Mass Effect is the latest RPG from BioWare, makers of the excellent Jade Empire. Like that one, it’s an action RPG: combat takes place in the middle of the environment you’re running around in, and different characters don’t take turns attacking each other. (Though the details are quite different: in particular, the combat is based around shooting people rather than whacking people.)

It took me a little while to decide what I think about the game. Don’t get me wrong, it was obvious from the start that it’s a quite good game: it’s gorgeous, has the best conversation system I’ve seen, and is well plotted, which adds up to the most theatrical experience (in a good way) that I can think of in a video game. The intro world was pretty good, but there was a fair amount of combat, and I wasn’t sure how much I liked the shooter RPG idea. The main city after that had some interesting environments and fun tasks, but it wasn’t quite as large as I expected. Then I explored a couple of small side-planets (of which there are a dozen or two); pretty neat to have that wealth of side-tasks to complete, but they didn’t add much to the plot and reused environments in a big way. And I started Feros, one of the three main quests which are open to you at the start; about halfway through that quest, I was enjoying myself, but I kind of wished that there was more of a city there to wander around in.

And then things sort of clicked. To explain the “more of a city” comment: in a traditional RPG, your environment is divided into cities, overworld, and dungeons. Cities are great for talking to people and getting quests and doing commerce and such; dungeons are great for focused exploration and combat and key plot moments; overworld are great for, well, nothing, they’re usually just filler. I personally enjoy cities the most, but you need to balance them; in particular, it’s traditional to pair each dungeon with a city.

Feros wasn’t doing that for me. There was this small, weird town there, but it was really basically just one room, surrounded by… surrounded by what? I’m still not sure how to analyze it: there was combat in those areas, but it didn’t feel like a traditional overworld or dungeon. There were plot elements (stemming from quests I’d been given in the town), and I went back to the town afterwards, so it didn’t feel like overworld. There wasn’t one linear goal, so it didn’t feel like a dungeon. Maybe that whole chunk was one big town, just a particularly dangerous one? Once I’d finished that area, there was a bit of overworld, but it was mercifully short, then another tiny town next to something that did feel like a dungeon (because I had one specific goal), but in a somewhat townish setting. Then I went back to the first town, a new area opened up, and I had a small dungeon with a nice plot bit at the end.

Basically, my analytic categories had largely broken down, but it didn’t matter: I was having a lot of fun. Much more combat than I normally like, but I’d started understanding the combat by then (about which more later), and was rather liking it. Conversations, side quests, main quests, plot elements, cityscapes, less urban areas were all woven together, giving me a constant flow of challenges and rewards and story advancement.

About that combat: there are three basic classes, one fighter type and two magic-user types (technician and biotic). (Plus three hybrid classes.) I wasn’t sure what to start with: I’m usually drawn to the more magic-user types but end up taking a straightforward approach, which suggested I should be a fighter or a hybrid. But I really don’t like shooting or feeling like a brute, which argues against the former, and the hybrids couldn’t use enough weapons to really feel worthwhile. Ultimately, I went for technician, because I didn’t want to focus too much on shooting and because that would allow me to open up locked items without depending on having the right fellow party members equipped.

Which turned out to be a great choice for me. Your characters (especially technicians and biotics) have special abilities (offensive and defensive) that you can select from a menu that you can bring up by pressing the right bumper. (Which also pauses the game and lets you change your aim at the same time.) And technicians have some nice attacks that work well against robots and well enough against normal humans/aliens with their shields and weapons; they don’t work well against zombie types, but there weren’t too many of those. (I really wish I’d started using A.I. Hacking against the Geth enemies much earlier than I did: some of my initial attempts failed for whatever reason, so I put it on the shelf, but once I got it leveled up a bit more and started using the technique, I quite enjoyed entering a room, hacking the first Geth I saw, and letting it soften up the room for me.) I still had to do some amount of shooting, but my special attacks were good enough to seriously weaken the enemies, so I didn’t have to be all that good at shooting. (And I got good enough at it by the time I was done with Feros.)

And they got one thing right that is so much more important than the details of combat mechanics that I don’t know why I’m talking about the latter: the battles happen in the regular environment and aren’t turn-based. Right now, I’m playing Eternal Sonata, which is a more traditional RPG (and actually one with a pretty good combat system as traditional RPGs go). And every time I enter a non-boss battle, I just get annoyed: I know I’m going to have to spend a minute or two on a separate screen, waiting for various turns to happen, just going through a battle using the same strategies that I’ve used dozens or hundreds of times before. I know I’m going to win, I know I’m going to end up with good health, I know I’m not going to have any interesting experiences honing my skills, it’s almost a pure waste of time.

Most battles in Mass Effect are also almost as lacking in real thought or drama. But they’re over a lot faster: no waiting for turns, no fancy animations of attacks. I’m spending all of my time focusing on what my main character should be doing right then, I don’t have to wait for anything, and in the mean time other parts of the battle are littering the ground around me. Also, the separate battle arenas of traditional RPGs have a real psychological effect: they force you to treat battles as a phenomenon to be considered in isolation, which raises the question of “are they good or bad in isolation?”, to which the only answer is “bad”. Whereas Mass Effect avoids that question: battles are one way of changing the texture of a larger sweep of action, and their effects on that texture are a generally positive one, as long as they’re not overdone. (Which they’re not here.)

From the end of Feros on, I was just having fun. I stopped doing as many of the side-planet quests, because they didn’t add much; that was fine, I’m happy to have optional tasks available for people who like them. The main quests continued to be very good, in different ways: the dig site was a much more focused dungeon run, Noveria had a reasonably satisfying city at the start of it and another small one in the middle, and the final dungeon run at the end of the game was satisfying without being drawn out in the way that the later parts of Jade Empire were. They continued to avoid stupid traditional RPG gameplay decisions. (Hint to other developers: if you’re going to make me chose a subset of the party to play with, have us all level up as a group, don’t punish me by having people level up individually based on how much combat they’ve seen.) The environments are extremely well done, and the theatrical nature of the conversation, plot, cut scenes, etc. was top-notch all the way through. Great alien races, too.

The only down side is that now I’m afraid to play other RPGs. I like the plot-driven nature of the genre, but a lot of the basic gameplay mechanics that the genre traditionally uses that are just plain broken. On the whole, that’s a tradeoff that I’m willing to make some of the time, but why oh why do I have to?

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