Sunday, 31 May 2015

Mass Effect (PC) - Part 1

Developer:BioWare|Release Date:2007|Systems:Xbox 360, Windows, PlayStation 3

Today on Super Adventures I'm finally taking a look at a Mass Effect game! I started the month with a sci-fi two parter and now I'm ending it with one too! Next month: I dunno... zombies.

The Mass Effect series is basically what happened when the developers of Baldur's Gate and Knights of the Old Republic decided they could really do with some of that Gears of War and Halo money. They'd already switched to full 3D visuals and moved the camera behind the characters for KotOR, and this took another step by swapping out the tactical combat for cover shooting, to appeal to more of the console owning mainstream. In fact the game was an Xbox 360 exclusive for 7 months before BioWare's original PC fanbase finally got to have a go of it. PlayStation 3 owners on the other hand were left waiting so long that they were able to buy both Mass Effect 2 and 3 first! Which is just dumb.

I've actually had all three in my library for years and I've played all of them once before, but I've been putting off writing about them because it either didn't seem the right time to show off another modern AAA shooter, or I didn't have time to do it properly. If I start playing one I'll have to finish playing all of them, and that's a whole lot of space adventure to document. But it's BioWare's 20th anniversary this year, so to celebrate I'm going to put the effort in!

THIS WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST FEW HOURS OF MASS EFFECT (AT LEAST). IN FACT I MAY END UP ACCIDENTALLY SAYING MORE THAN I SHOULD ABOUT THE SEQUELS TOO, SO... STOP NOW IF THAT'S AN ISSUE.

(Click the screenshots to open them up big.)



“Establishing secure connection.  Secure connection confirmed.”
I love this little animation that comes on before the character creator, it reminds me of the old installers for games like Command & Conquer (even down to the voice). Though thankfully it's not asking me to set up my soundcard.

Now comes the hardest bit in the game: thinking of a name. The last name is always Shepard, I can't change that, but the first name is entirely my responsibility and whatever I choose I'll be stuck with for three games. Not that it's ever spoken in game, how could it be?

At least I’m pretty certain I’m going to play as a FemShep because, y’know, Jennifer Hale. The choice of gender affects the potential romances but other than that has next to zero influence on gameplay. Plus you sound Space-Canadian either way. The choice does however affect whether you get to play with the default 'canon' face seen in the box art and adverts, as BoxShep is clearly male.

After careful consideration I eventually went with the name ‘Kate’, but now I’ve got a whole lot of other questions coming my way. The game doesn’t want me to set any attributes or perks, or pick out skills, but it does expect me to choose my class and my backstory.

There's six classes to pick from, letting me basically play as a fighter (Soldier), a wizard (Adept), a hacker (Engineer), or any combination of two. Sentinel is a mix of Engineer and Adept for instance, which is more of a support class than the Soldier and Adept blend of Vanguard. Either way they all dress like Christian Bale's Batman.

I think I’ll leave the biotic wizard powers alone this time and go with the Infiltrator class, which is all about the tech skills, pistols and sniping. Sadly I don't get to pick a race to go along with it, as for plot (and budget) reasons Commander Shepard can only ever be human.

It’s always cool to see a character editor in an RPG, and it’s even better when it comes before the long unskippable intro section. It’s definitely a huge step above picking from pre-set portraits like in Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic, though it does mean I’ll be crippled with indecision for the next half an hour trying to figure out what I want to look like for an entire trilogy.

It’s just a shame that it’s pretty limited, in pretty much the same way that Dragon Age: Origins’s face editor is. I’ve got a small selection of nose, eye, mouth and hairstyle presets to pick from, and they've been mapped to sliders just to make things misleading. Things like eye height, cheek width and mouth depth can be fine tuned with the sliders but there isn't a lot of range there and it feels like I’ve only got half the options I need to create the look I’m after. I mean it doesn’t even have nose width! Or anime hair colours!

Crap, I think I’ve successfully managed to turn my hero into… the default female Shepard, with a tan. I’ll try again.


