In any other RPG I'd played, consequences were typically limited to the gameplay: if I choose to burn through all my most powerful items in this boss fight, I might be ill-prepared for the next one; if I fail to explore the dungeon thoroughly enough, I'll miss out on some fun secret area. I'd learned to start being a jerk whenever somebody started asking me to save their missing cat or go on some silly quest to save the world, because I'd always be forced to choose "Yes" anyhow, and the responses my characters would give to weasel their way out were usually pretty entertaining. Every once in a while there'd be a Chrono Trigger or a Space Quest with one or two pivotal moments where you could alter the ending of the game, but by and large, the only consequences I ever faced were of no lasting impact to the story.
KotOR made me choose. When there was a man being threatened in the street, I had to decide whether I'd swoop in to rescue him, walk past him quickly to avoid getting involved, or kill the assailants so I could threaten the man myself. I found myself invested in my character and the game world in a way I'd never been invested before, because I was actively shaping their development. You can play GoldenEye 007 and use the corpses of your enemies as target practice for throwing knives, but when a cutscene rolls around, you're still the good guy and not some twisted psychopath. You can play King's Quest and attempt to do cruel and unusual things to every person and creature you meet, but at the end of the adventure, you'll still be the pride of the kingdom. KotOR was the first game I'd played where even the most insignificant actions regularly had ramifications that wouldn't manifest until later on, and watching my decisions mean something got me hooked in a big way.
A few years later, I started hearing about Mass Effect. I knew very little about it, other than that it was another sci-fi RPG made by BioWare—the same company behind KotOR—and that your decisions made some sort of cumulative impact, and that it was very pretty. At the time, "very pretty" equated to "no hope of running it on my computer," so I kept the game in the back of my mind for several years. During that time, I made it a point to avoid spoiling anything about the game for myself. I had to stay off the Internet for about a week when people made it to the apparently controversial ending of Mass Effect 3, which I still refuse to learn more about until I get there myself. When Mass Effect started coming up in conversation again recently on the blogs I follow, and when the realization began to sink in that my new (used) computer has been running almost nothing but '90s adventure games since I got it, I had no trouble picking out which PC game to start playing next.
I had to restart the game three times before I got to the opening cutscene.
Mass Effect has a number of customization options, but for once, overdoing it with the graphics wasn't to blame. Even at the maximum settings, the game runs perfectly on my new (old) rig. I'd made it part of the way through the cleverly immersive character creation process ("Sorry, Mr./Mrs. Shepherd; your personal file has been corrupted. Please help us recreate the data by making selections about your backstory, character class, and personal appearance.") and then the game froze. More accurately, it stopped responding normally to my input. I tried clicking on the new options being presented to me, but instead of making selections, my clicking simply moved the selection cursor up or down. How can I advance to the next screen if clicking on the option I want only makes the cursor jump to the next option?
I did a forced shutdown of the game and booted it back up again. Maybe this was just a glitch; these things happen. I got back to the point where I got stuck before...and got stuck again. At this point, I was starting to suspect I'd somehow brought this upon myself, having spent a good 10-15 minutes fiddling with the settings before launching the character creator. Best to set everything back to the defaults and sort out the problem once I was into the game proper. Another forced shutdown.
On my third attempt, after reverting all settings to their initial states, I was feeling more annoyed than immersed. What kind of game developer lets the player configure himself into a corner before the game even begins? My suspicions proved correct when I reached the point where I'd gotten stuck twice over, and suddenly I had no problems clicking on anything.
What had happened, precisely? It all had to do with the way I'd mapped the mouse controls.
For as long as I've been playing first-person shooters, the left mouse button has always moved me forward, and the right has always moved me backward. None of this WASD nonsense where there's no good way to reach half your hotkeys in combat; all my basic movement of looking and walking around is mapped to the mouse. I grew up on platformers, where precise movement is paramount—I've got greater control over where I'm moving by pointing my mouse in that direction than trying to nudge myself back and forth with the keyboard.
