Cosmic debris

The little things sink Mass Effect
By MITCH KRPATA  |  December 3, 2007
2.0 2.0 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for Mass Effect

Mass Effect | for Xbox 360 | Rated M for Mature | Developed by Bioware Corp. | Published by Microsoft Game Studios

Few games come loaded with as much ambition — or as much hype — as Mass Effect. Even before the launch of the Xbox 360 two years ago, the game was being pegged as a system seller on a par with Halo and Gears of War. A multi-part space opera from the developers of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect would revolutionize games as we knew them, promising massive worlds to explore, the most intuitive and lifelike dialogue system ever designed, and a story line that would be shaped by the player’s own actions. On paper, it was the greatest game ever.

And then it crash-landed.

Because the emphasis was on the Big Ideas that make for great marketing copy and drooling previews from the enthusiast press, innumerable little problems managed to stow away on the final product. Interface problems, mystifying AI, and myriad performance glitches make it hard to focus on what the game does well. The story line is epic, and BioWare has delivered on some of what it promised, but Mass Effect just doesn’t feel done.

Credit where it’s due: much of what’s here does work well. The dialogue trees aren’t far removed from the mechanics of old-school PC adventure games, but they’ve never been executed so smoothly with recorded speech. As characters talk to you, a circular list appears on screen with several options for what to say next. You can be the good cop or the bad cop, and the conversations develop accordingly. But the dialogue doesn’t illuminate the characters as it does in a good movie or book, and it’s not terribly entertaining on its own, as in something like Sam and Max. It’s mostly informational.

Given that so much of Mass Effect is predicated on these involved conversations, they’re one of the first places the game’s bizarre performance issues start to chafe. All too often, the camera will cut to a smooth, featureless character whose face pops into view moments later. This kind of graphical misstep is understandable at a panoramic outdoor level, but in a cutscene? It’s jarring, and it severs your sense of connection.

But the most irritating aspect of Mass Effect is the way you have to manage your squad through a series of labyrinthine menus. Performing the simplest actions is like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube. For example: certain ammo types are more effective against particular enemies, so it’s a good idea to tailor your munitions to each battle. BioShock also had a feature like this: you hit a button on the directional pad to switch to electric bullets, say, or armor-piercing bullets. In Mass Effect, you open the main menu, select the “equipment” sub-menu, cycle through to the appropriate party member, page through his several weapons, hit X to access the weapon-upgrade screen, toggle over to the specific ammunition-upgrade option, and then scroll down a list of all the ammo in your inventory till you find what you want. Couldn’t be simpler!

Sure, you’ll get used to this stuff after a while. That’s no excuse. I’ve gotten used to holding down the slider on my toaster because that’s the only way it’ll keep the heat on long enough to toast a bagel. Just because I get what I want in the end doesn’t mean my toaster is anything but a piece of junk. It means I’m too cheap to buy a good toaster. With enough effort, you could wring a good deal of enjoyment out of Mass Effect. With enough effort, you could do a lot of things.

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