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Flashback Review: Mass Effect 1 (PC)

This Flashback has Nothing to do with Wally West
For the last few months there have been a number of rumors circulating that this impending E3 will showcase the reveal of a new current gen PS4/XB1 re-release of the Mass Effect Trilogy, or possibly even an unveiling of Mass Effect 4.  Whether or not this turns out to be true is yet to be seen, but as we count down the days to this year's E3 and a possible announcement, a little walk down memory lane while we wait might be a nice way to remember where this franchise began before we look forward to see where it is going.

As such, I present to you the original review that I wrote for Mass Effect 1 when it released on PC. (Note: This review has been tweaked and formatted for the style of Destructoid, as well as screenshots added, but the text itself is that of the original review.)  This is not a re-review, but a look into the past at my thoughts and feelings as they stood back when this series had but one game to its name.

A Legacy of Greatness
Bioware is known as one of the leading companies in RPG development. With some of the greatest games in history to their name, regardless of setting or time-line if it's an RPG then they have proven time and again that they can make something magical.  They once again have set to create another epic space opera with Mass Effect, but does it reach the stars or burn up on re-entry?

Mass Effect (Xbox 360, PC [reviewed])
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios (Xbox 360) Electronic Arts (PC)
Release Date: November 20, 2007 (Xbox 360) May 28, 2008 (PC)
MSRP: $59.99

Help Me Obi-Wan Kenobi You're My Only Hope
In typical RPG fashion you start out as just one man or woman that is tasked with saving the entire galaxy.  It is an old story, but Bioware makes sure that it's an old story well told.  They craft a memorable action packed and emotionally charged ride spanning the entire Milky Way with several unique game changing twists along the way, leading to a thrilling conclusion.  Many of the characters encountered are as interesting to interact with as their lifelike character models are to gawk at.  The more the player chooses to interact with their NPC squad mates between missions the more they learn about them adding levels of depth to the story, even unlocking further quests and gameplay elements, such as romantic intent.

In an industry currently inundated with sequels and spinoffs, Bioware is not scared to jump into the unknown and create brand new franchises with just about every new title they put out.  Mass Effect is a universe full of mystery and discovery.  Everything is strange, different and new but with a touch of familiarity from being set in our own galaxy, with recognizable planets, stars, and nebulae.  Laudably the lore is expansive as you'd expect from any well-established franchise.

You Spin Me Right Round
Mass Effect has a few tricks up its sleeve when attempting to set itself apart and above standard RPG fare.  First is the new conversation wheel mechanic which is both interesting as well as deceptive. The wheel is filled with conversation choices you spin the cursor around that add more fluid and depth to character interactions.  Though it is not as complex as it seems, with many options eliciting the same dialogue strings.  It is a system that effectively makes the player feel like they are having more control over dialogue than they really do.  This is by no means a complaint as the added depth even if artificial is welcome.

Speaking of wheels, every single minigame in the PC version of the game takes the form of a circular version of Frogger.  While an interesting take on hacking, it's a bit disconcerting that every single action in the game requires the exact same minigame. Be it hacking a computer, picking a lock, surveying rocks, or studying alien relics it's all the same thing, and in a few of the latter examples makes no sense.

Another place Mass Effect tries to set itself apart is by having mechanics closer to that of a shooter than that of a tradition RPG or even action RPG. The outcome of the blend isn't flawless, and even a bit rickety in places, but the combat system is still engaging and entertaining enough to carry the gameplay forward.  It may shoot like a poor man's Gears of War, but the combination of Biotic(Force like) powers and gunplay make the combat something very enjoyable all the same.  One of the most delightfully amusing moments in the game is being able to levitate a powerful enemy in the air with your Biotic powers and give the helpless foe a devastating midair shotgun blast.