EVENTUALLY.


Right, I've got a brand new face and now I'm looking out of a window at the Earth while voices discuss my qualifications for the role of 'saviour of the galaxy'.
Ambassador Udina: "Well, what about Shepard? She's a spacer. Lived aboard starships most of her life."
Captain Anderson: "Military service runs in the family. Both her parents were in the navy."
Admiral Hackett: "She saw her whole unit die on Akuze. She could have some serious emotional scars."
Captain Anderson: "Every soldier has scars. Shepard's a survivor"
They're talking about the backstory choices I made! I said I was a spacer and a survivor and they noticed! It's smart of the developers to put this right at the start as it makes players feel like their choices are being tracked and will influence things as the story progresses.
Ambassador Udina: "Is that the kind of person we want protecting the galaxy?"
Captain Anderson: "That's the only kind of person who can protect the galaxy."
And then they immediately go and contradict that lesson. Unless people who chose 'colonist' and 'war hero' as their backstory get a game over here for not being the kind of person who can protect the galaxy.

This music's cool though. Here, you can listen to it along with me while you read: youtube link.

The opening text gives the year we found the alien tech on Mars but forgets to mention that the story takes place 40 years later, in 2183. Which is 83 years before Star Trek, 74 years before Babylon 5, and 180 years after Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The civilizations of the galaxy call the force 'mass effect' by the way, in case you were wondering.

And our ship for the game is the Alliance frigate SSV Normandy (which stands for 'something something vehicle'), an advanced prototype starship designed for stealth reconnaissance. Man, it looks so… retro! It’s a shiny metal cigar-shaped rocketship with wings and it's even got a triangular fin on the back! I wouldn't be surprised if this thing turned up in an old episode of 'Thunderbirds'.

It’s also got a row of ‘windows’ down the side, but I'm thinking they must actually be lights or sensors as the ship's only three decks tall. They're just there to screw with the sense of scale.

(I cheated putting this image here to be honest, as it's not really a shot from the intro. Sure the ship is revealed right at the start, but it keeps whooshing past the screen so fast that all the camera has to focus on are the engines glowing in the distance.)

It turns out that Commander Shepard is second in command of the Normandy, which is currently just flying between mass relays on its shakedown cruise. Space can be a dangerous place though, which I guess is why Shepard's walking the deck in full armour and carrying the ship's armoury on her back.

I've heard the Normandy described as cramped and 'submarine-like', but c'mon there's enough room to swing a full-grown Arcturian mega-hippo in here. They could turn the lighting up a bit though. Plus the ship’s so new that they haven’t quite got the textures working properly yet; they sometimes load a second after the level geometry has appeared.

I’ve been given the freedom to wander around this deck and chat with people, but I only managed a couple of steps down the corridor before running right into crushing disappointment: there’s no jump or commando roll buttons! A sensible jog is the most I can manage. Well, as sensible as you can get when you're wearing a full gun rack.

I’ve heard people describe the game as part of the ‘guns and conversation’ genre, but it’s seeming more like ‘guns and interrogation to me’ with the kinds of dialogue trees it's been giving me to climb. A lot of these branches lead to questions which lead to more questions which leads to a total info dump. It's all very well acted and presented though.

That six-legged spider down there is how I choose my next line of dialogue, though I'm only given the gist of what Shepard's going to come out with when she speaks. This works pretty well for me as it means she’s not just repeating things I’ve already read, and it works well for the developers as they can sneakily have different selections lead to the same line of dialogue. I'm not saying that's what they've done, only that I’d have to load my last save and try different choices to ever catch it happening.

Oh that reminds me: the game is letting me save anywhere I feel like and has both checkpoints and quick saves. Yay!

After chatting with half the NPCs on the deck, I made my way through to the briefing room where Captain Anderson and an alien secret agent called Nihlus let me in on the real mission... in a long branching conversation. Turns out that folks at the human colony on Eden Prime recently dug up an ancient artefact and we're going to bring it to Nihlus's bosses at the galactic alien council to prove we're not the selfish fuckups they think we are.