That leaves my entire left hand free to use the entire keyboard for all other actions—CTRL for firing, SHIFT for running, SPACEBAR for interacting with objects, X for jumping, D for ducking, and all the surrounding keys for any extra options I might have. Again, platformers taught me how to do some combination of running, jumping, charging, firing, and sliding at the same time, so holding down two or three keys that are right next to each other is second nature to me. Plus, it's rare that a game either requires or allows you to take more than two or three actions at a time, so it's not a big deal if I have to stop firing for a split-second to activate my health recovery item that might require me to stop firing in the first place. I've still got full mouse control to wheel myself out of harm's way if I'm still under attack.
Beyond that, I play most first-person shooters as a sniper, so having my gun trigger mapped to the left mouse button (which is usually the default) actually increases the chances I'll click too hard and throw off my aim. I don't care if it's weird; it's worked for every FPS I've ever played, and I can't be held responsible if you offer me the opportunity to map the Q key however I see fit. I've been alt-firing with Z and cycling through weapons with the mouse scroll wheel since 199X; it's too late to change those habits now.
Unless those habits prevent me from getting through the first few screens of Mass Effect. For the first time in any game I have ever played, mapping movement to the left mouse button replaces your ability to make menu selections with the mouse. Instead, left-clicking moves the cursor up (like pressing the up arrow on the keyboard, typically reserved for moving your character forward), and right-clicking moves the cursor down (like pressing the down arrow on the keyboard, typically reserved for moving your character backward). Mass Effect interpreted my character movement preferences to apply to the menu screen as well. Left-clicking only made selections if it wasn't mapped to a movement command.
I discovered SPACEBAR, my interaction key, could make selections on the menu screen. So...if I wanted to do this my way, I'd have to highlight my menu options (save, equip, level up, etc.) with the mouse, and then use the keyboard to select them. This system was awkward, to say the least, and it broke down entirely on the Codex sub-menus, which do not cooperate well with keyboard commands. A good 45 minutes into the first 10 minutes of the game, I gave up. No amount of comfort during the non-menu portions of the game was worth the utter inconvenience of having to handle the menu portions this way. I reverted the controls to their WASDefaults, gingerly adjusted some of the more obnoxiously placed controls, and made duplicate mappings of fire (default left click) and backpedal (default S) to CTRL and right click, respectively, where I knew I'd be reaching for them by mistake from time to time. I was not happy about this, but at least I was finally able to play.
Once the initial irritation of the control fiasco began to subside, I found myself experiencing that same kind of immersion I came to love about KotOR. The graphics were indeed pretty, the voice acting was top-notch, the animations were fluid and realistic, the sound effects and music gave off all the appropriate vibes of being IN SPAAAAAAAAACE, and the intimations I'd heard about your choices potentially affecting the next two games in the series made every selection from those dialogue trees seem all the more important. I was hooked.
Then they dropped me on a planet with two teammates I couldn't directly control, put a gun in my hands, and demolished any lingering misconceptions that combat was turn-based like in KotOR. I know I'd been configuring the game to play like an FPS, but I wasn't expecting it to be an FPS. Now the control situation had been upgraded from inconvenience to serious problem--how could I possibly survive an onslaught of enemies when I move when I want to fire, and fire when I want to move? How could I manage giving commands to my squad when I can barely manage giving commands to myself?
In what is becoming an unpleasantly common occurrence, I bumped the combat difficulty down to the minimum. The controls were going to be a handicap; the least I could do was try to level the playing field. I engaged my first enemies with all the grace of a sedated water buffalo, but I survived. I knew I wouldn't be the crack shot I was in Elite Force and No One Lives Forever, but I'd at least be able to get by.
The rest of my first game session went well. I emerged victorious from a few more battles, got a better feel for how the dialogue wheels worked (polite or friendly options at the top of the wheel, neutral options in the middle, rude or angry options at the bottom), read up on my galactic history in the Codex, and played around with leveling up my lead character (leaving my squadmates to automatically level up until I had any idea what any of their abilities meant). As had happened many times before with my KotOR sessions, I completely lost track of the time. The only reason I made it to bed on time that night was because I failed to disarm a bomb in time and was blown up, which is usually a good stopping point. I had spent several valuable minutes trying to find a way to get to the blinking beacon on my minimap, which I presumed to be a bomb, but was in fact a marker I'd accidentally placed in the middle of a wall while fumbling through my map screen. Only the best and the brightest are saving this galaxy.
