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It's always a little unfortunate to see a console only RPG release, even if it does well. Sure, it may be a great game on the consoles, but how much better could a PC release have been? PC gamers were left wondering that very thing when Mass Effect saw release on he Xbox 360 late last year, further exacerbated by the fact it came from the development studios of the once PC dominated folks at BioWare. While the prospect of a PC version was never exactly shot down, it didn't help that the more and more
console focused publishing giant EA acquired the studio in early 2008. It was a nice surprise then when soon after the EA acquisition that a PC version was officially announced, even if it was a few months away from release at the time. With release now come and gone, PC gamers can finally see what all the fuss is about this space based RPG - fuss which the game is definitely quite deserving of.
As with the vast majority of RPG's, Mass Effect is a single player only experience driven by the usual suspects when it comes to this genre - character customization, character development through XP for various attributes, as well as a dynamic storyline that has more than one pathway towards completion. This storyline involves a Milky War Galaxy in the moderately distant future where alien races have together formed a council for galactic stability. The human race are reasonably late to the
party, but with a large population and a lot of influence behind them, they are making a push for central inclusion in this council despite some resistance by other species who are opposed to the pace of human acceptance. One institution under the wing of the council that summarizes this are the 'Spectres' - an elite group of super police that exist to protect the galaxy how they see fit, while representing the interests of the council. No human has been honoured as a Spectre, and this is where the human
controlled character - John Shepard - comes in. As an already proven soldier on the battlefields, Shepard is brought in as somewhat of an icon for the human race, but events rarely go to plan in the gaming world and Mass Effect is no exception, as Shepard finds himself in the middle of a plot that could mean the end of life as he and the rest of the galaxy knows it.
On the surface, Mass Effect appears to be quite an average RPG, but the three distinct elements that create the whole gameplay package are quite well done, and work very well with each other. The first element, and one you'll experience basically straight away in the game, is the character to character dialogue system. You will spend a good portion of this game talking to other characters across all species to probe for information, build relationships, and even flirt given time. To say this character
to character interaction is implemented well is a severe understatement, as it's quite easily one of the best ever dialogue systems seen in the gaming world before, if not the very best. Everything from the facial expressions to the voice acting is superb, and the way the interactions connect with the storyline is extremely well done. Everything you say can shape how other characters perceive you, and hence how the storyline plays out. While the very core of the storyline is not going to change, a lot of other
aspects can be modified by your actions and words which is a great touch, adding another dimension to what would have been a good linear storyline anyway.
The next element in the game is the combat, which also introduces itself very early in the game. Going off how the character interaction is implemented, for some reason you don't expect to see a fully fleshed out real time combat system to be present, but that's exactly what Mass Effect delivers. The combat is done from a third person perspective, and while it isn't going to be setting any benchmarks for future RPGs necessarily, it is still a well implemented combat system that delivers plenty of action.
On hand you have four gun types - handguns, automatic rifles, shotguns and sniper rifles - which rely on endless but overheating prone energy and not ammo, as well as grenades and other specialized abilities such as telekinesis and tech skills should you choose to adopt them during character creation. You also have access to armor as well as the ability to take cover behind most objects, which is a nice feature that's starting to gain popularity in a lot of titles these days. Naturally, weapons, armor and
abilities can be upgraded via obtaining better equipment, applying upgrades, and by spending XP points, which are obtained by basically all actions in the game and not just killing enemies in combat.
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Squad control is a big factor in Mass Effect's combat system and can easily be the overriding factor in whether you succeed or die during a mission. Throughout the storyline you will be given the opportunity to pickup a few allies from most of the prominent species, where naturally each have their own special abilities to offer. At any given time however only two squad members can be with you, so choosing the best ones to take before a mission is a strategy in itself. There is plenty of real
time squad strategy to be had too however, including the ability to order movements, all the way up to dictating which gun a member has drawn, who to attack, and even orders to use specific special abilities on specific enemies. This is done via the game's 'Tactics HUD', which you access by holding down 'Space', and while it takes a little getting used to, it is a powerful tool during combat, albeit one you may grow to ignore after a while as your character becomes capable enough to take on most foes alone.
