If you missed it yesterday, you may want to read the introduction to this series to give this post some context.
After firing up my 360 and installing Mass Effect to the HDD so I didn’t have to listen to the DVD drive, the first thing that struck me about the game was just how good it looked. That was particularly apparent once I was strolling around the Presidium for the first time.
The last Unreal Engine 3 (UE3) game I’d played on my 360 prior to Mass Effect was Epic’s own Gears of War 2 and I really did not like that title’s ‘sculpted plastic’ look. (And don’t even get me started on how much I disliked the worm sequence.)
UE3 has never performed as well on the PS3 as it has on either PC or 360 and I was pretty amazed with the look that BioWare had achieved in Mass Effect, a game that was three years old by the time I played it.
After playing around with the few graphics settings available it became apparent that aside from the quality of BioWare’s art and models, for me it was the optional ‘film grain-effect’ shader that had the most significant impact.
Being a galaxy-spanning space opera you spend a lot of time in artificial environments during Mass Effect. Those stark, sterile environments can look great on film, I’m thinking particularly of some ship and station interiors in 2001 and Star Wars (the real trilogy, not the subsequent three CGI toy adverts).
In games though, because the rendering budget is limited in terms of time and performance, I find those artificial environments can look too artificial, too flat. Some games successfully exploit that, for example Portal with its deliberately clean lab environment, but I find all too often that in other games the polygons look jarringly flat.
With the subtle digital noise that Mass Effect’s film grain shader adds to our view of the game’s universe, harsh edges are softened and otherwise flat areas of colour are broken up. It’s a seemingly simple addition that makes a world of difference and for what it’s worth I think it looks better here than the equivalent effect does in Mass Effect 2 on the PS3.
(I haven’t played ME2 on the 360, so cannot make that cross-console comparison. Running the ME2 demo on my PC, an i7-920 with Crossfired HD5850s, the film grain effect, and the graphics in general, look fantastic but I’d be extremely disappointed if that was not the case and it’s distinctly unfair to compare console graphics to those of a modest gaming rig.)
“I’m wearing an environment suit and I’m still freezing.”
Another area where I found the graphics to be particularly striking was some of the vistas you encounter while trundling around the uncharted worlds in the Mako, Mass Effect’s six-wheeled ‘tank’. With the artistic freedom to combine varied terrains with different atmospheric effects and colours and then to be able to render that against classic space opera backgrounds of planetary rings, moons, suns and stars results in some stunning views.
It is those uncharted world explorations that have united most of the people I have spoken to about Mass Effect. They almost universally dislike them. A dislike that borders upon hatred in a couple of cases, so I went into the game expecting them to be terrible.
As it turns out, I really enjoyed those sections. Perhaps it was because my expectations had been lowered so much, but I suspect that at least as big a factor is that I can happily amuse myself exploring. I guess Fallout 3 has demonstrated that much.
I never got bored of watching the Mako landing; a sequence that looks like it was filmed in shaky-cam by one of the crews from the recent Battlestar Galactica remake. I even had quite a lot of fun driving the much-maligned Mako around.
Sure its handling is somewhat loose and quirky but that became part of the fun. The Mako didn’t enjoy my driving much though as it almost invariably returned to the Normandy with the front wheel on the driver’s side (right hand side for those of you in countries where you drive on the wrong side differently-sided roads to us in the UK) having a distinctly unhealthy red glow on the HUD.
Driving it up and down the undulating terrain became something of an exercise in applied vector arithmetic as I got used to driving it and doing on-the-fly calculations of momentum, acceleration and gravity when faced with a challenging slope.
Of course it was fun just to barrel around the landscapes too. My most amusing ‘mishap’ was an inadvertent one and a half barrel rolls off the top of a ridge that was much sharper than expected. My most damaging one that wrecked three of the Mako’s wheels in one ill-judged landing.
One of the things that stopped the exploration becoming boring was the relatively small size of the explorable areas. I quickly worked out that the areas measured East-West and North-South were only three times the distance covered by the diameter of the Mako’s radar. That meant a search pattern in the shape of an ‘S’, ‘5’ or simple spiral, depending on your start point on the map would see the entire area quickly searched.
Some friends had complained about having to visit all the uncharted worlds to find the resources and collectibles for the side-quests. It’s not like there was a shortage of them though. I found more than enough of each and I doubt I found every last one so you wouldn’t have needed to be that thorough to complete them all.
There were some great things to be found exploring too. I’ll never forget my surprise when after leaving tyre-tracks across a dozen barren worlds I shot over a ridge on the next and narrowly missed landing on a herd of six-limbed space-horse-deer-things. Though that wasn’t as amusing as the planet of the kleptomaniac space monkeys where a particular trinket enabled you to access a Prothean artefact that recorded their observations of prehistoric Earth. (That last was obviously planned to be something more than it was in the final game.)
The exploration sections certainly weren’t flawless though. Why don’t the Mako’s thrusters include a self-leveling, attitude control system? Surely it needs that for landing and it would have made them much more useful when on (or at least not far above) the surface.
It’s those sections where I encountered the most glitches too. Surveying a mineral deposit only to have the survey beacon appear where I was standing, thereby nailing me to the spot and forcing a reload. Or a Thresher Maw popping up under the Mako flipping it through 360 degrees, which would have been fine had the camera not only flipped through 180!
