for next to nothing during a holiday sale a few years ago, with the intention of finally seeing what all the fuss was about. Now that I’ve finally experienced the first game in the series, I can definitively say that my baleful opinion of the Xbox community is completely justified.

Presentation
“Mass Effect” is an Unreal Engine 3 game made over the course of three years, with development starting in 2003. Furthermore, it was developed primarily for a console – the Xbox 360 – which possessed a pitiful 512 MB of RAM. Thus it was subject to a number of technical limitations with regard to polygon counts and texture resolutions. However, in spite of these limitations, “Mass Effect” has actually ‘aged’ fairly well for a 7th Generation launch game, and I think this is primarily due to the quality of the in-engine cinematics and not-always-easy-to-pull-off techniques in lip-synch and motion-capture. A handful of cinematics – mostly space station exteriors used for loading screens – are pre-rendered, but everything else is done in-engine.

Looking at the game in 2021 – a whopping 14 years after the original release – the compromises mandated by the technology of the time are obvious: Human characters don’t have the greatest skin or eye textures (but alien characters look fine – the Uncanny Valley at work), with noticeable pixilation of the irises. But the real anchor that sinks “Mass Effect’s” visuals is the miserable environmental design. This is a sci-fi Space Opera game, where flying around the galaxy and exploring planets is everyday business. Yet the planets themselves are – while technically accurate to what science knows of most exoplanets – dreadfully boring, with flat, bland textures; next to no ambient flora or fauna; and an almost complete lack of anything interesting to do. Instead, each planet is represented by a large, empty ‘sandbox’ (if you can even call it that) of annoying-to-navigate terrain and the rare artificial structure. These man-made (or alien-made) buildings are just as boring as the exterior sandboxes, since there are only about 3 different floorplans that get re-used over and over, just with the interior furniture slightly rearranged.

Most of the game is presented as an over-the-shoulder Third-Person Shooter, though planet exploration is done via a trailer camera following a rover-style vehicle. The camera isn’t great, though it is noticeably better than most 6th Generation third-person cameras. However, when running instead of walking, there’s an absolutely vomitous shakey-cam effect that really bothered me, and I never get motion sickness otherwise.

Audiowise, “Mass Effect” is close to its peak. The game is fully voiced by a mix of known actors, career videogame dubbers, and unknowns, and all the performances are truly excellent. However, the soundtrack that accompanies the game is mostly lifeless, with only one particular tune standing out, and only then because of its reminiscence of the ambient background sounds used in many episodes of the original “Star Trek.”

Technically, “Mass Effect” has its fair share of problems. First, and most noticeably, is the fact that, even as an Xbox 360 game – the first HD console – “Mass Effect’s” maximum resolution (without using mods) is 720p. Even worse, though the Origin PC version is a port of a console game, EA dummied-out the Xinput support and controller-specific interface, requiring a user-created mod to put this feature back in. Then there’s the fact that the Xbox 360’s DVD-ROM drive wasn’t the fastest, which caused BioWare to create a large number of slow, boring elevators throughout the game’s environments to keep the actual loading screens to a minimum. It’s clear that the dev team was fully aware of the technical limitations they needed to work around, and managed to come up with some novel solutions, but baking the solutions into the very foundations of the game means that running the same old game on much newer hardware doesn’t improve the experience much. Lastly, while the game does support auto-saving, the intervals at which it does this are quite Spartan. Having gotten used to games that save during every location transition (in the event of a crash), I found “Mass Effect’s” auto-saves to be effectively useless, forcing me to always remember to auto-save after doing anything I didn’t want to have to do again.

Story
“Mass Effect” takes place in an original – yet strikingly generic – near-future sci-fi universe in which, after discovering ancient alien ruins on Mars in the 22nd Century, humanity quickly harnessed the titular mass effect technology to access an equally-ancient network of faster-than-light relays, allowing them to join a much larger conglomeration of advanced alien civilizations who all rely on the same poorly-understood technology themselves.

Our story picks up roughly 20 years after humanity’s first contact with aliens, as our hero(ine), Commander Shephard, participates in a top secret mission to recover an ancient alien media storage device, which may contain information that will help all galactic civilizations to better understand the builders of the mass relays. Accompanying Shephard on this trip is an alien secret agent, who will be observing Shepard in action to determine if he/she is suitable for being inducted into the Spectres, the Galactic Council’s extra-legal secret service.

Needless to say, things go wrong on this top secret mission, and Shephard finds him/her-self dealing with a rogue Spectre agent who appears to be working with a race of evil artificial intelligences that had previously conquered their creators’ planet, leaving the survivors as spacefaring gypsies. It’s up to Shephard and a diverse crew of aliens (and humans) to track down this rogue agent, figure out what’s going on, and put a stop to what could be a disastrous robot uprising.