The third and final major element to the gameplay is one you will encounter a little later on into the game, and that's space travel. Without spoiling too much, a little while into the storyline your character will gain captainship of a space craft, which you can navigate to star systems and planets of your choosing. Of course not
usually require you to go to a particular system or planet, you're free to do this at your own pace most of the time, so you could go and explore elsewhere if desired. Besides, the vast majority of the time the game features a mission system with multiple on-going missions that can be tackled in any order, not to mention a fair few secondary missions you can pickup during conversations, so you're generally free to do as you wish most of the time. While space travel in Mass Effect is nothing more
than a navigation system with no real control involved, when you land on a planet without a docking station you will be launched down inside a buggy with gun and missile capabilities, so there is some degree of vehicle control.
With these three elements to gameplay, Mass Effect encompasses a large scope of variation and their seamless integration with one another makes for a reasonably fresh gaming experience from start to finish. After a while a few patterns will emerge and repetition may start to settle in slightly, but the strong storyline really keeps you going as you're always eager to see what's around the corner next. As well as this, like any good RPG, Mass Effect also keeps you hooked with its character
development system, which can be quite rewarding. One thing we found though was even if you focus on as many secondary missions as possible, chances are you won't max out your character before finishing the storyline however you can always start from the beginning again with a character you have already built up, which is a nice touch as you could play the storyline again with a different approach (for example, as a bad guy and not a nice guy) and manage to experience some new events and outcomes you
may not have seen the first time around. In general though, the game could stand to add a few more hours to the play time, but I guess they had to leave some stuff for the next two titles in the planned trilogy.
As far as the PC version goes, not a whole lot has changed since the Xbox 360 release. There have been a few GUI changes here and there, plus the controls and graphics have been enhanced with hot keys and higher resolution textures respectively, but the game is basically identical really. This is not a bad thing though as the folks at BioWare have ample experience in this genre, mostly on the PC, and this comes through with Mass Effect PC. I wouldn't say it feels exactly like it was built for the PC
platform, but as far as console ports go, it's definitely not blatantly obvious. The controls are very PC friendly, adopting a 'WASD' system every PC gamer will pick up on instantly, and the presence of stuff like quick saves and a detailed graphical options menu show that BioWare has put some effort into making this RPG feel at home on the PC. So much so, it seems you have to use the keyboard and mouse combination, as I couldn't get my USB 360 controller to work with Mass Effect at all.
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With that said though, a few aspects to the gameplay do tend to hint towards the game's console origin. For starters, while the inventory system was slightly enhanced for the PC version, it still remains a little "console-fied" and simplistic by PC RPG standards. This also extends somewhat to the upgrades and other items, which have a few basic stats and that's it. Another area which is also a little simplified is the actual environment and level designs themselves, which tend to be quite linear
and generally a little lacking in detail. I can understand level design remaining the same from console to PC as any significant changes in its linearity would have basically required a total game redesign, but other aspects like the background activity could have probably been enhanced going to the PC. It's not that the environments are terribly lacking, but for a game based in the future with multiple races of aliens and humans coming together, you'd expect a little more 'hustle and bustle' honestly. On
top of this, the environments are recycled quite a bit and can become a little repetitive and increasingly bland.
Overall though the graphics are definitely pleasing to the eye, although you will definitely need a well endowed gaming system to get the most out of this game. On the system used in this review (check below for specs), we could run in high settings for most options but not the absolute highest, and even then the occasional frame rate stutter wasn't rare. It all seems worth it though when the game is at its visual best, which is during character interactions, as the facial detail is something else - definitely
a 'seen to be believed' deal. Sound wise the game does the job well with effects and the occasional background music, which is always complimentary to the situation and very in tune with the 'future space' theme.
Mass Effect is a quality RPG/action title that feels at home on the PC platform despite its console origins. The game definitely has that BioWare RPG seal of approval going for it, and there is little doubt even fans of 'built for PC' RPGs will find a great single player experience here. There are a few let downs that perhaps are result of the game's console design limitations such as the linear and slightly repetitive environments, but what is lacking in Mass Effect just doesn't stack up
in comparison to what isn't lacking, like the great storyline, the awesome character interaction and the versatility of the gameplay. This is definitely a series to watch out for and hopefully any sequel will see a PC release slightly quicker than the delay seen here, but in the mean time Mass Effect PC comes highly recommended from us for any PC gamer out there looking for a great blend of role playing, action and cinematic storyline.