Mass Effect PC Review
1.66Ghz Core 2 Duo CPU
3GB DDR2 RAM
GeForce 8800M GTS Video
Legendary developers Bioware upset many PC gamers last year with the Xbox 360-only release of Mass Effect, their impressive action-RPG in an entirely new sci-fi universe. These are the guys that made the incredible Baldur's Gate series and brought many people into PC RPGs, and here they are working with Microsoft and consoles - it's something that dedicated PC gamers now find a real sore point as more and more money and attention have been paid to consoles since the release of the 360 in 2005. But Bioware has gone back and made up for it with Demiurge's PC port of Mass Effect that clearly shows they understand their target audience.
Mass Effect seems like an answer to LucasArts' deflated interest in completing the Knights of the Old Republic trilogy - a beloved series which now sits in limbo, the third game barely more than a rumor. This Star Wars series was groundbreaking in its storytelling and wonderful with its lightsaber action, but Bioware knew that if they struck out on their own with a new sci-fi franchise, they were going to have to change more than just the setting. Here, the fighting has gone much more into the realm of third-person shooter, with a combat system that should satisfy your thirst for twitch-based gunfights yet doesn't forget the RPG.
You'll be rolling with two party members - there's a choice of several, and you're sure to find at least two you love - and will talk and shoot your way into dealing with a major new threat against the galaxy. The human race, having discovered interstellar space travel by uncovering ancient alien ruins in their solar system, are trying to gain a foothold with a covenant of aliens that so far rule the galaxy. You, as Commander Shepard (either male or female), are to become the first human Spectre. Your ability to work above petty law enforcement and requirement to answer only to the galaxy's ruling council will give you a lot of power, and the game makes sure you feel that power early and often.
You can sometimes talk or intimidate your way out of a fight, but not to worry: Mass Effect makes sure that if the bullets start flying you'll still be having fun. You'll have a pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, and sniper rifle on hand along with grenades, medpacks, special Engineer-like tech abilities as well as Bioware's answer to The Force, biotics. Sure, it might seem a little dull having the same four types of guns you see in every action game, but with the number of upgraded weapons as well as both gun and armor upgrades you can configure and new abilities you can unlock for Shepard and the squad, you'll find a ton of depth here.
There are plenty of ways of dealing with your enemies who are generally pretty smart and will catch you off-guard if you let them, so make sure you think about your situation before you jump in. Holding the spacebar will let you pause the game and figure out a plan of attack, and this also lets you switch weapons on any of your three characters and direct any special abilities. This is good when you've given Ashley a nice sniper rifle and built up her skill with it and she decides an assault rifle is the best choice. Unfortunately, Mass Effect keeps you locked into the role of Shepard and doesn't let you take direct control of your companions, but I have found that for the most part your companions do well enough without much meddling.
And that's where the potentially biggest new feature in the PC version of Mass Effect falls flat. Unlike with the 360 version, you can order your buddies to move to specific spots, fall back, charge forwards, or stay with you. It works as intended, but for the most part it's simply not needed since the difficulty and fights haven't changed in the port from the 360 to the PC. Sure, if you're playing on the game's ridiculously high difficulty it'd likely help, but most gamers won't take much advantage of that so it feels a little useless overall. Maybe if the whole game was rebalanced to add the necessity of ordering your squadmates around then we'd have some real depth, but overall it's just not terribly helpful.
The interface is pretty slick, though, and has been completely reworked for the mouse-and-keyboard control scheme. You can place special abilities on a hotkey bar, and can pause at any time and quickly fire out abilities with the mouse-based menus. It's not that playing on the 360 felt that much different, but Bioware have done a great job giving us a game that feels like it belonged on the PC in the first place. My one gripe with any of this is that the inventory system has admittedly been improved, but it's still pretty clunky compared to many other RPGs out nowadays. Once you hit the limit of 150 items and have to start liquidating them either into Omni-gel or cash, it can get tedious.
There's also a new hacking minigame that resembles, of all games, Frogger but the "cars" are little blocks in concentric circles and you have to dash your way through to the center. The problem here is that they replaced the 360's annoying and repetitive mini-game with a somewhat different one that you'll see dozens or hundreds of times by the end of the game. If Bioware wants to keep using mini-games, they need to spend more time on this and create multiple ones for different kinds of hacks. I'm pretty sure that 2K Boston has learned this lesson after BioShock's hacking/plumbing game.
