Saturday, January 12, 2008

Mass Effect

It's rare that an RPG actually makes me feel like I'm playing a role. Usually RPGs are spreadsheets buried under pretty graphics, interspersed with endless expository dialogue (the low screen resolution of older consoles means mashing the 'continue' button a lot, since not much fits on a page). It takes a lot of patience to continually select "attack" from a menu, then watch a character perform the attack, when most games just let you do the work yourself. When the plot is fantasy boilerplate and the characters are consistently cut-out typecasts, all that reading doesn't pay off. I'd rather play a lot of Earth Defense Force and read a Greg Bear novel.

Yet, apparently, kids eat this shit up; Final Fantasy is up to, what, iteration 27 or so?

Don't get me wrong; the grinding formula has been mixed up over the years. Square tried to improve their game with Parasite Eve, which was pretty nifty and proved once again that Japanese game designers have never interacted with real live black people. Bethesda has been toiling since the early 90's to create expansive worlds to explore, to at least cult success; the Morrowind games have been crossover hits, despite some seriously hackish combat mechanics.

And, lo, fresh from KOTOR, comes BioWare, with a new spin on the genre: Mass Effect.

Rest assured, classic RPG fans, that the endless dialogue is most intact. Astonishingly, it is mostly listenable, and actually contributes something to the experience. BioWare banished the tedious exposition to an always-accessible rolodex of fun facts called the Codex, so the dialogue is either character study, quest outline, or related to the main plot. Equally astounding is the fact that the voice acting is top-shelf on all counts.

On to the bean-counting: it's almost entirely skippable. No, really. Other than the damage value of your weapon-du-jour creeping up imperceptibly over time and the need to occasionally melt a few firearms into Deus-Ex-Machina gel, character building in the numeric sense is almost forgettable. Money is a singularly useless commodity since you are showered from on-high a mighty torrent of earth-shattering firepower; it seems only to be for activating the "Rich" achievement. And it's not like all the fiddling particularly makes the game feel different; bad guys fall over a wee bit faster with the right combination, but I never felt exactly stressed to complete a combat sequence; just shoot enough to not overheat your blaster-thing and remember to lob your minimally-effective techno-spell fireball-things, since they recharge after every exchange anyway.

And the combat proper is not wildly exciting one way or another. It's a decent third-person actioner, but lacks the spark of many dedicated character-driven games. what it does is make RPG combat a question of tactical thinking and skill rather than number-crunching, and at that goal it succeeds amiably. In fact, almost all combat micro-management has been boiled down, judiciously pared, and otherwise polished. The only ammo you'll need to track is grenades, since weapon strength is gated by their heat generation. Abilities merely recharge; there is no 'mana' stat. Healing affects the whole squad, and is affected by whosoever has a wicked First Aid skill; there are 'healer' characters, but they are streamlined into a medkit button. Your teammates come back from the dead after combat, and can even be set to handle their own spell usage (you can of course step in). And teammates don't generally need much direction, either; you can set ambushes or suchlike, but rarely is it necessary. And the lack of a 'grind' feel is enhanced by the fact that combat is rarely taxing, even at Veteran. (Hardcore's difficulty curve remains to be seen, however). You may have to restart certain sequences, but as long as you remember to save (old-school style, no less - the autosave system blows chunks, and you have to climb into a menu to actually save the game), it's uncommon to have to restart a section more than three times.

So, really, it's merely passable as a 'game.' But as package deal - a nifty plot and a fucking ton of character development, at least if you interrogate everyone who will respond to a good A-ing and prance gaily around the dialogue wheel of ungodly mischief - it works.

I suspect anyone that enjoys episodic sci-fi will at least appreciate Mass Effect. A compact band of identifiable characters, forming 'away teams,' and exploring alien landscapes...sound familiar? If you think of side missions as 'one-off episodes and main missions as the primary arc, the comparison makes even more sense. Gaming seems to have been grappling with this concept for a while (Unreal 2 comes to mind), but has never quite pulled it off. Mass Effect has the combination of epic scale and deep characterization to make this sort of thing compelling.

Also, being an asshat never ceases to amuse. A game should almost always get a half-point for that.

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