Actually the REAL reason Nihlus is on board is because he’s evaluating me, to see if I have what it takes to become a secret agent myself. If I pass the tests I'll be the very first human Spectre working for the Citadel Council, with the authority to travel around space being a typical RPG protagonist. Sadly I didn't get a chance to discuss what kind of pay rise I'd be getting before the Normandy received an unskippable transmission from Eden Prime, showing a great hand reaching out from the stars and going all Smash Bros. last boss on the colony. This mission just got a lot more real.

MASS EFFECT'S WORLD BUILDING: AN IRONIC INTERLUDE ABOUT PACING

Okay I'm about to point out how the game packs too much information into the first few minutes of gameplay and ruins the pacing... in a way that packs too much information into the first few minutes of my article and ruins the pacing, so skip ahead if you want.

I have to say though that I’m impressed with how much world building they’ve managed to pack into the first area of the game just in dialogue. I’ve only barely made it out of the first corridor and I’ve already learned that:
  • Humanity discovered mass effect technology in ruins on Mars left by an extinct race called the Protheans who disappeared 50,000 years ago.
  • Humans have been travelling the galaxy using the Prothean’s ancient array of mass relays for decades now, and the rest of galactic civilization has been relying on them much longer.
  • The Normandy is the newest and most advanced human starship, built by the human Alliance with help from a race called the turians, and is equipped with prototype stealth technology making it absolutely invisible. Well, to sensors anyway. Space is big though, so even shiny cigar-shaped space rockets are impossible to see at the distances they’re working with.
  • Spectres are elite covert operatives working for the alien led Citadel Council. Spectre stands for ‘Special Tactics and Reconnaissance’, which are apparently alien words that just happen to look a lot like they're in English, seeing as the Spectre branch predates first contact with humanity by a century or so.
  • We’re on a mission to the human colony Eden Prime to make a covert pick-up. We’re going to collect an ancient beacon left by the Protheans and bring it back to the Citadel. Hopefully this will improve humanity’s rep amongst the Council races, because they don’t much like us right now.
You got all that?

I don’t think it was necessarily a great idea to throw players in at the deep end of the lore before they even get to the action. I mean it's cool that there are answers in there for the curious, but it's a lot to take in and it really screws up the pacing. Especially if the player is then inspired to read more in the convenient in-game codex that explains the details of anything they've come across in conversation.

Damn, I was expecting they'd take a shuttle down to the colony, but they went and brought the whole ship down, opened the hangar door, and walked right out.

Nihlus immediately got bored with evaluating my performance though, so while he’s off on his own mission I’ll be travelling with Lt. Kaiden Alenko and a redshirt called Cpl. Richard L. Jenkins (the L probably stands for Leeroy). Kaiden is one of the main characters and he’s played by the same guy who played Carth Onasi in Knights of the Old Republic. Fortunately he’s a playing a more laid back soldier this time though, without the endless trust issues that made Onasi such a pain to be around. KotOR's protagonist didn't get a voice, but FemShep actor Jennifer Hale played their Jedi sidekick Bastila, so I've pretty much gotten my Star Wars crew back together!


TWO SECONDS LATER.


Well, it looks like it’s just me and Kaiden now, as Jenkins ran off on his own and got slaughtered. Yep, they're starting the level with a World of Warcraft joke.

The game’s basically a third person cover shooter at this point, with more separation between the shooting and the talking than in a game like Fallout 3. I won’t be shooting any non-combatants in this one. Though unusually I only have run towards a wall to take cover, and even weirder the weapons have a heat gauge instead of ammo. The more I shoot, the hotter the guns get, until I have to take a quick break to let them cool. So it’s basically the same as hitting the reload button and waiting for the animation to finish, except less satisfying.

By the way, I love how the guns spring open whenever Shepard pulls one from her back. Not that I ever have a reason to do that, as she hasn't been trained how to use the things.