And speaking of Thresher Maws, what’s with them? I get that Mass Effect is a space opera and giant space worms are a familiar trope of the genre but the game broadly keeps the more fantastic elements to a minimum or ties them together within an internal logic. What the Hell do they feed on, there can’t be that many passing tramp freighters? Why, when the Normandy can spot the fifth metatarsal of a mummified Salarian from orbit, can’t it see a GIANT SPACE WORM?!
“Young males have an unhealthy obsession with my species.”
What better way to clear the air after a rant about space worms then the admission of a thought that is at once surprising, disturbing and embarrassing. At one point while stood in the Normandy’s science lab talking to Liara I caught myself thinking “she’s actually quite beautiful”.
Now before the giggling becomes uncontrollable let me point out that I see a distinct difference between aesthetic beauty and actual attraction. I have never knowingly attributed beauty to an in-game model of a woman before and I began to wonder why.
I did not find any of the human women in the game beautiful, even those that BioWare had presumably also spent a good deal of time ‘designing’ such as the default female Commander Shepard.
It was not because I particularly liked or empathised with Liara’s character. The only character I liked was Tali, regardless of the fact that under her environment suit she may have a face like a cuttlefish. I think I liked Tali as a character because I identify with her child-like enthusiasm and curiosity for technology. That and her environment suit-modulated voice always sounded cheerful to me.
Comparing Liara to the other human women in the game I came to the conclusion I am able to find her character model beautiful because with her BioWare have neatly side-stepped the ‘uncanny valley’ – that point where ever more realistic representations of people suddenly become more ‘alien’ because they are so close to human.
With the design of Liara’s appearance I think she is close enough to being a human that ‘normal’ standards of human aesthetic beauty can be applied. At the same time she is sufficiently alien (blue with tentacles for hair) that she is also recognisably non-human and avoids a subconscious comparison to real humans.
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Other than the giant space worms, the one thing that I thoroughly disliked about Mass Effect was all the Quick Time Events that accompanied the hacking of devices or opening of secure containers.
While not challenging, those random sequences of three to eight button presses just felt so at odds with the rest of the carefully crafted experience of the game that they stand out for all the wrong reasons.
I also don’t think they are at all necessary. Surely your character’s ability to open the crate/safe/whatever should be down to the skills your party possesses and if the skills are lacking then you use some omni-gel. The QTEs are not only annoying, they seem to serve no purpose and add nothing to the game.
Mass Effect is a brilliant game though. Good enough that even with my limited gaming time after finishing one 70 hour play-through I immediately played all the way through again. At its core it is a role-playing game, evidenced by the fact that forming your group from the standard RPG classes of warrior, mage and thief (soldier, biotic and tech in Mass Effect’s universe) is the most capable and balanced way to play it.
However BioWare have also managed to fairly seamlessly blend in the action of a third-person shooter and add an element of tactical play by allowing you to control the use of your companion’s skills and abilities.
Combine those game-play elements with BioWare’s accomplished storytelling, voice acting that does not make you cringe every time there’s a cutscene and decisions that not only impact this game but have significant effects upon the two sequels and you have a game I cannot recommend high enough.
Before I go I’d like to share a few thoughts based on the dozen or so hours I have spent with Mass Effect 2 on the PS3 that have some relevance to some of the things I have mentioned above.
First off, I’m very happy that the Quick Time Events have been replaced by simple pattern matching mini-games. While I’m still not sure they’re necessary at least they’re better and more contextual than the first game’s solution.
Secondly (and you might have guessed this might be an issue for me) I don’t like all the planet scanning, I’d rather be driving around on the surface. They’ve felt the need to add in the requirement to purchase fuel and probes to make the scanning more involving. As far as I can tell it only makes for more back-tracking and prolongs the planet-scanning agony.
Lastly, having played the first game on the 360 and started playing the second on the PS3 I, obviously, haven’t been able to import my save game. While the interactive comic helps to a degree it doesn’t come close to carrying over the supposed 700 pieces of information that are imported from the save game file if you play the sequel on the same platform.
Though I’m only a few hours in there have already been a number of jarring differences, such as the fate of Captain Kirrahe, between the universe I left behind on the 360 and the one I find myself in on the PS3.
It may be that the differences are so stark because I have played the sequel straight after playing through the original twice. I miss the consistency in the universe though so while I will complete ME2 on the PS3, hopefully the 360 will see a ‘Classics’ edition of ME2 that includes the DLC and I’ll continue my Mass Effect adventures with that.
The obvious extension of that intent is that when the three-quel appears at the end of this year on both consoles simultaneously it’ll likely be the 360 version I buy. Maybe Mass Effect’s console-exclusivity will continue to pay off for Microsoft after all.
Alternatively, I may pick up the games on PC and start my Mass Effect adventure from scratch with far superior graphics (and a lower software price point). Whatever platform(s) I end up playing Mass Effect 3 on, BioWare have already done more than enough to guarantee a sale. I just hope I find time to play it before it gets too old…
Thanks for staying with me during my meandering Mass Effect musings. As Tali would say, “See you later”.