This review originally appeared in E183, Christmas 2007.
So what, exactly, is a mass effect? Is it something to do with the outcome of elaborate physics experiments? Is it a time and space altering technology created by ancient aliens? (Apparently, it is.) Or is it what happens when BioWare, famed for Baldur’s Gate and Knights Of The Old Republic, decides to make its own version of Star Wars?
You’d think that it was, given the effect on its target audience. Before anyone had actually played this game, everyone was in love with it. Visually sophisticated, obviously epic and only half as daft as its title suggests, it spoke directly to estranged fans of Lucasfilm’s saga, all of whom appeared to be vocal gamers. Given the avenues of KOTOR, it went without saying that if Binks set foot in its universe, the option would be there to blow his brains across the screen. The question: how would BioWare celebrate that freedom from George?
The answer: with guns. Mass Effect is part KOTOR and Jade Empire, part Gears Of War and Ghost Recon. Rather than a leisurely exchange of buffered commands, its combat is a close, intense firefight. The action pauses while you switch your party’s weapons or deploy its ‘biotic’ abilities, but otherwise the forecast is for wall-hugging, rifle-butting run-and-gun with just a scattering of sorcery.
Thematically, the old faves – the hero’s journey, galactic peril and portentous dreams – are all there, but the end result feels like TV more than cinema. Like Star Trek, Mass Effect’s quests are peppered with leaden and didactic dialogue. Like Battlestar Galactica, it plays fast and loose with the lives of its characters, reveling in the prospect of apocalyptic events. Like Stargate or Farscape, it hops restlessly between worlds which look unique from some angles, identical from others. And, like all of them, it has a wonderfully nerdy kind of sex appeal. Think Buck Rogers meets Industrial Light & Magic.
In other words, it’s KOTOR all over again, but without the license. As either a user- or pre-defined character, you march towards destiny with absolutely everyone talking about you, focusing on your every move. Your backstory, a selectable tale of either privilege or woe, determines much of what is said and done. The plot, naff as it is, casts you as the first human inductee into the elite Spectre organization (no cats on laps, sadly), tasked with tracking down a rogue agent with a deadly interest in the Reapers, a forgotten race of mind-controlling robots.
The game’s a real plate-spinner – and unfortunately it shows. The combat, limited to basic squad commands and gun types (shotgun, pistol, sniper and assault rifles) engages, but never electrifies. The biotic attacks, which typically stun the opposition or repair the squad, are so bland you’ll opt for maximum firepower, which dominates the enemy if logically upgraded. An ill-advised ‘normal’ difficulty setting, by which only bosses scale to the player’s level (and still can’t compete), betrays the fact that there are two genres here, stats-based RPG and frenetic shooter, which don’t really get along.
Other paths can be chosen, of course, and higher difficulty levels unlocked by repeat playthroughs. But none finds that elusive balance, and the story (especially its obvious ending) seldom justifies the search.