Mass Effect Initial Impressions
The long awaited Mass Effect came out this week. It's BioWare's second take after Jade Empire at doing their own IP and... they did a pretty darn nice job.
If you've played other BioWare games, the biggest shift here (as in all of their games) is the combat system, which is always the place where a heavily story & converstaion based RPG can fall down. So let's talk about it first. The combat here is a little impenetrable at first. They borrow from squad-based FPS games this time instead of from the Virtua Fighter class of games. You shoot at people, and can issue orders to your squad, and it seems OK until all of a sudden some dude takes out one of your guys instantly and you don't really understand why. It took me a little bit to get that I did actually want to use cover -- and have my squad use cover -- and the game waited a little too long to explain that I could pause the game with one of the shoulder pads and assign special commands to each person. Once I figured out I could overkill somebody with three special moves at once, combat got a little more interesting.
That being said, in three hours of gameplay, only 30-40 minutes of it has been combat so far, so I also don't really feel like I've gotten a chance to practice the combat much. I kind of expect that to change once I get past the inevitable "that first well developed planet BioWare does before they give you a ship" model. The manual sort of leads me to believe that rather than the normal KOTOR one planet -> three or four planets -> finale planet model, I'm going to be able to explore tons of random planets ala Wind Waker or Oblivion, and get completely sidetracked on alternate missions if I don't follow the main story mission. We'll see.
Next up: presentation. Wow. OK, blah blah, 360 graphics are pretty. But more importantly, the visual design of the game is just incredible. That part of me that wants to nerd out in a cross-breed universe of Star Trek and Star Wars, without having to get bogged down in the decades of continuity and staleness of either, is totally digging this new space BioWare has dreamed up for me. The ship design, the alien design, the enormous space stations, the backstory -- I'm just loving all of it so far.
The conversation system is the real revelation, and it's not because it's new in any way -- it's because they've done some important refinements on what they've been doing all along.
- Excellent voice acting, including the main character. This, combined with subtitles off (by default) and good camera placement during the conversations, means that I actually want to not skip the voice stuff.
- Queued responses. Your next option shows up while the previous response is still playing out, so you can keep the conversation flowing. I'm not skipping the last phrase just so I can get to the next choice.
- Response text is not the same as actual voice response. The response text reflects your character's state of mind more than in previous BioWare games. This is harder to quantify, and might drive some people more nuts, but you basically get a short phrase to choose from that actually turns into a longer phrase that's more... in character? Whatever it is, it works.
- Physical placement of phrases. Phrases on the left of the wheel extend the conversation and delve into the tree; phrases on the right bring the conversation to conclusion. Phrases at the top are more selfless; phrases at the bottom are more selfish. This additional feedback can help decoding what a phrase's gameplay impact might be be keeping placement consistent. It's subtle, but effective.
No spoilers in this example. There was a quest/conversation I recently hit that -- well, a man was asking after his wife. He needed some help in talking to another person about this. When talking to both parties, I was given my "charm" option, and in both cases, I could use it for something that seemed like a good and right thing to do -- but the right thing to do totally depended on what my character actually thought was the greater good. So I ended up convincing one of these two that the other was right -- and I actually teared up a little. Yes, in some small subtle way, BioWare finally nailed the essence of small-scale emotional storytelling. I'm not saying the whole game is a masterpiece of storytelling, but you can tell they've been doing this for a while and they're pretty good at it.
The game's not perfect. Combat and character leveling are still somewhat opaque to me. Targeting is a little twitchy. The minimap seems to be kind of useless. But I really like what I've seen so far, and I'm eager to see what the game is like once it opens up and I'm not just exploring a space station, huge and well developed as that space station might be.