The StarControl Effect : Mass Effect in Retrospect

So those that know me relatively well, will know that I recently bought a 360 as a graduation present to myself. I’ve enjoyed playing Gears of War ( One of the best cinematic gaming experiences I’ve had in a long time ), and recently I picked up a copy of Mass Effect. I finally completed it yesterday, after 26 hours of playing. And I’ve come to my conclusion about the game.

It tricked me.

While playing through the game I was convinced it was one of the best RPG’s I’ve ever played, I was convinced that I was having fun and it wasn’t repetitive, and I was convinced that this was this ‘next gen’ thing people have been talking about for so long.

After completing the game and thinking about things for a moment, I realise that this is only partially true – and there is just so much wrong with this game. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the game, it was truly a unique experience. There was just so much I thought needed to be improved.

Let me start by quickly explaining what Mass Effect is. It’s the new RPG/Shooter from the RPG kings over at Bioware ( Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic ). It’s your standard sci-fi RPG plot. Ancient Alien race lived in the galaxy aeons ago, left technology and stuff around, Big evil guy comes along, amasses big evil army and aims to take over the galaxy. You form a little squad of people and try to stop him. Woo! There are a few plot twists ( well, one ), but basically that’s the game. The game is essentially split into three parts. Combat. Exploration. And Conversation.

And this is where I start to get confused.

Let’s talk about the good first, shall we? The Conversation system is masterful. I love a good adventure game, and I love a good conversation – So the fact that they’ve placed so much emphasis on conversation is amazing. The average gamer however will probably not appreciate the way in which this is used. I spent the first 5 hours of gameplay walking around talking to people, that’s how much I enjoyed it. It was after this, when I left to explore the milky way where things started to get a little wobbly.

“Exploring” is simple, you fly your ship to a star system, you zoom in on every planet, and either ‘survey’ it, ‘land’ on it, or do nothing and merely read a bunch of unimportant text ( though kudos to bioware for the detail ). After landing on a planet, you drive around in your awkward little all terrain vehicle, the ‘Mako’. On each planet there are a series of things you can do. Survey Minerals, Check out bits of Debris or Anomalies, and complete certain missions. After driving around a bunch of planets, I realised something. All of the planets are the same. Ok, so they might not look the same. Some are brown rocky planets, then there are the red rocky planets, and then there’s the white snowy ( but actually rocky ) planets. I feel like I’m stuck in a Doctor Who quarry.

Ok, I get it Bioware, these are ‘un-colonised’ planets. Who’d want to live on a rocky planet, But come on. There are even some planets that have little animals walking around on them, but what the hell do they eat ? Dirt ? The small bits of grass ? There’s no water, there’s no vegetation, there aren’t even any rocks. It looks to me like they just developed about 50 fractal worlds, auto-generated some textures, and viola. Planets. Driving the Mako over some of these are horrible, as the mountain ranges you have to traverse over are the steepest ( and most unrealistic shaped ) mountains ever. This brings me to the title of my article, Star Control. That’s what this game reminded me of ( specifically Star Control 2 ). The only problem is, Star Control 2 did all of this BETTER. Sure it was 2D graphics, but the aliens had more personality, the planets were more interesting, and less annoying to navigate, and the plot was a little less predictable.

This also brings me to talk about the ‘side missions’. You get a few of these, from the humans, and from other characters and consoles. But they’re all the same. You have essentially 4 different types of missions. One in a space ship, one in a mine, one in a colony house thing, and one in an underground bunker. The interiors are always the same, with stuff like boxes and crates the only thing that moves. So this is “Next Gen” ? Providing the same gameplay experience over and over and over ?

I must be missing something.

And so then there’s the combat. I originally had a great deal of trouble with the combat. I think it was because my squad members had the AI level of a donkey, and the enemy had the AI level of an elite suicide unit. And would rush straight at my main character and kill him in under a second while my squad members stood around staring at the roof. I then released I had turned off the squad AI, so they weren’t using any of their special abilities. After that, the game became stupidly easy. I think I only died twice after that, and one of those times was because an enemy was looking away from me, but somehow managed to fire a plasma bolt out of the side of its freaking head.

Ok, so all of this might be a bit scathing, And it is. But the fact of the matter is, this is the best rpg game on the market. There is so much wrong with it, but no one is doing anything better. Which is sad really.

So what do I think this game needs ?