In fact I’m playing as the Infiltrator class so I can never be trained in shotguns or assault rifles, making their inexplicable presence on my character model a constant reminder of my inadequacy. I can eventually unlock the sniper rifle talent at least, but right now the sway on it is so bad I might as well stick with the pistol.

I assumed that Shepard must have gone through a lot to earn that N7 rank on her uniform, but I'm seeing a whole lot of entirely empty blocks here in her skills list. It seems that it’s the ones with the shapes on them that actually matter though, with the triangles giving her skills like Shield Boost, and the circles unlocking the row of blocks beneath. The regular blocks give me stat increases, but the absolute maximum for completing a whole row is something like 20% extra, so I'm thinking it's smarter to increase my options rather than power up what I have. At least that way I have a fighting chance of ever noticing a difference.

Oh, if you’re wondering why Ash from 'Evil Dead' is in my character list, that’s actually a marine I ran into right after the first firefight who joined my squad to replace Jenkins. As if anyone ever truly could.

Unfortunately she showed up dressed like the hero from Blaster Master, so the first thing I need to do is get her into a slightly less ‘Hello Kitty’ coloured hardsuit (and turn helmets off while I’m at it.)

The inventory’s a step up from Knights of the Old Republic, with items now grouped together under tabs, but BioWare still didn’t want to show the weapon’s stats in the list! Though they were kind enough to write ‘pistol’ on every item in the pistols tab, just to clear up any confusion there. It seems that the better gear generally floats to the top, but there’s no way to manually sort by damage, accuracy etc. Still at least they’re ranked by Roman numerals so I can see what tier my gear is. Normandy may be the most advanced ship in the fleet, but they’ve got the worst arsenal in the military: nothing but rank 1 crap.

Every gun can be equipped with a weapon mod and ammo type, just to make things more complicated. Not that complicated is bad, but you accumulate a lot of items very quickly in this and I can’t tell at a glance if my new mods are better than the ones I’ve got equipped, especially as the weapon stats it displays don’t take the upgrades into account. It does go to the trouble of displaying the manufacturer’s name and logo though, which is… less helpful.

Well I’ve reached a camp just down the road, but there’s BORG SPIKES here! Or something. The evil robots that came down from the giant hand have been impaling the colonists onto spikes, which then extended up into the air to keep the bodies out of the way while the cybernetic transformation took place and the LEDs were installed. I guess.

This might seem a bit ridiculous, especially the way the spacezombies end up naked and covered in glowing strips, but when you think about it there is actually some sense to it. You see… robots are dicks. No really, Kaiden believes that they’re using psychological warfare to freak us out.

These cyborg husks seem to be the ‘run at you and then explode’ kind of enemy, but they’re also the ‘shoot them a bit and they die’ kind too (though there may have been one embarrassing game over before I got them all). I think I’m quicksaving after that. Now I’m free to break into all these rooms and open up all the random loot crates, starting with the one with the locked door.

The lock decryption minigame on the PC version is FROGGER? Seriously? I think this was basically a QTE on the original Xbox game though so I shouldn’t really complain I guess.

Oh speaking of ports, this actually seems like a really solid conversion so far, with the interface slightly reworked to better suit the mouse and keyboard. Which is good, because there is no controller support whatsoever! Personally I don’t mind, I wanted to use the mouse anyway, but it’s pretty amazing that it doesn’t even give you the option, and not in a good way.

I found a raving lunatic scientist behind the door!

The game has a morality system like most BioWare RPGs, but in this case it’s not good or evil, it’s hero or anti-hero, and I’m rewarded for sticking to the same choice each time. I’m going to be playing a Paragon, so have to be thoughtful, compassionate and professional in every conversation or else I’ll end up with Renegade points instead. Which isn’t actually a bad thing, it’s just not helping me fill my Paragon bar.

