As we are now but a stone’s throw away from the start of this year’s E3, and what is likely to be the first real sighting of BioWare’s Mass Effect 4, it seemed like a fine time to look into exactly what made the first game in this beloved series just so special. If you read last week’s instalment, you’ll know that I focused primarily upon narrative elements, whilst this week, it’s time to delve into the core gameplay mechanics that drove the experience, with a brief section allocated to look at a few elements of the user interface as well. Mass Effect was undoubtedly a complex gaming experience; a deep role-playing game cast into the skin of a third-person shooter, with some truly mesmerising visuals and an array of equally sublime audio elements, such as its stellar score and wonderful voice acting, yet how much of what made Mass Effect what it was actually went on behind the scenes? This is a question that I’d like you to consider now as we delve further into BioWare’s finest.
In terms of its gameplay, Mass Effect is a single player experience that offers just one mode of play, yet with a sufficiently long story and a vast amount of optional side missions, the full experience can take more than forty hours to complete, and upon doing so, players can then take that same character through additional playthroughs, raising their level or attempting another of its numerous difficulty options. With the addition of six different character classes, each with their own unique skill-sets, repeat play is definitely encouraged, giving Mass Effect a level on longevity that most games simply fail to offer, and a level of replayability that is fairly unique amongst narrative driven videogames.
It is an action RPG played out from a third-person perspective, with players controlling the pivotal character of Commander Shepard who can relay commands to his/her two additional squad members that they take out onto missions, these characters can be interchanged prior to the start of any venture, though there are some instances where a specific character must be taken as the mission in some way impacts upon them personally.
Part of the appeal of an RPG game is the collecting of loot, a premise upon which Gearbox’s Borderlands was almost exclusively built, yet in Mass Effect, many newcomers to the genre, swayed into purchasing it through the outstanding visual quality and writing, were immediately overwhelmed by the inventory management that was asked of them. Players collect numerous armour types and weapons, along with a variety of ammo types and upgrades that can be applied, if the player does not make a concentrated effort to keep on top of this, they will be quickly overwhelmed with an abundance of items. A great part of the game’s appeal came from the depth that it offered, depth that was eventually sacrificed to make the overall experience more appealing to the mass market as it went through its second and third iterations, these prised the game out of its RPG roots and converted it predominantly into a third-person shooter. Though of course, there are indeed elements of that genre housed within even this eponymous opening effort.
Throughout all three games there was the presence of a cover system designed to allow the player to shield themselves from enemy fire, giving them opportunities to heal and issue commands to their two companions, yet in the first game, this felt somewhat fiddly to say the least, and proved to be more of a hindrance than a help. Likewise, whilst it is easy enough to instruct squad mates on what abilities that they should use in battle, positioning them is almost an exercise in futility, this was perhaps a little better in its sequel, but was eventually made far more usable in the subsequent Mass Effect 3, where even the various character types would find themselves balanced to perfection.
The standard archetype for most players will undoubtedly prove to be the Soldier, a class of character designed primarily around the expert use of guns as opposed to the more windswept and interesting biotic and tech powers that some of the other classes are afforded. In this original game though, there is little incentive to choose a more exotic class such as Vanguard or Engineer, which felt as something of an afterthought as play styles would vary precious little between them. In Mass Effect 3, the developer would add a feature to balance the weight of the weapons carried against power regeneration, encouraging players to alter their load outs, reducing the number of firearms that they carry to enable far more effective power usage. This is a truly marvellous system that the original game would have benefitted immensely from, and just one reason why many gamers are already clamouring for a remake to go into production.
Another aspect of the game design that fell under much scrutiny were the driving sections, and perhaps rightfully so; upon landing on a planet - typically one that does not house a main mission - the player and his/her squad take to a vehicle known as the M35 Mako to traverse the landscape in search of mineral deposits, relics or side missions. The handling of the Mako is incredibly difficult to get a handle on at first, which can easily result in the death of the player’s character, particularly when they fall under attack by such heftier foes as the Geth Armature or Colossus, and indeed, the mighty Thresher Maw, a creature that proves to be a bane in the lives of almost every newcomer to the game. Subsequently, the vehicle sections were dumped for the following games, though a DLC pack, containing the prototype vehicle M45 Hammerhead, was released for Mass Effect 2 as part of the Firewalker content pack. Ironically, the vehicle was taken out of the game due to the wealth of complaints that BioWare received about it, and yet, with it missing from the experience, many gamers noticed how restrictive the game had become. The M35 Mako was an integral aspect in expressing the feeling of exploration that the original Mass Effect managed to conjure up so successfully, it created the sensation that (as I stated in the first instalment) players were in fact “boldly going where no one has gone before”, and that they were indeed taking their first tentative steps into a much larger universe than they had even known to exist. The feeling of doing so was not simply invigorating, but it helped to make Mass Effect the all-encompassing space exploration RPG that its creators had undoubtedly set out to fashion.