Companion Influence

  • KOTOR2 really focussed on this ( Yeah yeah, I know that wasn’t Bioware ), but essentially talking to your companions, and acting in a way they approved with gained ‘influence’ with that companion. The more they liked you, the more they told you, and you gained more from them. Mass Effect merely has conversations with companions – where you get XP ( about 80 or so points, so not much ) for each new conversation you have. Companions have their own little side-missions, but they’re really not all that interesting. Get some Armour, Get some Data, Kill a Doctor ( one of the spaceships that look like every other space ship ).

More Interesting Planets

  • Put some Trees on the planets, Put some Rivers, Put some Rocks. Just put ANYTHING. Auto-Generated terrain is ok to start with, but don’t LEAVE it that way.

Greater Good / Evil Influence

  • You can be very nice, or an utter bastard in Mass Effect, but as far as I could see, this has very little impact on how the characters perceive you once you end the conversation with them. Gotta give people a reason to be good / evil in my mind.

Meaningful Sub-Missions

  • Some side-missions were good, most just seemed like they were chucked in on the side. I liked the fact that the alliance radioed in new missions when you entered a new system, but exploring systems and going to the same locations got dull. Quickly.

Longer Main Plot

  • There are only about 6 actual ‘mission’ planets. If you play through the game from start to finish without doing side missions, I reckon you could complete it in a single sitting. I find the fact that there’s only 6 or so civilised planets in the entire galaxy a little odd too.

Ship Combat

  • I want epic space battles!

Star Control 3

  • Essentially I wanted this game to be Star Control 3 ( I say 3, because the real SC3 was AWFUL ). I wanted planet exploration that wasn’t dull, I wanted lots of little alien species to discover, I wanted ship combat, I wanted all sorts of things. Sure, it’s a different sort of game – but a guy can dream right ?

 That’s just a small selection of things this game needs. What it doesn’t need is improved graphics or sound. I wont talk any more about them, because they are close to perfect.

So why has no one really mentioned any of these elements ? Because Reviewers are lazy. Or at least, that’s how they appear. They’ve got to write a million reviews, for a million games – so it’s understandable they can’t spend the 27 hours I spent completing every side-mission, visiting every-planet, completing every mundane mineral collection sub mission there is. It was only in doing all of this side-work that I realised just how repetitive this game can be. If you followed the main plot only, It would be one of the most amazing gaming experiences ever – it just seems that the side-missions have been tacked on.

But as I said earlier. I loved this game.

I don’t know why I did. There is so much wrong with it, but there was still something about it that I really enjoyed. I think it was the fact that the main plot was interesting, unique, and fun to play through. It was great to see my own created character interacting in these little cut scenes and being all heroic-like. I just fail to see how people go on-and-on about ‘next gen’ games, when all that seems to be ‘next generation’ are the graphics. People seem to overlook gameplay elements, and quite frankly it’s ticking me off a little. Who knows, maybe Mass Effect 2 will solve the problems.

So my final verdict ? Mass Effect is a great game. I am glad I bought it. It is horribly flawed in so many areas, but most games these days are. My only explanation is the game indoctrinated me. I found the side-missions exhausting to play through. For those who are non RPG fans, Avoid the side-missions, they’re simply not worth it. I finished the game a level 49 after completing every side-mission available to me, my friend who finished the game doing next to none of the side missions got level 45. How does that work ? In any event, I enjoyed my experience playing Mass Effect, I just wish the Main Plot was longer, and the actual fun elements of the game could have lasted for longer!

My Score ?

Graphics : 8/10 – Detail levels ‘popped’ in a LOT.

Sound : 8/10 – Sound Score was well composed and suited the game well, almost Vangelis-ish ( ala Blade Runner ) in some situations

Gameplay : 5/10 – Conversation, Great. Exploration, Tedious. Combat, Average.

Story : 6/10 – Standard Storyline, A Few twists here and there, great level of detail in the story and sub story though – the “codex” was brilliant

Replayability : Unsure – Haven’t re-played it yet, The option to play as a different class, with a different background would be interesting – I’ve just had enough of the game at the moment to go back and play it all again.

Final Score : 6.75 – What, Too harsh ? No. I’m sick of all these reviewers giving games amazingly high scores. Rarely does a game get lower than 7. I’m ranking according to what I believe a game should be.

1-3 : Awful. Why is it even on the market ?

3-5 : Not Good, But not Awful, probably wouldn’t buy it though.

5-7 : Good.

7-8: Amazing.

9 : Close to Perfection.

10 : Flawless.

To be honest, I should really also give each score a ‘weighting’. I personally believe that gameplay and story should weigh a LOT more than graphics and sound. But I should be fair about this and give them all equal weighting. After all, most people only care about how a game looks these days !

And that’s the end of my rant !

Ps. Please make Star Control 3.

