Stands to reason that, when making a shooter, it’s pretty important that your guns not suck. Well, it’s a good thing Mass Effect is a story-driven RPG, rather than a straight blast-‘em-up in the vein of Warframe, because… wow, did they drop the ball when it comes to the pointy end of the stick.
The weapon models themselves aren’t bad – barring perhaps that one sniper rifle model which was designed by a guy who wasn’t going to let being on the weapons team stop him from building a suspension bridge – and I do love the way that they fold up neatly for storage in the Ninja Turtle equipment harness. Thing is, there are only two models for each weapon class – one sleeker model that looks a bit lozenge-y around the edges, and another boxier model that comes with optional pretty lights that change colour like those Nikes the cool kids wore in the 90s.
So, a bit short of a visual feast, even considering the inevitable palette swaps. For even more sameyness, all weapons in any given type seem to share the exact same sounds. But what about when it comes to using them? Let’s break it down by types. Yes, I’m ignoring the rich story and nuanced background in favour of reviewing the weapons from a game released more than half a decade ago. I came here to shoot stuff and earn Renegade points, and I’m all out of dialogue options. Deal with it.
Pistols come heavily recommended by practically every guide on the planet, and it isn’t hard to see why. They’re pretty accurate, can maintain a decent fire rate, and do fair to excellent damage – plus there’s the ability to use them as a cheap and dirty sniper rifle with a few points in the associated skill. But more than that, pistols actually feel like they should – there’s visible recoil, a nice flash, and the pistol firing sounds are… excusable. Yeah, that’s the furthest I’ll go for “pop pop pew” sounds, even in spaaace.
Shotguns are surprisingly handy. Most gaming shotguns have all the range of a kitten batting a ball of string, and will hit approximately as hard outside of their designated effectiveness bubble. Mass Effect’s shotguns pack a fair wallop close in, but across-the-room distances aren’t too much of an issue either, and while you’ll still get some spread at least it doesn’t seem to nerf damage based on distance. Which is to say, shotguns weren’t balanced around PvP. What horrors have been unleashed on gaming by “competitive balance”…
Sound-wise, the shotgun roar reminds me more of something heavy being dragged out from underwater than of a weapon’s report, and I can’t help finding it slightly hilarious that the early shotguns fold up smaller than a pistol. It’s a class that feels great to use, though, in the handful of moments before your heat overloads. Which is exactly what you want happening in the close quarters where a shotgun would be most useful. Genius design, lads.
Assault rifles have no weakness, excepting perhaps the exceedingly poor damage that early-game buzzguns are saddled with. And I do mean buzz – the assault rifle has the least feel and feedback of any of the weapon types. Hold down the trigger, vague droning happens and you’ll occasionally catch a flash of light in the air as enemies’ health bars steadily recede. Oh, sure, the reticle grows as you hold down the trigger, and it’ll overheat unless you implement a modicum of restraint in timing your bursts, but the gun doesn’t really seem to react much. The whole business is reminiscent of a lady’s familiar intimate aid – it’ll hum along to a more-or-less guaranteed satisfactory conclusion, but it’s missing that certain something by comparison with the Real Thing™.
Nevertheless, the all-round usefulness of the assault rifle has led to a schism in my mind… my logical, min-maxing superego wants to use the assault rifle for everything, because it slices, it dices, and it’ll even cut through a coke can from before they went all environmental on us. Meanwhile my Slaaneshi id is screaming that it wants to be entertained, dammit, so grab something – anything – else, and go to town.
If pistols are the darling of every guide, sniper rifles are the proverbial unwanted nephew living under the stairs. Unjustified? Not entirely – without a significant investment in the skill, sniper rifles bob and weave like Jackie Chan on a vodka bender. Later-game sniper rifles mitigate this problem, and the more points (or aim stabilising mods) you invest, the better it gets. Much like the fandom of a certain under-stairs dweller, I’ve developed an inordinate fondness for the sniper class of weapons – while a lot of the game’s combat takes place at bad-breath range, there’s enough left over to make standing back and picking off enemies a worthy sideline. This is particularly true when fighting miserable pirates or mercenaries who tend to huddle behind cover, and after dealing with the dismal pile of annoyance and uselessness that is the Mako, picking off enemies from across the valley can be therapeutic in the very best way. Moreover, the tendency of sniper crosshairs shake and rattle under fire might seem like a nuisance, but it also makes these rifles as a class the best candidate for actually making the user feel like a part of combat.
That last sentence may seem paradoxical, given the stand-off nature of a marksman’s weapon. Try then to understand that, despite everything this post has said up until now, combat is actually pretty enjoyable. Boggling, isn’t it?
Grenades are, strictly speaking, more of a consumable resource than a weapon, but they still bear mentioning. Mostly because, well, why are they frisbees? The travel time is atrocious, timing the explosions is unpleasant, and they never seem to have the explosion radius that one would expect even with a high-ex mod. There’s also no way that I’ve found to replenish them between missions, unlike medi-gel, so they come down to being somewhere between too frustrating and almost too precious to use.
The second game in the series awaits, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to it. By all reports the developers made some fantastic missteps in terms of combat, combined with a few inspired improvements. I’ll be happy just as long as their assault rifles don’t immediately draw comparison to dildos.