Whilst in game, Mass Effect can be divided into several clear sections of play. Outside of missions, players have free reign to explore the inside of their ship, the SSV Normandy, or to chat with crew members and squad mates. Here they can access the Galaxy Map, a device that allows the player to select a destination for the ship to travel to; this could be for the purposes of completing a mission, investigating a signal, or perhaps to simply access the stores that are available of the galaxy’s central hub, the Citadel (where armour and weapon upgrades can be purchased from the many vendors there). Following up on a potential side mission will generally result in a sequence that sees the player and their two chosen compatriots descend onto the planet’s surface in search of adventure. Outside of the vehicle, planets and installations are explored on foot in the standard third-person perspective, here, of course, the player can enter into the combat scenarios that comprise a great portion of the gameplay. In such situations, the player has buttons assigned on their controller that enable them to access weapon and power selection wheels, through these, players can also instruct their teammates with what actions they are required to perform. Beyond these manoeuvres, players also have access to a grenade attack and a sprint function that is entirely unique to combat scenarios. As the game effectively falls under the action RPG genre, players are not inhibited by turn based combat or active time systems, but instead are free to choose what they believe will get them through the battle as and when they need to.
The power wheel allows the user to select and execute actions that are dependent on the chosen character class of their own unique Commander Shepard, a great deal of these are combat moves which are obviously designed to perpetrate harm upon a selected enemy, whilst some allow the player to heal their squad mates, revive them if downed by enemy attacks and many more. These moves, or Talents, as they are known within the game, are supplemented by the modifications that can be made to the player’s weapon, creating such additional effects as an incendiary attack, or a freeze move that allows additional damage to be inflicted, these are further expanded upon by an ability that specifically targets non-organic enemy types, allowing player’s weaponry to cause further damage upon the game’s primary antagonists, the Geth.
Typically, for the player to complete a mission, this involves investigating an area of the map upon which the assignment is set, either collecting a piece of technology, meeting with another NPC character or killing a specific foe, such as the Thorian (a plant like being controlling the settlers of an area known as Zhu’s Hope on the planet of Feros). The bulk of the mission will be comprised of exploration and combat, with the player being required to eliminate every adversary that they come across in the process, a visual cue is given when combatting the Geth as, once the player finds themselves close enough to a group of these robotic monstrosities, they will find that their radar becomes jammed and their ability to save the game is relinquished, upon annihilating every foe in the area, the game will return to normal and all functions are again restored.
Given the size and complexity of the area that the game is played out in, it is of great importance that the player always knows what direction it is that they should be heading in, and this, as is so often the case, is achieved through the inclusion of a waypoint marker. The marker will indicate what direction that players should head in if they are to complete their current mission, and it is highlighted on the compass in the lower right side of the screen. By pausing the game, players bring up a menu where they can select a map of the area that they are presently in, and whilst playing through one of the many vehicle sections, players can also use this to create their own custom waypoints so that they may easily navigate the otherwise alien environment and track down a point of interest that they are searching for. The pause menu itself is very clean and uncluttered, providing save/load game options, mission selection, inventory management and character upgrade screens, along with access to the codex and the overwhelming wealth of information that it is housed within it.
A point of concern for numerous players was the feeling that they did not know where to go, for, after selecting a mission from the appropriate menu screen, the game did not then add a marker on the Galaxy Map to indicate in which system, let alone on what planet the task was to be completed on. Players, therefore, were tasked with remembering the details of what they had intended to do, which invariably led some to believe that navigating the game could not be done without the help of the official game guide, whilst this is obviously not the case, this was an area of Mass Effect’s design that could have been greatly improved.
Like the majority of modern games, Mass Effect makes use of force feedback to cause the controller to rumble as the player fires their weapon, this is such a subtle effect, but it clearly creates a more visceral experience for the player and provides weight to the weaponry being used. Likewise, explosions induce rumble within the controller to replicate the shockwaves that propagate through the air due to the overwhelmingly high pressure that the blast induces, causing environmental objects to vibrate almost uncontrollably as a result. Such shockwaves will pass through all forms of matter, including organic ones, and as such, it is a pivotal, immersion enhancing feature to replicate this within the controller itself.
Across the three games released thus far, the basic controller set-up has remained unchanged throughout, designed around the Xbox 360 peripheral as it was this console that was the series’ primary development platform, which makes it a rather curious choice for BioWare to remove controller support from the subsequent PC versions of all three games. Relying instead upon a far more cumbersome mouse/keyboard set-up that lacks the intuitiveness of the console iterations, which is rather saddening, and a major gripe for console owners moving across to experience these incredible games once again.
BioWare are currently celebrating their twentieth anniversary, and they have continually shown us throughout that time that they are true masters of their craft, creating some of the finest role-playing experiences yet witnessed, culminating in the magnificent Mass Effect trilogy. In next week’s instalment, I’ll continue to look at the incredible first game, this time examining the character designs and setting, but before then, keep an eye out for our E3 coverage as I’m rather confident that we might just be mentioning Mass Effect 4 before the week is through!