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About aA

I'm a 28 year old Designer from Brisbane, Australia. I've got a keen interest in Motion Graphics, Illustration, and Game Design. View all posts by aA

7 responses to “The StarControl Effect : Mass Effect in Retrospect

  • SC2Fan

    I’ve not finished this game yet, but the narrative and plot are obviously written by people who loved SC2. There are just so many references and ideas from SC2. Judging by my search, I’m not the only one to think so. As they say imitation is the best form of flattery.

  • dozens

    Good review. I’m just about to finish Mass Effect and I’m glad I’m not the only one who kept thinking Star Control 2 after the first couple planet visists…and doesn’t the Hanar alien kind of resemble the Mycon (similar speech even). Thinking about it I would have preferred to play this same game if it was set in the Star Control universe, even without ship combat.

    I think the game was good but I agree with the areas that you feel were lacking. You can definately tell they used some sort of random generator for the planets with little tweaking to make sure each point was accessible, but if they were to add structures, trees, water and such they would have to spend a lot of time on eahc planet to make it workable and less frustrating than it alteady is.

  • Brandon Butler

    You hit the nail right on the head — Star Control. This game had that classic written all over it. Trouble was, the story wasn’t up to par.

    And neither were the characters; only one (Ashley) struck me as even vaguely interesting. Actually, she was pretty good, but there could have been a lot more. The Quarian was underdeveloped, Wrex was a standard grunt except for one moment in the game and that was it, the Turian was practically non-existant as a person, and the Asari was someone seen a hundred times in a hundred different games.

    The game also had a vaguely Star Control 3-ish plot… an ancient race coming in cycles to weed out the galaxy of organic life. This was a decent plot structure, but it fails in the same way Star Control 3 failed to add any mystique to it.

    Yeah, in all a disappointment. Which is really too bad. This is the first one I’ve had after playing KOTOR, KOTOR II and Jade Empire, all of which were superior (even if Jade Empire could have used a little more work and KOTOR II was unfinished).

  • moo

    I dunno where it is on the web, but I know the complete voice cast is listed in the credits of the game. I remember there were a lot of names there (like 50 or more).

    I really liked Mass Effect, but my biggest complaint with the combat system was the stupid AI of my squad members, constantly getting in my way when I’m trying to shoot something, and constantly manuvering themselves into a bad position where they are exposed to enemy fire and die because they are too stupid to run somewhere else and hide. I think Rainbow Six: Vegas set the bar pretty high in this respect, and I will judge all future squad-tactics-based games against it. Mass Effect’s squad commands are a hollow mockery of those found in Vegas. The worst part of all is that when you enter or exit combat (something that happens continuously when you try to snipe at enemies a long way away from you), your idiot teammates *ignore* what you just ordered them to do one second ago, and run to your current position! I was trying to snipe out a Colossus and I was swearing at them out loud because I had to keep turning around and ordering them to run far away from me. I was so angry I would have just let them blunder out there and die, if they weren’t constantly getting in MY way and blocking MY shots too.

    But don’t get me wrong, despite its flaws Mass Effect is a fantastic game and one of the best I have played in recent memory. Its definitely the best game of 2007 that I’ve played.

  • glen

    well done for getting through. i was wondering – could you post or mail me the voice cast list? or point me to where the complete cast is listed? everything i’ve read seems a bit vague, including imdb. i’d really appreciate. thanks in advance!

  • I am me

    Bioware got hung up on the physical size of the explorable areas and forgot the substance part of it and some of them seems like they existed only as an excuse to utilize the mako which seemed pretty tacky to me. I’ve barely begun the game and I’m already sick and absolutely tired of walking through empty hallways, standing in empty elevators, and driving through empty wastelands for nothing at all.

    Item hunting is also entirely unsatisfying and which is very unfortunate as it has always been a critical part of the character building of RPGS. There’s little sense of gain and what you do acquire doesnt feel very ‘tangible’ in that they arent really given an interesting physical representation or valuable as they’re just upgrades or duplicate weapons with different names/stats.

    The combat is painfully simplistic I think. There’s so much opportunity with an over the shoulder squad based shooter in terms of variety of items and combat tactics but none of it seems to be taken advantage of. Even a blatant rip off of resident evil 4s combat would have been more satisfactory than what we got.

    Squad control is inexcusable. They should have allowed the same freedoms with party members in mass effect as they did in KoToR where you could select them and issue orders from their perspective with the ability to que up actions.

  • Nerd

    I think your right about the planets being rocky and not much civilization, but really i thought it was a great game and made me think that all the way thru which is what i want from a game.
    my only real annoyance is that it wasnt very long.

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