Mass Effect is played as a third person shooter nearly all the way through and the game is very much the bastard son of Knights of The Old Republic and Gears of War.
Now, that description may make you think that KOTOR was already as action-orientated as an RPG could get, but you’d be wrong. Gone is the option for turn-based combat or switching between characters – now the game has cover mechanics and a reflex-rewarding targeting system.
For the most part that’s a pretty good thing too because Mass Effect is very much a game of two parts. On the one hand it’s all about dialogue and exploration – finding new worlds to land on, charming and intimidating your way through obstacles and wooing your way into the bed of blue-skinned floozies.
The rest of the time though, Mass Effect is a game about combat – pure and simple combat with rifles, shotguns, bullets and lasers. True, there’s a lot of RPG depth in the combat system too in terms of weapon upgrades, overheat times, damage limits and proficiencies, but at the same time you aren’t going to hit anything if you can’t keep your cursor on the bad guy.
Props have to go out then to the tactical menu system, which provides players a chance to slow the game down and organise their thoughts if they find themselves flustered while in the thick of it. From here you can also fiddle with some of the new features in the PC version of the game, which allow you to assign hotkeys to skills and powers you use regularly throughout the game and order your two-man squad around with easier controls.
To be completely honest, the system of menus used in Mass Effect isn’t the best case of UI design that we’ve ever seen and the new inventory screen for the PC version definitely feels too clunky and ‘consolified’ when compared to other PC RPGs.
After a short time though, the interface becomes second nature and the ease with which you can order your squad around and upgrade or change weapons improves – though for the early stages of the game you won’t really need to give out all that many orders to your team as the AI is perfectly up to the task.
There are a few other new features in the PC version too. Well, we say ‘few’, we mean ‘two’. The game actually isn’t all that big on the whole ‘new content’ thing. Maybe BioWare was so happy with the original Mass Effect that it didn’t want to add too much new stuff in in case they broke it.
The two new features though, other than the new tactical interface and inventory screens, are improved graphics—which we’ll get to in a moment—and a new hacking minigame.
And I’ll be perfectly blunt here and say that it’s damn hard to try and get enthused about a minigame. We tried to hold out hope that maybe it would be a good and appropriately placed minigame, like the ICE nodes in System Shock 2 or the timed navigation of Deus Ex, but what we ended up with was a Frogger clone.
If I could overcome the disappointment, I’d probably sigh about now.
The hacking minigame itself actually isn’t all that bad though – it’s brief, stylised, taxing and kind-of fitting with the game world. The disappointment though stems from the fact that BioWare could have easily done something a whole lot better here and the time spent adding a new minigame would have been better used adding in a new weapon or two – maybe even a handful of new subquests or a character.