The last time I played Mass Effect was in 2008 and then only for a few hours. Subsequently, I never felt the need to bother with the sequels. As a thoroughly depressing New Year's resolution for 2013, I decided to rectify the situation in the most extreme way possible by cannonballing them.
Cannonballing? Is that common vernacular? I don't think so, even though I've used it many a time.
It's derived from the title of the 1981 film The Cannonball Run, starring Burt Reynolds. In the movie, the "Cannonball Run" is a cross-country car race where one cannot afford to stop for anything, including the police.
I can't remember where or when I heard the word, all I know is it was used to describe the act of forcing oneself to engage in several activities in succession, or to do something in one go. Say, drinking an entire slurpee or watching all the Lord of the Rings films in a single sitting. Perhaps it's more common than I think, but I've never heard anyone use it in the same context... or any context.
So yes, I'm cannonballing the Mass Effect games.
About three days ago I cracked open the DVD case for first game and installed the it onto my notebook, a UX32VD with an NVIDIA 620M GPU. Seeing as the game came out in 2008, I had high hopes it'd run on what is, by today's standards, a fairly low-end graphics chip. For 2008 though, it's actually a solid performer. Factoring in the architectural improvements between generations, it's only a bit less powerful than a 8800 GS.
And surprise, surprise, it ran just fine. I had to disable motion blur and the grain filter — two settings I'd have disabled even on a meaty machine — and drop the resolution to 1600 x 900 (from the notebook's native res of 1920 x 1080), but with FXAA on and every other setting on high or ultra, the game maintains 30fps in most circumstances and regularly runs at 45-60fps. Hopefully, I can find equally happy compromises for the two sequels, but I'm prepared to jump onto my main machine if I need to.
Progress So Far
Currently I'm nearing the end of Mass Effect and I have to say, graphically the game has held up remarkably well. It was cutting edge back in 2008 and today it still looks great.
The planet-side missions, complete with barren environments, frustrating mountainous terrain and hilarious physics, remain somewhat disconnected from the rest of the game. You adjust to their presence as a necessity, in much the same way as bowel evacuation is to human existence — an unpleasant, though oddly relaxing activity.
Even with 24+ hours played, combat is... awkward. Try as I might to be strategic, it's often easier to just run in and blast away. This probably has to do with the fact I'm playing a Vanguard / Shock Trooper with a maxed out Barrier biotic and a shotgun of doom; I imagine an Adept takes a more cautious approach.
Thinking more on combat, what aggravates me is party management. Sure, you can micro-manage the abilities of your squad if that's your thing, but to keep the game moving at a decent pace, it's not something I'd engage in. I've never been a fan of RPGs where you have to control a party — this is a matter of taste over any strong criticism — as I enjoy focusing on myself without the tedium of AI partners who inevitably disappoint.
This stems from a desire for mastery, to have complete control over every aspect of gameplay that influences success or failure. Without precision control over my squad — say the sort of power you have in a tactical game such as XCOM — my hands feel like a pair of poorly-tuned prostheses mashing wildly at keyboard and mouse. I can confidently say I've observed my AI compatriots shoot into the wall next to me as regularly as they sink rounds into opponents. Good thing there's no ammo.
Speaking of ammo — I love the heat system. Elegant and immediately understandable, its a masterstoke of design. Apparently this changes in the sequels, but I'm content to wait until I fire up Mass Effect 2 to find out exactly how, rather than read up on it.
Originally I was going to play a renegade all the way, until I found out that increasing your maximum skill in Charm requires upping your paragon points. Cue my Shepard playing the equivalent of a bipolar, equal parts generous as he is brutal — sometimes in the single conversation.
I might give my thoughts on the story once I've wrapped up the first game, but for now, I haven't much else to add. If you have any suggestions or warnings regarding how one should execute a continuous playthrough of all three games, please comment... as long as it remains spoiler-free!