Monday, January 06, 2014

Game Review: Mass Effect

Mass Effect is not just a deeply-engaging game...
It's not just a sci-fi masterpiece, either...

It is both those things... but most importantly, it's an eye-opening commentary on the fundamental questions of existence:

• Is there other Life in the universe, sentient or otherwise?
• What happens when interplanetary species begin to contact each other?
• What is humanity's place in the cosmic order?
Is it possible for ANY form of intelligence, or information, to survive the incomprehensibly vast cycles of cosmological time, on the scale of billions of years?

I've always been a Star Wars fan & generally like science fiction stories. I believe they help map the future of humanity, while helping us understand our place in the larger scheme of things. Mass Effect deserves the many positive reviews it has received. It is an immersive exploration of these ideas, throughout the vast galaxy waiting for us once we become interstellar travelers.

Usually a game of this scope would take more than a month for me to play. Over the holidays I got to put in some marathon sessions, to finish it by the new year. I completed most of the side missions & explored alot of the game, so the total time was a little over 50 hours. Like many of the best video games, it was a better time investment as any engrossing book or TV series. The story raised issues & thoughts that will now be bouncing around in my brain permanently.

Mass Effect is a 3rd person role-playing (RPG) shooter. You create your own version of the main character, Commander Shepard, as a male or female. From the start, you want to pick a persona to guide the choices & interactions the character will make throughout the game. I decided to follow my own personality, as if it were really me in the role.

There is a morality 'scale' that gives you either 'Paragon' or 'Renegade' points, depending on how you react to situations. I decided to generally follow the Paragon path, since I'm not a negative person & I wanted to make decisions that felt natural. Although it is very cool to have this level of character interactivity, I unfortunately take forever to go through the dialog options. It's a bit of cheating, but I found myself looking up the consequences of different decisions online, so I could decide how I wanted the story to proceed. This greatly added to my overall time playing the game.

On a related note, the one complaint I have about the game is the very large amount of dialog. I was playing the game for a little bit over my brother's house while he was doing stuff. He'd walk through & it was early in the game, where you have to interact with alot of characters. He asked me "Is that all you do in this game is talk?!?" I know it is a role-playing game so it's kind of necessary, & I initiated non-essential conversations because there is alot of information in the story that can be learned. Luckily, as the game goes on there's more action & awesome battles to make up for the RPG parts...

The game takes place in the year 2183. Mankind has discovered ruins on Mars, from an ancient civilization. This lost race of beings, known as the Protheans, left ruins & technology all over the galaxy after their mysterious extinction 50,000 years ago. Other alien races have also found relics from the Protheans, that have led to their rapid technological advancement. Finding the remnants of this ancient culture has led to the discovery of faster-than-light travel by humans & other species, resulting in the formation of a galactic community. The center of galactic civilization is a massive space station, known as The Citadel:

Despite its hi-tech look, The Citadel is actually an ancient structure, also thought to have been originally built by the Protheans. Now, it is the home of millions of beings, from many different areas of the known galaxy.

Humanity is the most recent addition to the races on The Citadel & is still trying to prove itself as worthy of inclusion to the more elite aspects of galactic society, like membership on The Council. This is a ruling body that consists of members of several different races, overseeing galactic affairs.

Early on in the game, Commander Shepard's heroism results in the honor of being named the first human "Spectre"- an elite commando who is not bound by galactic military protocol. Shepard's mission is to track down another Spectre, named Saren, who has gone rogue and is conspiring with alien A.I. to overtake the galaxy.

Commander Shepard is given his own ship to carry out his quest- an advanced stealth frigate, The Normandy. This is the base of operations for Shepard & his crew. In the center of the ship, there is a Galaxy Map that is used to choose what star system The Normandy will visit, to carry out the latest missions.

You start out with an overview of the galaxy, then you can zoom in & out of the various levels: Galaxy <-> Star cluster <-> Star system <-> Planet.

This map gives you a good sense of the vastness of interstellar space. Here's video showing navigation between star systems:

In each system, there are several planets you can remotely scan for resources or artifacts. There is usually one planet in each star system that you can actually land on, to carry out a main mission or side quest.

These planets all have different environments, and makes you realize the potentially infinite diversity of worlds that exist throughout the cosmos. Some of the planets' environments are really stunning, where you can see large moons, unusual star formations, or falling meteors in the alien skies. These unique planetary maps really give you the sense of exploring extraterrestrial worlds.

You land on each planet inside a 6-wheeled rover, called the Mako. This vehicle has a cannon & missiles for combat, but most of the time you are driving over the strange landscapes of the worlds you are visiting. You can also get out of the Mako & go on foot with the 2 characters you pick for your squad. The map of each planet is fairly large, with plenty of area to explore for scattered hidden items. Driving over these large areas can get little tedious, despite the amazing environments. I started to wonder why Shepard & his team would be driving a relatively slow wheeled vehicle. Wouldn't they have anti-gravity technology, for some kind of flying scout ship??? This was my only other minor complaint about the game, but I still enjoyed exploring the many different planets in the Mako.

The game's 3rd person combat is very fun & action-packed. A great thing about this game is the effective system of upgrades to weapons and "biotic" powers- which allow you to do things like levitate enemies or create a 'singularity' that rips apart anything near it. Unlike some other games I've reviewed, you have alot of awesome abilities fairly early on. You pick 2 members from your team to join you for each mission, so you can combine teams with different combat or biotic power attributes.

As the game progresses, your character continues gaining even better gear & enhanced powers. I never felt like my character was lacking for proper enhancements. This makes the game much more fun, in my opinion, since you feel like you're properly leveled-up & ready to kick ass at all times.

There's also a major, mind-bending twist to the story that sets up the sequels.

*Some slight spoilers here-
As the story of the game continues, you find out that The Citadel & the Mass Relays allowing superluminal travel were NOT created by the Protheans. They merely found & utilized this technology, like the various races in the current galactic community.

The truth is that this network of space stations & relays, used by the galactic community, are actually a cosmic trap!

Every 50,000 years, a giant fleet of hybrid synthetic-organic sentient starships, called The Reapers, emerge out of the dark space at the edges of the galaxy. They destroy all advanced organic life, then retreat back into the void. Many millenia later, when another interstellar civilization develops, another activation signal is sent to them & the cycle of destruction begins again.

The Citadel is actually a giant portal that The Reapers use to pour through & immediately destroy the heart of galactic civilization! From there, they spread out & eradicate all intelligent life on the various star systems, taking centuries if needed. They turn organic beings into a genetic 'paste' that they incorporate into their own being, as a sort of evolution. The reasons for this cyclical genocide are still mysterious, but there is speculation that this grim process has been going on for millions of years, at least.

I look forward to playing the other Mass Effect games & experiencing more of this awe-inspiring series.

Mass Effect is a truly epic game, in the scope of it's storytelling & depth of game play. It is a sci-fi classic that serves as a virtual experience of mankind's destiny among the stars.

I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in space, sci-fi, or just an amazing story about the future of humanity.

• The Monkey Buddha's official rating: 9.25

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