Thursday, November 22, 2007

Mass Effect: initial impressions

Bioware makes great games. Few companies of any kind maintain such a consistent focus on quality. Mass Effect, like all Bioware games, is something innovative and well-designed.

After 3 or 4 hours of play, I'm impressed... but not as much as I expected to be. That's not because of hype. The game has some serious flaws.

From all the preview videos I had seen, I thought this would be a game to share with my non-gamer family and friends. I expected Mass Effect to have broad appeal. Now, I have the impression that this is a game for hardcore RPG fans, and few others.

First, there's pacing. The pace, at least in early hours of the game, is incredibly slow. The combat isn't slow, but I would estimate that I've spent only a third or less of my time in combat. I have the impression that will change soon, but the overwhelming majority of the early game is spent in dialogue and running around. Keep in mind, I've been exploring side-missions, and fast-travel within the first city is only possible after having first walked to each location.

Inventory management and character upgrades are significant barriers to the game's pace. There's an automatic levelling option for ancy gamers, but there's no automatic gear system. Expect to spend considerable time in paused gameplay. You'll pick up new gear surprisingly often; which is great, aside from its effect on pace.

Wordy and unrealistic?
The dialogue system is engaging, but not as engaging as I expected. Because I'm something of an idiot in regard to body language, perhaps it shouldn't surprise me that the dialogue doesn't grip me much more than the dialogue in Neverwinter Nights did. But the semi-gamer who watched me play stopped watching after only five minutes and never got excited, so I'm thinking the problem isn't just me.

The visuals and voice-acting are both superb (I can forgive the mediocre lip-synching). The dialogue, however, is often unnaturally verbose and eloquent. I'd expect more dialect variation between characters. The pace of dialogue often seems unrealistic, especially since it's apparently impossible to interrupt NPCs by choosing a response option early -- I could have sworn they had advertised that interruptions would be possible. Different, real-world cultures have different expectations of pacing and pausing in conversation, but there's definitely a problem when a relaxed Southerner, like myself, thinks the pauses are too long. The problem might rest largely in not dividing high-intensity conversations from low-intensity conversations. The more intense the conversation, the smaller the pauses should be between speakers.

The player's choice system during dialogue is not so simple as previews and interviews have suggested. On the right side of the dialogue menu, Up represents a positive tone, Middle represents a flat tone, and Down represents the negative. That much is intuitive. However, you'll want to read each option.

If you have any explorative blood in you, expect the level designs to waste your time on occasion. You'll come down a ramp and notice a path to your right, then follow that path and realize there's nothing there. Environments include a lot of dead space.

Volume troubles
There are no speaker options in the game's audio settings menu. I'm assuming that's why some character dialogue is so much quieter than other dialogue. Elevator conversations, NPC chatter, and other non-cutscene dialogues are significantly quieter than dialogue in the cutscenes. As a result, I have to make my TV's volume much louder than with most games and bear with the cutscene dialogue being louder than I'd like, if I want to hear all of the other dialogue. I'm assuming the game's audio was configured for surround sound only. Whether that's true or not, speaker options certainly should have been provided to avoid this constant annoyance.

Those are the problems that stick in my mind, but I'm still anxious to play more of Mass Effect.

Surprise attacks
One benefit of the game's unusual emphasis on storytelling is that it can trick you into lowering your guard. I've run into one fight in a place I didn't expect. I've never felt ambushed in any game so much as in that moment.

Another time, I had just finished a fight and began to make my way back out of the area. I wondered if I should have my gun out in case more enemies had filled the room I cleared a few minutes ago, but I kept my gun holstered. That decision cost me my life. I was ambushed again, and it was too late by the time I got my gun out and crouched behind something.

Gear selection
I didn't expect new items to drop so frequently and make me think so much. Mass Effect feels a bit like Diablo 2 in that I have to make subjective decisions about gear. Should I load the armor-piercing ammo into my assault rifle and the phasic ammo into my shotgun; or vis versa? Do I want more physical protection for my armor? Or would I rather upgrade my armor with a mechanism that improves my melee damage? Should I specialize particular weapons to particular enemies (one for organic enemies, one for mechanical enemies)? Or would I prefer ammo that does lesser damage, but to all enemy types?

Significant story decisions
I mean that in two ways. First, an NPC once walked away and decided not to offer me his mission because I was rude to him. My dialogue choice affected mission gameplay. Second, moral decisions must be made which define the player's character. You'll be surprised how much complexity this will add to your character's personality. What causes does he sympathize with? What sort of behavior will she tolerate?

Assassin's Creed certainly has wider accessibility. Mass Effect seems, initially, more for experienced gamers and people who are interested in story-driven games. My early impression of the game is that it will be fun, but it's probably a niche experience that many gamers won't be interested in.

1 comment:

  1. And you didn't even get to the troubles with the Mako's guns. 8)

    Overall I agree with your points, but not your summation. I think the good elements of the game are stronger than the annoying ones are annoying. When I think of a mediocre game, I think of Blue Dragon, and Mass Effect is quantums better than that.


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