So, yeah, “Mass Effect” is pretty much a bog-standard sci-fi Space Opera, mixing in a few cyberpunk elements. You’ve got your multitude of sentient races, most of whom just look like humans with weird growths on their faces and different numbers of digits on their appendages. You’ve got your Human Alliance as the new kids on the block, disrespected by more established aliens both for our impetuousness brought about by our short lifespans, and for our meager years of participation in the greater galactic community. You’ve got your dystopian (mostly human, natch) corporations buying far-flung planets upon which to conduct illegal and unethical research. And, of course, you’ve got your evil AIs that always want to destroy all organic life, because ‘Terminator’ told us so. I had heard how amazing “Mass Effect’s” story was, over and over, from fanboys, and while it’s definitely not terrible, it’s not particularly exciting or surprising, with the most creative bits seemingly serving as a tease for the sequel(s).

Inexplicably, BioWare spent a LOT of time writing planet descriptions for places Commander Shephard and the team can’t even officially visit – a lot of words which would have been better spent building up the universe’s background lore through well-written side-stories. Instead, “Mass Effect” features a fairly brisk main story, devoid of twists or turns, that lasts about 25 hours, combined with a collection of the most boring side-stories possible, bringing the total runtime to somewhere around 40 hours. I admit, I didn’t complete all the collect-a-thon missions involving driving all over desolate planets in search of minerals, lost thumb drives, or lost medals, but I did power-through the side-stories that contained actual story and found them to be rather lifeless affairs with very little payoff. Like in every other game (*coughWitcher3cough*) that is widely promoted and hyped as having ‘decisions that matter,’ I found that the main story plays out pretty much the same way regardless of who live or dies, and the side-stories have absolutely no effect upon the main story, though it’s possible that importing a save from “Mass Effect” into “Mass Effect 2” will give these side activities and decisions some more impact.

In general, “Mass Effect” feels like the sci-fi equivalent of the no-brand generic toys available for purchase at Dollar Stores. At least “Star Ocean: The Last Hope” – a contemporary of “Mass Effect” – felt like a weird, somewhat silly parody of “Star Trek.”

Gameplay
“Mass Effect” is the best RPG of the Generation!”

“Uh, it’s a Third-Person Shooter.”

“NO! It’s a AKSHUN/RPG!”

“But it’s a Third-Person Shooter.”

“NO, wait! It’s a DUB-EL-YOO-ARR-PEE-GEE!”

“What? It’s clearly a Third-Person Shooter!”

Thus went the typical discussions I had with denizens of the Internet around “Mass Effect 2’s” release, when there was a desperate push amongst the fanbase to get more people to experience the series, and there was an equally-desperate drought of RPGs to be found. This conflict is the primary reason it took me so long to soften towards and get around to this series, as, prior to my discovery that motion controlled aiming really makes the First-and-Third-Person Shooter genres much more palatable, I had no desire to play any of these games, no matter how hyped.

To be clear, “Mass Effect” is, indeed, NOT an RPG, but a Third-Person Shooter. Interestingly, it seems to be one of, if not the, earliest example of the still-relatively-new Looter Shooter style of F/TPS, in which players can improve their character’s capabilities by finding new equipment and acquiring perks through experience. Furthermore, “Mass Effect” isn’t just a run-of-the-mill Third-Person Looter Shooter, but was on the cutting edge of the Cover-Based Shooting fad, which put emphasis on slower, more methodical combat than the typically manic Shooters of the ‘90s.

And, you know what? It’s perfectly fine for “Mass Effect” not to be an RPG. What ISN’T fine, however, is the fact that it’s a pretty damned terrible TPS!

Upon starting a new game, the player will be asked to pick a class for their particular flavor of Commander Shepard. The three most basic classes are the Soldier, who is a weapons-and-armor master, but has no skills beyond that; the Adept (read: Psychic) who uses the Force their Biotic implants to cast spells telekinetic powers; and the Engineer, who uses their hacking tool to disable enemies’ tech and pick the digital locks found all over the galaxy. The latter two classes, however, have NO weapons capabilities. Thus there are hybrid classes that combine the base classes together, providing access to a smaller pool of capabilities drawn from both combined base classes. I ended up playing as an Infiltrator (Soldier + Engineer) because I wanted to be able to hack and snipe… but my expectations weren’t exactly met.

In order to enforce class capabilities with weapons, “Mass Effect” fools around with the size and stability of the targeting reticle depending on the number of perk points dumped into a particular weapon skill and whether the character’s class is even proficient with said weapon. There are a meager four weapon types – pistol, assault rifle, shotgun, and sniper rifle – but most classes will be proficient in 2 or 0 types. Starting as an Infiltrator, I was absolutely disgusted by the amount of weapon sway while trying to aim a sniper rifle, which made it feel like I was drunk, in a hurricane, on the deck of a ship. And, honestly, none of the other weapons feel particularly stellar either. While it’s possible to use a weapon ‘untrained,’ doing so removes the ability to aim-down-sights and leaves the player with the starting targeting reticle the entire time. So I quickly learned to adapt to only using my pistol and unstable sniper, which were ultimately ‘good enough,’ but never particularly exciting. Moreover, weapons don’t have ammunition, per-se, but are instead energy weapons that overheat if fired too much without pausing, leading to a fairly long cooldown period before they can be fired again.

