Mass Effect: First Impression

Mass Effect Cover

Mass Effect Cover

At a first glance Mass Effect looks like a KotOR game, stripped down of all Star Wars branding. It’s a skill based RPG with loot, upgradable loot, dialog trees, planet based locations, spaceship used as a travel / companion exchange hub and etc. So it’s almost the same awesome game, only with a new setting and new storyline and updated graphics. And if it’s like that I should totally love it, just like I loved the KotOR games.

Ok, so my KotOR 2 review sounded like I hated the game. But I really didn’t. I was criticizing it out of love. It’s funny how we always reserve our harshest criticism for the things we love. Yeah, we may mercilessly bash the stuff we hate but when you criticize something you love – oh you will meticulously and systematically take it apart. That’s just how it is.

It seems that when BioWare shook down the KotOR formula to clean it up for a new game more than just the Star Wars branding fell out. Id say the game lost it’s heart and soul but that would be a bit harsh and for it’s flaws (multitude of them) Mass Effect is still fairly decent.

So I wanted to complain a bit at first before talking about the stuff I liked because complaining is usually funnier.

Companions

As many other games of this type, Mass Effect allows you to pick up companions that will assist you in your quest. Just like in KotOR you can only have two of them following you at a time, while the rest must wait in the ship somewhere. I have never really understood this restriction. It doesn’t really make much sense story wise. You have assembled a crack team of heroes, all of whom have a score to settle with the big bad final boss of the game. And yet, when the final battle is to be fought only two chosen ones get to accompany you, even if it would make much more sense to take everyone. But it’s an old game mechanic which I’m already used to, so I won’t complain about it.

Ooops, I guess I already did. Oh well. The fact that it’s silly doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. It does. That’s not why I bring it up. I’m talking about it here because Mass Effect manages to ruin it by allowing you to assemble the whole team in the first hour of game play.

It’s like this: on your company switch screen there are 6 silhouettes that depict the available and non-available characters. These 6 slots are all you ever get. You start with two of them pre-filled. You pick up your next three companions before you actually leave the Citadel (which is really an extended tutorial area) and the game proper begins. Your final companion joins you on your first or second story driven mission out of the citadel (depending on which path you choose first). After that you are done. No more new companions ever.

For comparison, KotOR games you would be picking up new team members unexpectedly at different points in the game. Some of them would show up early, while others wouldn’t join you until the third act or so. It was fun, and exciting to seek these folks out, and you could always look forward to fining new cool companions ever past the middle point of the game.

Mass Effect gives you all the companions up front, making it painfully obvious you will never meet any other allies out there. So it sort of takes the excitement and wonder out of that part of the game. At least for me.

Inventory

One word: train wreck. Ok, that was two words, but you get the idea. Whoever designed this system needs to be sent to a mandatory US design camp for a week. I seriously don’t know what happened here because KotOR games had decent inventory screens that just worked. Mass Effect tries to be stylish and modern like, but fails at usability.

The Inventory Screen

The Inventory Screen

For example, why can’t a character not carry an assault rifle? In my team I have several individuals who are not trained in rifles. They are great with pistols and/or shotguns but not rifles. And yet, the game insists that each of these characters have each of their weapon slots filled with an appropriate item. None of these slots can EVER be left blank. It’s just not possible. What is worse, there is just no reason for it.

This flaw means that to swap two weapons between characters you have to have a third weapon of the same type at hand. If you want character A to give his pistol to character B and you just sold/scrapped all the pistols in your inventory you are out of luck. You’ll have to wait till you find a pistol, or go to a store and buy one.

Which is an interesting experience in itself. You see, Mass Effect trading screen sucks even more than the inventory screen. Why? Because there is no way to identify items at a glance. Instead of showing you a picture of the actual item, armor or upgrade you are buying, the game will display a large, detailed image of the suitcase in which the item is sold. It’s not just one suitcase of course – the designers took great care do design different cases for each item – the all have intricate color patterns and look very pretty. There is only one problem: there is no way to distinguish which suitcase contains a weapon, armor or an upgrade item. Item descriptions usually look like this:

In huge font: Stiletto IV (ie. the brand name)
In smaller font: Foobar Technologies (the manufacturer)
In tiny, barely readable font: Pistol (ie. what this is)

Each time you shop, you have to literally squint at the screen to find out what you are looking at.

That’s not all though. You actually don’t get to see the stats of the weapon you are buying unless you press a “compare” button on the UI. It then shows you the stats of the item, compared with the items you have currently equipped. There is of course no easy way to compare the sold items with each other.

Then again, you hardly ever have to make such comparisons anyway as Mass Effect items come in distinct tiers. Regardless of brand, manufacturer and designation each item is marked with a roman numeral which is a bit like a level. All items in the same trier have comparable stats. So you know that if you are carrying bunch of VI items, you can safely scrap or sell most of your V. IV, III, II and I crap.

Besides, you don’t really have to trade in this game at all. I mostly use stores to unload my gear when I’m nearing the carrying capacity. I can count items I actually bought on the fingers of one hadn. Looted item are usually better than anything you can buy in the stores and they are dispensed quite generously throughout the game.