Other back-of-the-box additional features in Mass Effect PC include improved texture quality across much of the game, something that almost didn't even need improving (but it's still welcome anyway). The only issue I have found is that not every texture was improved or replaced, making the ones that were muddy before really stick out. For example, what's with Dr. Chakwas' pixellated uniform? Sure, you won't see her much once the game really gets going, but it's still jarring and maybe a little embarrassing for the developers. The higher resolution and higher standards of PC gaming's graphics today make those few bits of art Bioware that didn't get improved a real eyesore. Oh, and the self-shadowing in the 360 version is back here, and while it looks good from a distance, it's pretty horrible close-up. You can turn it off in the PC version, but then it kills all dynamic shadows - it's up to you. But I do highly recommend you ditch the horrible Film Grain option in the settings, as it just doesn't really work in a sci-fi adventure.
The story is shoved down your throat pretty quickly, too. The game supplies you a villain and tells you what the source of his power is in the first half-hour, and the game's characters are all nodding their heads and have become quite sure of it before there's any real proof. Sure, your ascension to Spectre status shortly afterwards and the twists that come are pretty good, but the storytelling just isn't quite up to the level that we saw in Knights. At least in this game you'll have a range of reactions to events that are far broader than hilarious extremes of good and evil that sometimes popped up in Knights of the Old Republic. And as a Spectre, you'll quickly find that that's not really like becoming a Jedi. If you're a Soldier class, well, you'll become a better Soldier, and if you're specializing in Biotics, you'll find those abilities more powerful. Being a Spectre just means commanding more respect (or ire, in some cases) and kicking more ass than you were previously. It's rather nice.
Mass Effect's intuitive conversation system keeps the story flowing. Your dialog choices are very short phrases that are the gist of what you'd say, and when you pick them, then you'll say something more detailed - this prevents you from having to read what you're going to say and then sitting through watching Shepard say it. The decisions you'll make as a Spectre are reasonable but still interesting and powerful, even the choices where you wind up pointing a gun in someone's face. This gives us the feel of a real interactive story where you can do both good and bad and not be graded on a simple one-dimensional scale. Alright, you're graded on a slightly less simple two-dimensional scale and the end of the game is split up into two major endings each with two sub-choices that you make, but still. Overall, Mass Effect's story is mature and includes some compelling characters and issues that parallel our real modern-day society. That's what good sci-fi should be, and that's what this game mostly achieves.
But to get to those good parts, you'll have to drive around a big all-terrain vehicle called the MAKO through frozen tundras and boring, rocky mountainous terrain. My biggest issue with this game, which the PC version does not address, is the number of formulaic side quests and the few things you can do on most of the planets you come across. You'll visit some planet, drive around your MAKO vehicle, fight some dudes outside a building, enter it to start another fight amidst dozens of crates and such, and if you have a quest on that planet (which you don't as often as you do), maybe make a small decision at the end.
Completionists will have a tough time with this one, too, as those who must leave no stone unturned will be driving that stupid truck around the game's dozens of somewhat empty-feeling planets finding that last rare metal on the mini-map or finishing off one more compound of enemies. Considering how much more involved the real "story" planets are, it's almost like playing a different game entirely when you start going to the many off-planets. If you can do your best to mostly stick to the story without too much sidetracking or metal hunting, the tedium often melts away and you'll find a great game just under that slightly tarnished surface.
From a technical standpoint, there's not much to worry about with Mass Effect. There are enough detail options that mid-spec PCs will make it along just fine, although you will need a video card that's capable of playing a game more demanding than, say, World of Warcraft. For the most part there's enough eye candy in this game to tax a powerful new machine, too, even if there seems to be no way to get antialiasing to work either in-game or by forcing it in the nVidia control panel. And Bioware has promised new downloadable content, starting with giving away the Bring Down the Sky addon (which cost $5 on Xbox Live) for free - confusingly, even though BDtS was promised months before the PC release, the add-on was not included on the disc and as of this writing, isn't available to download yet.
From beginning to end, Mass Effect is a powerful and highly entertaining game that mixes tactical action and a full-fledged RPG together in exciting ways. The universe that Bioware has created is intriguing, even if the level of storytelling isn't quite as great as what we got in KOTOR, but it's still great and the focus on firearms rather than melee combat really does work well. PC gamers will find that even though this game started on consoles, it should satisfy their need for hardcore action and RPG pretty well as long as they can meet the system requirements and they look past the couple of new features that just don't work very well. It still doesn't quite live up to the masterful story and whizzing lightsabers of Knights of the Old Republic, but for the first game in a new series, Mass Effect is an excellent start.