Here’s one of them hero/anti-hero decisions here: I can either punch him out or… I don’t actually know what the other option is as I can never resist hitting him. The cutscene just cracks me up as Shepard steps forward and decks him with a single punch to the face. I’m a rubbish Paragon.

You can see here how the nice guy option usually turns up at the top and the asshole choice is found at the bottom. This is actually a smart choice I reckon as it removes the ambiguity in the tone and intent of my line. There’s also a neutral choice in the middle, but that gets me nothing so there’s no reason to ever pick it.

Basically the way the wheel is set up is that if I always pick the top left (or occasionally top right) options I’ll win every discussion, make everyone happy, and get my Paragon meter filled up. The Paragon and Renegade meters don’t directly open up new dialogue choices, but they open up new ranks in my Charm or Intimidate skills and putting points into them directly does.

Though playing it Renegade isn’t playing it wrong, and it’s not even necessarily going to leave people unhappy. I just told Dr. Warren the guy I punched out had it coming, and she’s agreeing with me! She sees the righteousness of my fist.

A little further along I got a cutscene showing my Spectre buddy Nihlus running across his Spectre buddy Saren at the nearby spaceport. Saren explains to him that the Council sent him here as backup, which is enough of an explanation for Nihlus. The beacon they’re after is really important after all, and they can’t let these robots or their space hand get hold of it.

And then Saren puts a bullet in him the second he turns his back. It’s his own dumb fault for wearing level 1 armour with crappy shielding really.

Oh, it’s giant bug spaceship, not a hand!

I found Nihlus’s body at that spaceport down there, with no clues to what had happened to him. Fortunately though a helpful smuggler had been hiding behind some boxes the whole time, and witnessed the despicable deed. He even remembered that Nihlus called the other turian Saren, which makes him one of the important humans to have ever lived. Without this guy we'd never know that Saren was involved in any of this, and it turns out he's really involved.

So in return for his service to the galaxy, I persuaded the smuggler to give me everything he was carrying, then followed the trail of killer robots down to a train.

Damn tutorial messages coming up on screen and ruining my screenshots. Also these enemies keep ruining my shields with their guns.

This is the Tactics HUD that comes up whenever I hold down Numpad 0 (because I like to remap things to the stupidest keys), and it’s been changed a bit for the PC game to fit in more options onto the same screen and make it more suited to mouse control. Bringing this up pauses the game, and gives me command of my team and their powers. I can choose where they go, what guns they’re holding, what abilities to use, and who to use them on. So it's basically a little like Fallout 3's V.A.T.S. or the 'real time with pause' system of the older BioWare Infinity Engine RPGs.

My team don’t require any babysitting and are happy enough to fire off powers themselves if I choose to let them, but sometimes a bit of coordination works better. There's no mana to worry about, but skills are all on their own separate cooldowns, so I’m encouraged to unlock and make use of a variety of tricks, rather than just spamming Kaiden’s biotic Throw move over and over to turn the fight into a slapstick routine.

I remember this bit scaring the crap out of me first time I played Mass Effect, because I figured the game was basically saying ‘there’s going to be time limits, get used to them’. I have to run around and disarm a number of bombs… before the timers tick down… while under fire. But I think this is as bad as it ever gets.

I'm also scared that if I stare at the sun any longer I'll burn my eyes out of their sockets. Sci-fi really does love its lens flares doesn't it, especially when spaceships are involved. Doesn't matter if it's horror like Alien, a western like Firefly, or space opera like JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, the future's so bright it's blinding.

And now that we've stopped Saren blowing up the Prothean beacon (and the colony along with it), I'm free to run around all I want, decrypting all the storage lockers and loading up on loot.

Then that dumbass Kaiden decided he'd go over and check out the ancient Prothean beacon containing immense knowledge and power, and nearly got his brain cooked by it.

Luckily Commander Shepard was there to throw him out of the way and get mind-fried in his place.
Indecipherable images flash into her mind and knock her unconscious as the 50,000 year old artefact uploads its data and then explodes. Not sure we can call this one a win.




