By Neil Schneider
Mass Effect developed by Canadian outfit BioWare and published by Electronic Arts is best described as a cross between Buck Rogers, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and (possibly) the Star Trek Enterprise TV show. It’s an intergalactic adventure featuring countless alien races, a huge array of weapons and upgrades, and a mystery that grows more enveloping the longer the game is played. However, how does Mass Effect play out in TRUE stereoscopic 3D? We will find out – and expect to be surprised.
It is the year 2183, and thanks to the discovery of alien technology decades earlier, mankind has broken out of its solar system, colonized all over the galaxy, and has met several alien species along the way. Unfortunately, despite these technological advances, the human species has not earned the same bragging rights as its fellow alien dignitaries, and is considered a “held back” race.
Mankind is represented by the “Human Alliance”, which is a member of a galactic review board called “The Council”. The Council is pretty much responsible for keeping the galaxy in check.
The Council has operatives called “SPECTRES”. SPECTRES are considered one of the most prestigious classes of representatives because they have no boundaries or rule of law that determines what they can do to get things done. Up until the time this game takes place, humans have been denied access to becoming a SPECTRE.
Sadly, all is not well in the galaxy. A member of the council named Saren Arterius appears to have gone rogue. Your role is Commander Shepard, a veteran soldier, and it’s your job to find out what Saren is up to and stop him because – you guessed it – the universe’s survival is depending on you!
When the game begins, you have a wide range of options available to determine what your character looks like, what your personal back story is, and what classification of player you are. Classification determines your character’s strongest talents and skill set. The abilities up for grabs include conventional weaponry, biotic or seemingly superhuman abilities, and OmniTool or your ability to influence electronic devices for your own purposes. Good examples of OmniTool are hacking enemy bots to attack each other, breaking into things, and healing abilities.
Your back story determines how people interact with you. Are you a respected war hero, or a no-holds-barred hooligan that makes people withdraw when you walk in the room? You can adjust this when the game begins.
There are three branches of game play. First is the interaction, or the points in the game where your character talks to other people and aliens in the game. Depending on how you want to be viewed, you can be all warm and fuzzy without a spot of tarnish, or you can be abrupt and to the point. In other words, you can charm the information out, or you can scare it out – it’s your choice. As the game plays through, the way you treat people will determine which avenues are open to you further in the game, and your choices determine your rating as a “Paragon” (Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes) or a “Renegade” (not so Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes).
The second branch is exploration. You walk around with your squad in exciting places like space stations, excavation sites, planets, and even your own space ship. As you interact with devices, characters, and objects, you earn experience. This experience lets you “level up”, letting you hone your skills and diversify your weapons and abilities.
There is a core mission and story line to the game, but similar to Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, you have several side missions to complete. Taking parcels from one part of the galaxy to another, solving mysteries, and resolving disputes are all part of your responsibilities and help build your experience up to get through other parts of the game. It’s a big galaxy, and while the game starts with a trickle of missions to complete, it quickly becomes a flood once you are well entrenched in the story.
The third branch is actual combat. I was overwhelmed with this at first because I didn’t take the time to read the manual, so I misunderstood what was going on. However, once I got the hang of things, it’s really a lot of fun.
This is a squad based game, and in addition to yourself, you are responsible for the lives of those around you. Your teammates won’t get killed, but if they are knocked out, that’s a lot less firepower to work with. Unfortunately, life isn’t fair. If your teammates get taken out, they can come back to life – not you!
Your choice of weapons are either conventional or “Biotic”. Conventional refers to guns and grenades. Depending on your class, you may not be trained to use all of them, so pay attention to the skills you are working with. Biotics refer to what I call superhuman powers: personal force fields, the ability to hurl energy and throw enemies around, and even walk around with a sphere of damage called “Warp”.
As your skills and inventory increases, you can enhance your weapons with special rounds for specific types of enemies and add an extra kick to your attacks as you gain special abilities.
There are points in the game where you ride a personnel tank to get from one location to another and kick some butt along the way. I really enjoyed this part of the game. Your tank has jump jets to leap over obstacles; you have a zoom key to pick off your enemies from a distance, and a bad-ass cannon for that Dirty Harry in all of us.