Non-weapon-based skills all operate on cooldown timers (which can be improved by spending perks and equipping better hacking tools or Biotic amplifiers), which leaves the user in the lurch when everything’s on cooldown but there are still enemies about, especially when it is so easy for the player to get one-shot by foes. Commander Shephard is also the only member of the team packing grenades and med-kits, but the grenades in “Mass Effect” are useless things that slide across the floor like a moderately-dangerous shuffleboard puck, and first-aid is not only limited by the number of medi-gels carried, but by a cooldown, though thankfully a single medi-gel affects the entire party instead of a single character.

Suffice to say, combat balance in “Mass Effect” is completely out of whack. Commander Shepard doesn’t have to fly solo, but can be accompanied by up to two AI controlled companions on missions. Most suits of armor the player’s team can equip come with some energy shields that will deflect weapons-fire (but not melee attacks), and regenerate after a period of not taking damage. However, this really doesn’t matter, as AI companions – who each fall into one of the basic or hybrid classes themselves – are complete morons, and will typically stand out in the open (in a COVER-BASED Shooter!) or shoot relentlessly at walls (or Shephard’s back – thankfully there’s no friendly fire) before going down like a cheerleader on prom night. Midway through the main story, Shephard does gain a skill (with a cooldown) that can resurrect all downed companions without waiting for the battle to end… but in practice it just gives them another opportunity to get themselves killed.

Enemy AI isn’t much better than friendly AI, as they will frequently break cover and charge the player’s position, making funneling these fools through choke points the most practical way of dealing with them. There also aren’t an appreciable number of interesting foes to go up against with ‘zombie’ archetypes of mindless, weaponless humanoids being distressingly common.

Weapons and armor are typically acquired by defeating foes (most enemies ‘drop’ one item and some credits, which are auto-looted), and while there are a variety of different models of each weapon and armor type, and different quality grades ranging from 1 to 10, there are blatantly obvious “best” weapons and armor in each category. Weapons and armor can be somewhat customized with mods, which also drop from defeated foes or appear in lootable containers. Low-tier weapons can equip two mods (one general and one ammo) while higher-tier weapons gain an extra general mod slot; likewise low-tier armor gets one slot and high-tier armor gets two. Weapon mods range from things that increase accuracy and stability, to things that improve the mini-map’s radar, to a whole slew of different ammo types. Armor mods typically revolve around granting health regen to characters who don’t have it as part of their class, or providing shielding improvements. And just like the basic weapons themselves, there’s always an obvious “best” setup.

While it is possible to buy weapons, armor, and mods from a handful of vendors across the galaxy, for the most part the game’s shops are useless. Early on, when the items in stock are much better than what the player has, those items will cost far more credits than the player can afford. While, later on, after selling gobs and gobs of outdated and/or redundant loot drops, the player will be swimming in credits, with nothing to buy (other than the one-time purchase upgrades that increase the number of grenades and first-aid gels the party can carry). For me, it got to a point where I had maxed out my credit wallet and had completely filled my 150 inventory slots, and was forced to convert valuable loot into piddly quantities of ‘omni-gel’ which can be used to repair the Mako Rover Commander Shephard drives around on planetary surfaces or bypass locks that have been jammed by a failed hacking attempt (that is to say, not a good use of loot!).

Other than the shockingly-bad Third-Person Cover-Based Shooting and Looting that is the core of the gameplay experience, “Mass Effect” only offers a handful of other mechanics. As previously mentioned, Engineers and their hybrid classes can hack the locks on loot containers, doors, and salvageable objects. This hacking process involves playing an incredibly irritating mini-game involving moving a pip toward the center of a set of rotating concentric circles, while avoiding firewalls on each circle, “Frogger”-style. While I did get used to this minigame and never wasted any omni-gel re-doing flubbed locks (save scumming exists for a reason), the handful of other mini-games scattered throughout “Mass Effect” are truly mind-numbing and, even worse, never properly explained. There are several instances sprinkled across the game’s length where Commander Shephard must interact with a computer system more complicated than a digital padlock, and each time the game just throws up a completely unfamiliar interface with no instructions on the objective or the controls, leading to some incredibly tedious trial-and-error.

Overall
“Mass Effect” is a generic sci-fi Space Opera that can’t even pass itself off as a parody or homage to better and more established sci-fi IPs that came before it. But while the story and cinematics aren’t explicitly bad, the Cover-Based Third-Person Shooter gameplay is, resulting in an overall sub-par experience that is, at least, over before it becomes unbearable.

Presentation: 3.5/5
Story: 3.5/5
Gameplay: 1.5/5
Overall (not an average): 2.5/5

 

 


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