Meanwhile, in the world of GOOD games

I’m about 14 hours into Mass Effect, which according to people I’ve asked at work would suggest I’m nearly three-quarters of the way through the game. “It’s about, oh, 20 hours long,” they told me. In point of fact, I haven’t even finished the first of the three story missions that open up after taking care of business at the Citadel. Come to that, I had seven hours on my clock before I even left the Citadel.

The trick, of course, is that they were playing to beat the game (and no, I’m not talking about the reviewers, so please put away your Penny Arcade links). This is not a game to be beaten — it is a game to be played. I can only imagine that people who approach Mass Effect as a fairly straightforward action game probably hate it, because the “action” portions are… well, let’s be charitable. They’re pretty damn awful. It kind of tries to be a shooter but feels like Gears of War as programmed by a first year comp-sci student; it’s rooted in the RPG genre but lacks the input and feedback necessary to work effectively as one of those, too. When the bullets start flying, Mass Effect turns into an infuriating mess. Especially in tight corridors.

Fortunately, that is a very tiny portion of the game, and it seems to be pretty easy to level up a bit with skirmishes that make better use of the battle system — all those extra planets to explore usually have a few encounters in wide open areas, and my Infiltrator-class Shepard is a pretty good shot with a sniper rifle, neatly letting me take potshots from cover. So that’s good. It helps me appreciate what works about the game — namely, everything else, and most of all the actual role-playing part.

So many sidequests, and so many possible outcomes — it’s really quite impressive, especially the fluidity of the conversation system. I’ve seen more than a few movies that feel more stilted and unnatural than the branching dialogue in Mass Effect. Like I said a few days ago on 1UP Yours, it has some of the best writing I’ve seen in a game, and the spoken delivery sells it. I’ve essentially been playing my own personality (i.e. avoiding Renegade options whenever possible), but I have explored a few different outcomes to various situations and can’t help but be impressed by how differently they work out. Pick the Paragon option when a smuggler asks you to help him curtail the law and Shepard speaks with sharp indignation; break the law and she (or he, if you prefer) behaves furtively, eyes shifting left and right. (Or you could rip off the smuggler and sell his contraband directly to its intended buyer for even more cash.)

It’s a huge, involving game — not the best game I’ve played all year, since the combat feels so poorly conceived. But it’s certainly the most ambitious, and it’s a must-play for anyone who enjoys good, thoughtful writing. Like Final Fantasy XII, this is another of those games that makes it impossible to go back to the middling console RPG experience Japan’s been feeding us for the past decade or so.

18 thoughts on “Meanwhile, in the world of GOOD games

  1. The multitude of my friend list is wrapped up in this game. I’m handling it a bit more slowly, as it gets a little dry after the fifth, nondescript planet and humanoid encounters.

    If it wasn’t for the writing, I probably would have written this off after the first few hours. But, as it is, I must see what happens next.

  2. I feel the same way about the game. There’s so much to do, and so many worlds to explore. You truly feel like the game is infinite.. until you do all the sidequests and visit all the worlds. Then you feel trapped and stuck in a finite space. You finally hit that invisible glass at the edge of your infinite map.. :/

    I played the game exactly like you did.. completely all the sidequests, visited all the worlds.. then finished up with the story. Took me 30 hours to do everything in the game. funny thing is I was 6000 XP short of the level 50 cap.

  3. I did all the side quests I found and got to level 50, which took 40 hours. I rolled soldier with assault rifle specialization, and endgame everything went down in 4-5 shots and couldn’t put a dent in my health. I’m somewhat concerned if that’s because soldier is ezmode, since from what I’ve heard from the 1up coverage Jen was higher level than Brian but had a much, much more difficult time with the final boss because of her class (sentinel while Brian rolled a Vanguard if I recall correctly); as a lvl 50 soldier the last boss didn’t drop my shields once =/. I’m interested to hear from others to see if this is a class balance issue or it’s equally as easy for any class at high level. You don’t even need to use the cover system, you can pretty much run around with impunity and gun everything down as a soldier =/

    Anyone else high level or a different class have a different endgame experience?