More LEGOs Please
While the main story line is expertly crafted and spans a wide range of interesting planets and locations, the side-quests are a wholly different matter. They may be numerous and some of them quite interesting, but they all fall under a small number of pre-determined cut and paste scenarios and environments.  They are all set in the same kinds of repeated drag and drop buildings with nothing more than the organization of random crates and objects inside of them differentiating each interior from the last.  The planets that you explore on side-quests are all essentially the same as well, just pallet swapped colors with the height slider on the terrain moved higher or lower.  Disappointingly none of them have any real distinguishing features like the main story areas.  If I'm on a planet with life on it, I'd expect to see rivers lakes, trees, or vegetation, but the most you see is a smeared green texture pasted on rock like lichen.

Also disappointing is the fact that in an entire game where you explore countless worlds you only find a single kind of dangerous indigenous creature to fight and that foe only appears on a half a dozen instances.  Some of the worlds you land on are even supposed to have large populations, but where you land is just as dull and desolate as any other planet, something which could have been easily mitigated by at least putting some visible buildings on the horizon.  While the side-quests are usually an entertaining distraction, and sometimes really grab you when something interesting happens, the main quest is where the most design work went and the most fun parts of the game are to be had.

It's a Mostly Pretty Universe Out There
Mass Effect is gorgeous in most respects, from the environments you wander mission to mission, to the views of various nebulae and solar systems you routinely explore in the navigation menu.  The music, sound and voice work is as aurally pleasing as the graphics are visually with a sweeping sound track, believable sound effects, and expertly done voice work.  The only blemish to the soundscape being repeated enemy threats that are sometimes shouted out verbatim with such frequency during battle that you'd think the sound is skipping.  

The most striking graphical feature is the amazingly detailed character faces with it being quite clear that the most work went into exhaustively crafting facial textures, features, and animations, to give character interactions an unparalleled level of realism.  This makes a minor graphical complaint I had seem very odd by comparison.  While most characters you speak with have incredibly detailed heads, unless it is a main character their clothing is noticeably low resolution and in some cases downright ugly.  I know that the eye is generally drawn to the face but it is no excuse for lazy or shoddy texture work on the rest of the body when you are standing there talking to them.

Many of the environments are also very sterile and bland lacking even basic living amenities like bathrooms, missing things like that can really pull a player out of the universe they are attempting to engross themselves in. There are places where the attention to detail really shows, such as the fact that the main character's stubble very subtly gets thicker throughout the game, or little microscopic creatures and pollen almost unnoticeably floating in the breeze of some worlds.

Buggier Than a Rainforest
One of the fairly major problems with this title besides the cut and paste side-quests is the level of bugs.  With an extra 6 months of development time between the Xbox 360 version and the PC version one would think the game could have been polished clean, but with the size and scope of a game ranging upwards of 70 hours one can understand and even expect at least some bugs.  Some is a bit of an understatement.  I myself encountered well over 20 bugs over the course of my 50-60 hours playing Mass Effect, the effect of each ranging in severity.  Some were simple graphical glitches with textures not loading properly, characters floating or stuck in the geometry, to game breaking bugs such as freezing elevators, or the game loading you into nothingness from one area to the next.  Others were very annoying, distracting, and immersion breaking bugs like enemies spawning within eyesight, skills taking repeated button presses before they actually work, and repeated cases of my character walking around in tandem to my button presses as I would do a hacking minigame as if I was playing a game of DDR.

Warts and All
To dust off an old chestnut, ultimately Mass Effect is a game that is greater than the sum of its parts.  It is a fantastic overall package warts and all, and a game that should be experienced by any fan of RPGs, action games, or space based sci-fi adventure because it creates an absorbing and expertly crafted experience like so few others.  If you pick it up, you can easily look past the number of technical issues and enjoy the meaty engaging, and by all means memorable game at its heart.

THE VERDICT - Mass Effect (PC)
Reviewed by Alfonso Gardeazabal
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About TheSpaniardone of us since 11:28 PM on 04.22.2012

Alfonso Gardeazabal is a published writer, with a background in both broadcast and print media, as well as being experienced with PR and marketing, having worked on both the media and development sides of the industry. Generally an all around enthusiastic game industry aficionado with ten years of experience.