Bioware continues to shine with ‘Mass Effect’

Owen Sound Sun Times (On)

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Edmonton based game developer Bioware is an industry heavy weight. They’ve been churning out award winning RPGs for 10 years, from the classic Baldur’s Gate series to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic which was better than the new Star Wars trilogy all put together.” Their latest game, Mass Effect, continues the tradition of excellence.

Mass Effect was originally released for Xbox 360 but finally found its way onto the PC last Thursday. Pick it up and discover an intriguing new sci-fi world talk with its denizens, then kill some them. The PC version not only brings the game to us PC gamers, but also optimizes the controls for the mouse and keyboard and delivers higher resolution graphics than the Xbox 360 version.

In Mass Effect you play as Commander Shepard, a soldier in the space navy of the future. You start out on a routine mission on the SSV Normandy (a spaceship) but things quickly go awry and you have to save the galaxy.

Yeah, you’ve done this before, but not like this. Mass effect gets it all right. It feels like a sci-fi story should. The combat in the game is great; the graphics are stellar and really bring the world to life. The package is rounded out by excellent writing and voice-over work. The game world walks very close to many sci-fi movies you’ve probably seen, but keeps things fresh. Bioware did a great job with Star Wars, but Mass Effect is all the more compelling because the whole universe is new; you’re discovering everything for the first time.

Much of the gameplay in Mass Effect is standard RPG fare. You’ll do a lot of wandering around talking to people. Sometimes these sections are to advance the story; sometimes they’re for side quests that get you extra experience points, or items. Either way, the voice acting and writing is so excellent that you’ll want to wander around and talk to people, to hear what they say and see if they have any tasks for you.

The way the dialogue trees are constructed works well too. While talking to characters you often select things responses to advance the game, but unlike many other RPGs, you select from a bunch of ideas you want to convey, rather than reading and selecting the exact words your character will go on to say. For example, while inquiring the whereabouts of one character to another you might be given the option “Where is he?” to select. When selected Shepard won’t simply say “Where is he?” but might say “Well, do you know where I can find him?” It adds just a bit of surprise to the conversations and makes them more interesting to sit through.

Mass Effect’s graphics are great. They aren’t worlds ahead of other games, but some small details really make the game look good. It’s commonplace for video games to have advanced textures to make things look shiny, metallic, wet, etc. but sometimes these effects can leave everything looking too shiny, or plastic-like. The mapping in this game is very good. Alien scales look like scales, teeth look like teeth, metal looks like metal, everything has the right look. The game even has a neat “film grain” filter, which makes the game look like it’s an old sci-fi movie shot on analog film. It’s well done and suits the sort of homage tone set by the game.

Characters look really great and their animations are quite good, though not as emotive as we’ve seen. Half-Life 2 and its expansions still have the most emotive character animations I’ve seen in a video game, while mass effect has much better character models.

Sci-fi’s not complete without some gunplay, and that’s my favourite aspect of Mass Effect; the combat. While Mass Effect is an RPG it plays like a shooter. Two squadmates that constantly accompany you are completely AI controlled so you don’t have to worry about them much, but you can give them commands to help them out in battle. When you draw your gun you aim with the mouse and can take cover behind objects, much like Gears of War. At the same time the combat is more reliant on your character stats than your timing, so it’s a nice balance of RPG and action game qualities. A new aspect of the PC game, versus the Xbox 360 version, is the tactical HUD. Pressing Spacebar pauses the game and lets you select commands for your squadmates as well as assign special powers to quick keys on your keyboard. It’s a very welcome addition.

All in all I highly recommend Mass Effect. It’s like playing a top notch sci-fi movie, and will appeal to RPG gamers and action fans alike. That being said it does take a lot of horsepower to run it. I’m playing it on a machine with a fast video card (GeForce 8800m GTS 512MB) and a somewhat slow processor (1.66GHz dual core) and it has some hiccups from time to time, but still runs nicely with the setting all the way up.

If you’re stuck with a slower computer or a lack of funds to pick up Mass Effect I recommend Knights of the Old Republic. It’s got a great story and play wonderfully. It’s like Mass Effect, but Star wars and five years older.

What I’m Playing and Why You Might Like It

In addition to Mass Effect I’ve been playing Prey. It’s a PC shooter made by 3D Realms in 2005 that plays around with gravity in cool ways and has a pretty neat story. Well worth checking out, especially at its current price 10-15 dollars.

I’ve also been playing Dungeon Runners, a free MMORPG that I talked about a while back. It looks like World of Warcraft and plays like Diablo, but has a wicked sense of humour. It’s had quite a few updates since I had last played it and it’s well worth trying. Definitely the best free MMORPG out there.

Calen Henry is a recent graduate of Japanese Studies and Multimedia at McMaster University. He grew up in Owen Sound, has been a gamer since childhood and is also interested in music and film.

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