Looting

Did I mention that you can’t loot the bodies in this game? Yeah, it is not allowed. Dropped items just auto-magically appear in your inventory. What’s worse, you never know that you picked up loot until you open the inventory screen.

To me, this is deeply, deeply unsatisfying. I think most of crpg players enjoy looting corpses. Yes, it is not a very heroic thing to do, but damn it, its a fucking tradition. I just expect enemies to behave like gold and weapon filled pinatas that will dispense awesome rewards upon death.

I think in the past I ranted about how silly this system is. I think I even used a rat dropping a plate armor as an example. Still, even ridiculous loot system like that is better than what Mass Effect is doing. Enemies just drop dead, and nothing happens. WTF?

Oh, wait no – I’m sorry. There is a little message popping up in the corner of the screen that says “+INVENTORY”. Gee, thanks! It totally only took me half the game to notice that it was there.

Oh, and guess what happens if you accidentally auto-loot or open a container when you already have the maximum 150 items in the inventory? Will the game let you scrap some old items to make room? No, of course not. Will it allow you to cancel out of the pick-up screen so that you can come back and loot the container later? Hell no! It will force you to manually destroy every single item you just picked up by hand. Yup – if you forget to clean out your inventory, you will be punished. This is the worst looting mechanic I have seen as of yet. And the best part is that there is absolutely no reason why it has to be this way, other than poor UI design.

Dialog Trees

Guess what else got irreversibly broken in Mass Effect? Dialog trees! You know, the age old mechanic that dates all the way back to the point and click adventure games. You know what I’m talking about, right? Someone says something and you see bunch of responses you can make on the bottom of the screen.

Yeah, Mass Effect removed that and replaced it with a little wheel that lists “topics” for the conversation. Why? I have no fucking clue. Maybe because they were releasing it on Xbox and they assumed that most of users of that console are illiterate? I don’t know!

The end effect is that you don’t actually know what your character is going to say until you pick one of the options. And what the wheel says does not always sync up with what comes out of your mouth. Let me give you an example. At one point in the game some guards wanted to disarm me. I clicked on the option that I assumed was polite refusal, at which point my character whipped out his gun and started spewing insults and taunting the guards. Ugh!

Eventually I learned that upper right option is always the “nice guy” response, whiled the lower right is the “total jerk” one. The responses on the right are merely for asking questions, unless they are colored in which case they are either “charm” or “intimidate” options. I mean, they might have just labeled them as such. You know “click here to be nice” and “click here to be a dick”. It would work exactly the same, and it would avoid the initial confusion.

Summary

To summarize: Mass Effect is like KotOR that was repeatedly punched in the face until it suffered enough brain damage to forget most of the things that made it such a success. Inventory is absolutely atrocious, trading is a harrowing experience that I seek to avoid as much as possible, and the fun of looting is mostly removed from the game via lack of corpse drops. The dialog mechanic is needlessly altered from the old working standard, making it shallower and less fun than it should be. In other words BioWare took all the parts that us RPG types usually enjoy, and replaced them with some weird, experimental, dumbed down crap. The only thing that is left is the level ding which somehow is still somehow enjoyable.

So what’s left? Well, there is the setting and the story. Former is actually quite interesting, while the latter seems passable at this point. I can’t really comment on it as I haven’t finished the game yet but it keeps me interested. I say this: despite all the flaws I listed above I’m still playing the game. So you can expect few more Mass Effect related posts in the next few weeks.

Oh, I haven’t forgotten about the mini games. Have no fear, that’s a topic for a whole separate rant.

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5 Responses to Mass Effect: First Impression

  1. faemir UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    I can’t say I agree with much of anything that you say, but what I will say is that it only overtook KotOR1 in my list of favourite games after I completed it and looked back on it – the story gets pretty damn kickass.

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  2. freelancer SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Haha, I had no idea there was a “+INVENTORY” message, and I’ve played through the game twice XD

    And yeah, I agree with you, the different UI elements average at somewhere between “crap” and “oh my god, someone got paid for this?!”. I did quite like the story though.

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  3. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ faemir: The story is nothing new, it’s all pretty standard sci-fi, and it doesn’t even close at the end of the game. Great.

    My take is that Mass Effect was designed with console in mind, and was mostly just a port on PC. Just look at the inventory screen : lots of tabs, tons of scrolling needed to get where you want, huge fonts, it’s obvious it’s been made to be read on a TV from a couch and not 15cm away on a 22” screen. The same can be said about the dialog wheel. How hard was it to actually think the UI for the PC ? Not very, but they didn’t bother.

    Other than that, I do recall some armor or weapon being particularly stronger than the rest even though its “tier” (roman number) is lower. Manufacturer plays a big part in an item’s stats, and a rare manufacturer’s armor tier 1 is usually still significantly better than a common’s tier 6 or 7. Then again, I think I only saw them during my second playthrough on hard difficulty (advice : don’t replay the game, leave it thinking your choices made at least a little impact).

    Is the ranting over? ‘Cause you haven’t mentioned the generic looking weapons, broken battles, uneven difficulty (especially on hard and above), boring sidequests and worst of all, the MAKO (vehicle) controls.

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  4. Pingback: Mass Effect 2: First Impression « Terminally Incoherent WordPress

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