I'm now a fair portion into the game—I'd say halfway, but I'm not about to look it up and ruin the surprise—and I'm finding more and more that the interface is interfering with the immersion. My control scheme lacks the finesse to which I'm accustomed, so every combat situation ends up being less about tactics and more about brute force than I'd prefer. I could bump up the difficulty to "encourage" myself to be more tactical, but I'm concerned I'll end up dying more frequently than necessary because I'm still occasionally standing there trying to figure out why my gun is overheating when I'm supposed to be running forward.
I'm encountering a similar problem with the decryption minigame where you essentially play Frogger, trying to move your cursor into the center of a circle while avoiding the blocks that move past. I'm fairly decent at Frogger, but my skill is hampered by the control. Sluggish mouse control makes it challenging to swing the cursor into position when there's a tight squeeze, and maneuvering around to the upper portions of the circle (where there may be less block traffic) takes even more time than it does to deal with whatever's in front of you at the bottom when you start. I don't even bother with the hardest decryption level anymore—under normal circumstances, I could probably crack it about half the time, but with these controls I don't stand a chance.
Then there's the issue of inventory management. Any other RPG (hybrid FPS or not) will give you a master item/equipment list where you can see everything you have at once, and usually organize everything to some degree. Mass Effect only lets you see what equipment you have when you're on the tab to equip a character with that particular piece of equipment. For example, you can only see what pistols you have when you're getting ready to equip someone with a pistol, and even then, you'll need to scroll down on the page if you have any more than about four or five in stock. Annoyingly, equipment seems to be organized in the order everything was obtained, with no way to sort by name or strength. This gets to be problematic if you're trying to quickly sell off any duplicates you have of a particular item, because the shop menu isn't subdivided by category, so it's one long list of everything you own in the order you obtained it, with any duplicates being all over the list.
Any quest-related items are only viewable by opening the associated quest record in your Journal...which is of no help whatsoever if you pick up a Turian Medallion of Gastrointestinal Fortitude or somesuch that pertains to a quest you had no idea existed.
I'm also getting frustrated with how inconsistent the dialogue wheel is with adhering to its own rules about where certain kinds of responses should be placed. I'm going for a generally good character who always chooses the Paragon route over the Renegade route, though I'm not above being a little blunt or unfriendly from time to time if the situation calls for it; therefore, I should be sticking to the top and middle options on the wheel, and using the bottom options sparingly, right? Nope. At times, you've got as many as five different questions you can ask someone, all of which are completely prosaic, but they're scattered all about the wheel just so there's enough room for all of them. Other times, an option that looks absolutely harmless will be unexpectedly negative simply because it's on the bottom of the wheel, even when you just clicked on a different response in the same spot and had nothing negative come of it. I sincerely hope they streamlined this with the next game, because I'm tired of saving my progress before I talk to every single person, for fear I'll try to inquire about an alien's culture and end up insulting their mother and sparking a war with their people.
Oh, and let's not forget about the numerous times I've put down my sniper rifle to find my ability to run or even jog has been completely revoked until I reload a saved game. Or all the times I've tried to skip through a line of longwinded dialogue and accidentally selected a dialogue option that wasn't even visible on the screen yet. Or the phenomenon where hitting an elevator button too quickly will lodge my squadmates in the corner of the elevator and keep the whole thing from moving while my main character is frozen helplessly in place until the elevator reaches its destination (which it never does).
The Mass Effect universe is compellingly complex. The story, characters, technologies, locations, choices, and challenges are fun and interesting. The audio and visuals are top-notch. By all rights, I should be hopelessly immersed. Yet there's a stack of little things now towering high enough to cast a shadow on this otherwise brilliant game. It's difficult to get lost in a game when the elements that are supposed to blend into the background keep reminding you it is a game.
Next up: Mass Defect 2