Mass Effect: Now in PC Flavor!

Ports are very often a point of contention among fans. An inferior port can leave would-be fans in the cold when it arrives on another platform, while one that’s clearly better or has a ton of extra features can earn the scorn of its established base. They can be resource intensive, requiring considerable recoding to transfer from one set of hardware to another, or to reconfigure controls. They’re risky, too – expensive gambles that the gaming public liked the game enough, or heard enough positive press the first time, that they’d be willing to buy it en masse again. To this atmosphere we have Mass Effect for the PC, a surprisingly positive example of how porting can improve the final product without changing the core experience.

Aside: This won’t be structured as a normal review, as the content of the game is entirely unchanged; downloadable content such as the Bringing Down the Sky episode has yet to be implemented, but otherwise this is the same experience you’re going to get on the 360. With that in mind, go read our review right this second (link here) if you’re not yet sure what this Mass Effect thing is all about.

It’s evident right out of the box that Mass Effect is ready to use as many of your PC’s resources as it can. The default install approaches 10gigs of memory – easily eclipsing most PC heavyweights to date – and the recommended requirements stop just short of dual-core processors and the latest memory cards. While these are a sizable hurdle for most gamers, they do go a long way towards smoothing out Mass Effect‘s rough performance from the 360. On a suitable rig, texture pop-in is minimal and loading is almost nonexistent, with one bizarre exception: for some reason it takes a full minute for the game to load, from startup to the first splash screen, and even alt-tabbing to another window and tabbing back can take forty seconds. Consider that resource hog Crysis can start in a tenth of the time on the exact same machine. It’s a minor nuisance, but a persistent and inexplicable one.

me1.jpgThe game makes better use of dynamic shadows, which can kill the performance of unprepared machines but add a nice visual flair to all the NPCs bandying about. That is, until you start talking to people. It’s fine enough in some circumstances (fig. 1), but the wrong lighting can make your otherwise decent Shepard look like the two-face girl from Seinfeld (fig. 2) and sometimes the shadows just look flat-out wrong (fig. 3). It’s a toss-up whether or not to leave the function on, as it does make the lighting in general look better, but it stands as an example of how far we have to go before we can even think of climbing out of the Uncanny Valley.

The game’s other annoyances have all been tampered with to varying degrees. Players will undoubtedly recall the slow elevator rides, and as most of them were checkpoints for squad banter they haven’t been improved, save for two instances. Fortunately, both involve the Normandy; decontamination is a lot quicker when boarding the ship, as is the elevator to the cargo bay/requisitions. The Mako has been reworked for the mouse and keyboard, but the actual handling hasn’t improved; in truth, the 360 seems to handle slightly better, as the WASD keys are painfully imprecise when navigating rough terrain. Pressing W, forward, no longer sends you ‘up’ on the screen, and so if the Mako is thrown off track by a stray rock you can wind up careening several feet in another direction. Getting around mountains was trouble enough on the 360, and this did not improve the experience.

A more positive and more noticeable change comes to the hacking system, which removes the Simon-type quick time event and replaces it with something that plays out like Frogger II: Effectic Boogaloo. In short, your goal is to guide an arrow through a series of concentric circles, navigating around static orange blocks and rotating red ones (fig. 4). The system is no less arbitrary considering it’s used for both hacking computers and analyzing a dead alien’s skull, but it’s less punishing and can be done in seconds once you get the hang of it. (fig. 5)

me2.jpgWhile the UI hasn’t been completely rebuilt, it has been modified with the PC in mind, and to its credit includes a few welcome additions like inventory hotkeys and a ‘mark all entries as read’ button for the codex. Weapon selection and power usage have been consolidated into one pause menu, accessible via spacebar, and one can now give orders from the same. These changes were very useful in combat, as I could send one squadmate to a cover point, order another to short out enemy shields, and switch to my sniper rifle in one go. Numbered hotkeys have been added for personal biotic/tech use, and the arrow keys give the same orders as the joypad (move, follow, hold position, etc.) but honestly I preferred to take my time and carefully dole out orders or use my own abilities.

Although mod content has yet to emerge, the transition to the PC platform does beg the question of what modders can do for the game. Bioware is no stranger to user-created content, with mods for their Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale games numbering in the triple digits. The sky is almost literally the limit: new characters, new quests, skipping the intro on Eden Prime, weapon/ability rebalancing, inventory overhauls, maybe even something to reduce time spent in the elevator across the board. Having said that, this stuff takes time; for reference, the original Baldur’s Gate came out in 1998. People with their hearts set on a Tali romance mod are going to have to think long-term and be patient. (She’s worth it (fig. 6).)

me3.jpgWith all that said, the actual gameplay hasn’t changed substantially. Aiming is slightly more precise with the mouse, but you’re going to be dependent to some degree on auto-aim for everything except the sniper rifle. WASD works as naturally for third-person action as it does for first-person, but Shepard isn’t quite as maneuverable as one would hope. Quicksaves have been added for convenience, but function no differently than normal saves for all practical purposes (it’s still impossible to save if you’re in combat, even if there are no immediate hostiles). The tutorials have been updated for keyboard controls, but still never seem to explain the things you really need to know – press ‘Q’ to get out of the Mako, by the way, in case that one slips by you like it did me. And of course, speeding through the dialog wheel can lead to disaster if you accidentally select the “punch in the face” option instead of the “answer question politely” option.

What all this boils down to is that Mass Effect for the PC hits a spot that more ports should aim for, but like all ports is almost exclusively for those who missed the party in the first place. Those with both a 360 and a capable computer would certainly be well served by getting the PC version, but those who already have the 360 one shouldn’t feel obligated to snag a copy for the PC. The mod-hungry crowd may want to wait for a price drop before picking this up. Likewise it won’t win any converts from people who thought the game wasn’t that good from the start, or were bored by the samey sidequests or couldn’t get past that Kaiden is played by Carth from KotOR.

If you’re in that last category, by the way, don’t be so petty. Jenny Hale makes up for that all by herself.

But anyway, Mass Effect PC is the same game with more polish, an upgraded UI and the potential for loads of user-created content. That’s the long and short of it, and that should determine for you whether it’s worth a pickup or not. Speaking personally, I had no trouble dropping the extra fifty, but then I am a proven consumer whore so take from that what you will.

I do it all for Tali.

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