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Friday, June 27, 2008

Mass Effect

I have been in an extended stasis for a while now in my gaming endeavors, and while I have certainly been playing a pretty package of shining games I have not played any to completion in months now. The Witcher just came out with module support and new content and it recommends that I start my game over from the beginning. I've loved all the time that I've put into Bioshock, but for some reason I have had no desire to go back in and close out the story. I've put a fair spot of time into Age of Conan, but jumping between characters has kept me from moving beyond the initial island, so I hardly feel comfortable relating my initial thoughts. And then there's WoW; but leveling my second hunter through the mid ranges is certainly not headline material.

Then there is Mass Effect. Before I picked it up I would while away my game time mining iron deposits in the Thousand Needles or coldly and methodically eliminating the local raptor/panther/tiger populations in Stranglethorn Vale, feeling guilty for clicking on the golden W rather than Bioshock's russet button in my start menu. After playing through the first mission in Mass Effect, however, the other icons were merely start menu foliage I had to shuffle through on my way to the neat little Specter's N7.

It has been a long time since a game has grabbed my attention as quickly as this one. Maybe it's the fast rpg level progression or the piles of new weapons and upgrades to sift through with the clunky inventory management system (150 item limit? really?). Maybe it's the hectic, tactically-engaging real-time combat. Maybe it's the cinematic nature of the conversations, the fluidity of the writing and the caliber of the voice acting (overall quite good for a game, despite the few spotty parts). Or maybe it's the story set in a refreshing new IP. It's classic Sci-Fi without being derivative, without being campy and predictable: a space epic.

And it certainly is epic. I'm a bit of a completionist by nature, clocking a few hundred hours into Morrowind in the hopes of rooting out every bandit in every cave on the entire island, so the galaxy-spanning breadth of Mass Effect was initially terrifying and compelling like a colorful pile of mixed jellybeans is to an obsessive compulsive. Hundreds of worlds that needed to be explored, mined and liberated. As I looked through my journal at the ten different distress signals I would have queued at any given time I was reminded of the magazine ad for the game, with a default Shepard looking up into a night sky filled with calls for help. Every world had something new on it, and despite the oft-repeated building layouts the fast combat and the constant push for the next world kept things fresh and interesting. The important thing to note, however, is that the galaxy map was never unmanageable. There are just enough worlds to land on to keep it new, but many of the planets are simply there for background, or to survey from space. And there was never a shortage of things to do, the assignments tab in the journal is always full, and helps to guide your exploration of the galaxy from star cluster to star cluster.

It has it's flaws, of course. Every game has it's flaws. The inventory is needlessly clunky, driving the Mako feels like driving an RC truck (fun in it's own way, but if you have somewhere you want to be it gets frustrating fast), there is some mediocre voice acting, repetitive building layouts and occasionally strange AI behaviors in combat. But the important thing is that I didn't care. None of it's flaws detracted from my experience with the game. The story is excellent. The graphical style is beautiful and cinematic. The characters are well fleshed out and believable, drawing interesting commentary about xenophobia and racial pride out of the interactions between the different species. The level progression is quick and satisfying without being easy. The inventory progression keeps great pace with the levels, combining to make you feel truly powerful at the later levels.

All in all, Mass Effect was an excellent game. From it's opening mission to the epic close it held me in thrall, and I enjoyed every moment of it. I haven't had this much fun saving the galaxy in a long, long time.