Cut to Saren and another alien doing their best impression of bad cartoon villains, with Saren absolutely flipping out when he realises that a human got to the beacon after he did and disarmed all his bombs.

Lines like this really make me appreciate how talented some actors can be.

The character in the background is played by Marina Sirtis of Star Trek TNG fame, and I wouldn’t say she’s miscast as a psychic alien in a low cut dress, but it’s not the voice I was expecting to come out of her mouth.

Back on the Normandy on the other hand everything’s going pretty well. Okay the beacon’s gone, the colony was half-wrecked, the Spectre they had on board is dead, and they’ve learned that another has gone rogue... but at least Shepard made it back on her feet in time to see the Citadel out of the window.

Now that’s a big-ass space station.

Each one of those arms is about twice the length of Manhattan Island. I know you probably don’t know the size of Manhattan offhand, but it’s a movie tradition to compare giant space objects to cities… or maybe that's just for asteroids. Anyway you could fit Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine and Stargate’s city of Atlantis all next to each other on one of the arms and still have enough room left to park a Super Star Destroyer.

Though I wouldn’t recommend it, it’d probably throw off the rotation, maybe kill everyone. Which would be bad news for you, because this is the home to the Citadel Council, basically the government for an alliance of the most powerful races in the known galaxy.

This game really need a ‘the FUCK Ashley?’ button. Also I’m getting kind of annoyed at how her face looks just like my version of Shepard. I don't get a second chance to fix that! Not in this game anyway.

The Citadel is the biggest town in the game by far and now I'm stuck here doing a couple of plot missions, while the side quests sing their sinister siren song, tempting me to abandon my responsibilities to the galaxy and stay here solving moral dilemmas and scanning bugs forever. It’s certainly a nicer place to be trapped than Taris in Knights of the Old Republic or Midgar in Final Fantasy VII though, plus it has fast travel taxis!

First though I'm visiting the Council to discuss the Saren situation. Apparently there's an elevator around here that'll take me right there.

Oh right, I remember how this works now. The game loves to cover up loading times with elevator rides, which means I’m going to be stuck riding these things a lot. The thing is though, I’m playing the PC version on a modern computer which can load a level in seconds, so I’m stuck waiting around for absolutely no reason. It’s a pain in the ass is what it is.

Okay all I have to do is convince the highest government in the galaxy that one of their elite agents has joined forces with an evil space hand and an army of robots to attack a human colony, kill a Spectre, and turn people into tech zombies. With the testimony of one smuggler as our only proof.

Well that didn’t work, and now giant hologram Saren is mocking us!

You can see how there’s only three people on this council, and none of them are human. This is actually a big deal in the plot, and the story is as much about how humanity fits in and proves itself to the rest of the galaxy, as it is about Saren and his EVIL SCHEMES.

And right now this is pretty embarrassing for the humans, as Shepard and friends keep yelling stuff like "Saren despises humanity. That's why he attacked Eden Prime!" and "Saren's hiding behind his position as a Spectre. You need to open your eyes!" and the Council keeps pointing out that they've got no evidence.

So that's that, we screwed that up and Saren's off the hook.

Man it sounds so childish when you put it like that. Even Keith David isn’t able to save some of the lines they give his character in this game.

Saren attacks one colony to destroy an ancient beacon, and Captain Anderson immediately jumps to it being part of a scheme to wipe out humanity entirely! I get the feeling the game wants me to believe his theory, but I’m with the Council on this one; he’s making a huge leap based on a pre-existing vendetta against the guy and he’s coming off sounding like a lunatic.

Anyway, I need some actual evidence to prove that Saren is murderous colony-invading beacon-destroying rogue Spectre, and I’ve got two leads to follow on the station: a cop who’s been investigating the guy, and an agent for an information dealer. Space adventures are strictly forbidden until I sort this out.


Hit the link to jump to the next page, where I escape the Citadel, explore how the game handles space exploration, and whine about dimensions: Part two

Semi-Random Game Box