Ever gone on a first date that went too well? That’s how I felt about Mass Effect last week. We had a lot in common, I was looking for a new RPG in my life, and I couldn’t find anything wrong with it after we spent an hour together. Yeah… well, things changed. Over the past week I’ve stumbled across several hideous gameplay and presentation flaws. They’re not deal-breakers, but after all the fuss I’ve heard over this series, I’m disappointed.
Let’s talk positives first. I’m still enamored with the nonlinear dialogue options and the freedom to pick any and all words that leave Shepard’s mouth. What impresses me is that Shepard maintains a solid identity as a character even though I flip-flop between amiable, neutral, and aggressive responses. He still carries a Jack Bauer take-no-shit attitude despite my tendency to give nice-guy answers. Now, for as compelling as the options are, the dialogue itself does sound redundant after awhile, with Shepard stating “Tell me about [insert person, space colony, mission objective]” during almost every conversation. Hardly a glaring flaw, but it does leave a lot to be desired in terms of response variety.
The game’s well-developed universe still captivates me with its authentic racial struggles, political systems, societies, and backgrounds. Different aliens have different speech patterns to complement their distinctive physical bodies, and every group–from humans to Krogans–has its own desires and hatreds, its own historical follies and triumphs. For me, the world of Mass Effect distinguishes it more than anything else–characters, gameplay, and plot all bow before it.
Now, I mentioned I was frustrated. I could nitpick about the bumpy framerate and the occasionally tired level design, but my main problems lie with the combat system and the stagnant (so far at least) development of the the supporting cast. At its best, the combat plays a notch or two below Uncharted. There are exhilarating firefights to be had, but, unfortunately, Mass Effect doesn’t reward players for connecting with headshots or kneeshots, which limits the strategy. On top of that, the unlimited ammo system (which makes more sci-fi sense than gameplay sense) causes me to spray-and-pray most of the time. Combat is often a case of aiming, holding down R2, and making sure your weapon doesn’t overheat.
Another gripe with combat is ally A.I., particularly with the Turian warrior Garrus, who dies in the middle of seemingly every minor skirmish. When he does survive, his life-bar is usually on the brink of depletion. While Garrus drops unconscious in the middle of every battle, Wrex typically absorbs my bullet stream. Thankfully, ME1 doesn’t punish for friendly fire, but it’s a pain to see my unlimited ammo go to waste (unlimited… waste… that made sense, right?).
My frustrations with Garrus and Wrex aren’t limited to their battle A.I. Up until the point when they join Shepard’s party, the two of them seem like intriguing aliens with compelling motives. Wrex, for instance, is a blood-thirsty merc who laments the neutering and downfall of his Krogan race. However, once he joins Shepard’s party, his true character takes a backseat to his “lineup role.” By “lineup role,” I mean that the supporting characters sacrifice their distinctive qualities and personalities in order to fit the minimalist role of a party member. Rather than conveying their own desires and opinions, they simply tag along as Party Members A and B instead of Wrex and Garrus. The obvious advantage to this is that you can be as flexible as you want with party lineups. However, the supporting characters end up having minimal input during cutscenes, and we only get a taste of their personalities through battle quotes. This is a problem with a lot of RPGs, both Western and Japanese. It’s part of the reason why I dislike Final Fantasy VI so much (too many characters fulfilling lineup roles).
Despite the walls of disappointment I just typed out, I still have high hopes for Mass Effect as a game and a series. I just completed planet Feros, and I’m hoping the true supporting cast will kick-in once I’ve cleared the next two nonlinear segments of the game–let’s have some side missions requiring Garrus, Wrex, or Tali. As for the gameplay, I’d be shocked if ME2 and ME3 didn’t fix some of the issues I had. Until then, I’ll be taking this broad out to dinner every night I can.