  4. At least there is combat. FFXII was an exercise in programming bots to play the game for you compared to the combat in Mass Effect.

  5. “At least there is combat. FFXII was an exercise in programming bots to play the game for you compared to the combat in Mass Effect.”

    More accurately, FFXII was a game of carefully organized and preconceived strategy with spot tactical maneuvers as needed. Mass Effect is all tactics.

    Really, all FFXII did was remove a million extraneous button presses. And good riddance to them.

  6. I’m finding that the combat is fine as long as you play it exactly as they want you to: use lots of cover and direct your teammates effectively using the d-pad. It’s definitely not set up so that you have the alternative to use mad FPS skillz and rambo Shepard through, because he/she controls so clunkily. But every time I give in and do things their way, I find I don’t have too much of a problem.

  7. I’m just over twenty hours in and have done one of those first three plot missions so far. I’ve been thinking that I should head over to Feros to move things along a bit, but all this stuff keeps coming up that demands my attention. It’s really hard to stop playing this game.

  8. That is a very clever comment about FFXII and not at all an asinine oversimplification!

    My problem isn’t that I’m Rambo-ing… it’s that even when I try to play the game “its way” it won’t let me. I try to use cover and my idiot squadmates use the same piece of cover, preventing me from moving. Enemies get hung up on scenery so that I have to break cover to finish them off… and when that triggers a new wave of foes, I’m completely exposed and die before I can move to safety. To direct your squadmates, Shepard has to have a clear line of sight to their target. It wants to be an RPG and it wants to be a shooter and it doesn’t excel at either. I think a game could do both, but this isn’t the one to pull it off.

    But that’s OK! Combat has been less than 10% of my overall game time, and everything else is so good that I don’t mind.

  9. I never know what to think when someone says “great writing for a video game.” (I know that’s not what you said literally)

    What does that mean? If I’m looking for simply a great story, should I read Isaac Asimov or play Mass Effect?

  10. I dunno. Does “The Caves of Steel” let you decide whether or not you want to commit genocide against all robots in the galaxy and change the outcome of the story accordingly?

    Less snarkily, though, it’s probably more fair to compare Mass Effect’s writing to a sci-movie — both lack narrative text and rely on the quality of their actors to a fair degree. And in that regard it’s definitely better than the bulk of what Hollywood produces.

  11. I was having the same problems with combat; playing it like a shooter, using cover and usually winding up dead. Then starting with the side quest combat I started holing myself up in the doorways shoot anyone in the open and then let them funnel themselves to me it was easy pickings. Plus if you’re getting overwhelmed you can always close the door backtrack and heal sometimes even getting to save too. Now if only I could get the Thrasher Maws from spawning right beneath me so often, their acid spit burns my soul.

  12. I’m having a slightly similar play-time experience with Assassin’s Creed. People said this game is how short? I’ve put two full evenings into it so far and haven’t quite finished my first real assassination. This is, of course, because I’m spending arbitrary amounts of time climbing around on buildings like a monkey… which I happen to find quite fun.

  13. I’ve had an entirely different experience with the combat in this game than with anybody else above me. When the game first started, I had trouble with the squadmates, tight hallways, and underpowered weapons. After the first 4 or 5 hours though, everything just clicked. My squadmates still get in my way, but all it takes to move them is one press of the D-pad. I usually keep one biotic and one tech in my squad, and direct them to use their powers as often as I can. Earlier today, I had my tech sabotage a geth destroyer’s weapon before i had my biotic lift them over my head. Moments like that make up for the first 4 or 5 awkward hours.

  14. The combat would have been much improved if they had kept in the “pause and issue specific commands” they demoed in that video from X06. As it was, it’s not horrible… I actually found that once I stopped trying to issue commands my teammates no longer got in my way… of course, I stopped trying to order them around once I had enough experience under my belt to not die immediately if I was out of cover, so I guess that might have had something to do with it.

  15. Yes, Kolbe. Go play some Mass Effect. It is terribly awesome. And unlike other GotY candidates, I actually look forward to playing the game most evenings (whereas with, say, Bioshock the atmosphere is so oppressive I still haven’t finished; or Portal which I finished in two sittings).

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