Reading the MTBS forums, I had high expectations of this game. Everyone who has played it has remarked that it is a stellar S-3D experience with the iZ3D LLC drivers, and has been exceedingly impressed. I immediately understood why because Mass Effect’s gaming nature really lends itself to S-3D.
First, Mass Effect is a console port, so it starts off being visually handicapped compared to games designed originally for PC. Fortunately, the diverse environments, the outer space cut-scenes, and even the polished interfaces all have elements worthy of a good stereoscopic 3D gaming experience, so S-3D makes artistic sense as a visual enhancement.
Unfortunately, despite the member driven enthusiasm, I can’t say I shared the same excitement. For me, I always look for a good mix of depth and pop-out or out of screen effects. This is what I find makes a game fun in stereoscopic 3D.
Tested with the iZ3D 1.09 Beta 2 drivers, while I can easily find good settings for one visual scenario, the image falls apart when the camera angles change. For example, in exploration or battle mode, things look great. The moment I have to interact with game characters or there are movie cut scenes, the whole thing falls apart. Crazy levels of separation and uncomfortable divergence, flat imagery, and just inconsistent results overall.
The iZ3D drivers do offer a hotkey functionality to change the separation and convergence settings on the fly according to the visual situation, but it’s too distracting to use. The auto-convergence feature designed for situations like this also doesn’t work very well for me.
The best case scenario was a depth only experience which is still far better than playing the game in 2D, but this camera angle problem is a real handicap for the game’s S-3D potential.
The good news is iZ3D has earned a positive reputation for fixing bugs and optimizing games, so I am encouraged that a future driver update will resolve this and we can improve their rating.
On the positive side, the game can be played with all graphics features on maximum. The only setting that needs to be turned off is dynamic shadows. Also, the in-game cross-hair is accurate on condition that the iZ3D stereo drivers’ separation mode is set for “left shift” or “right shift” depending on which of your eyes is dominant. If you have the “symmetrical” separation mode in use, you will need to use the iZ3D laser sight overlay.
In 1680X1050 resolution, I recommend a separation setting of 19.41%, and a convergence of 0.3129. You won’t get a pop-out experience, but at least you won’t be constantly changing your settings the moment a movie or interaction cut scene begins.
The iZ3D LLC testing machine is based on the following specs:
AMD Phenom X4 9850 Black Edition Quad Core Processor 2.5Ghz
Patriot Extreme Viper PC2-8500 4GB RAM
AMD 4850 GPU
Vista 32 Bit
iZ3D 22” Monitor
I had a very good performance experience playing this title at 1680X1050 in S-3D mode. I would expect very reasonable frame rates out of an AMD 3870 or better, and an NVIDIA 8800 series or better at the same resolution.
Special thanks go to AMD for making this equipment possible for our testing facilities.
This is where the surprise comes in. If you have been reading the MTBS game reviews for the most recent NVIDIA beta drivers, you will see that more often than not, the iZ3D LLC software solution comes out on top most if not all the time. The NVIDIA drivers usually require cutting out settings like post processing effects, or significantly diminishing the visual beauty of the game in favor of S-3D compatibility. Sometimes a game will earn an “Excellent” rating by NVIDIA, and in practice, the game can only provide a depth experience without having the image fall apart.
I am pleased to report that Mass Effect has proven to be an exception to the rule. Unlike the iZ3D LLC solution, the gaming experience is uniform across the board. You only need to find the best S-3D settings once, and the visual results are consistently comfortable and impressive. You can achieve a combined depth and pop-out experience, and there is no disparity between the game play and movie cut-scenes caused by inconsistent camera angles.
The trade-off with the NVIDIA solution is you do need to use their laser-sight overlay for an accurate cross-hair, and similar to the iZ3D drivers, you also need to disable the dynamic shadows feature. However, this is a small price to pay for the immersive gaming experience Mass Effect has to offer.
The NVIDIA camp is based on the follow specifications:
AMD Athlon 64X2 AM2, 4400+ 2.3Ghz
PC2-5300 4GB RAM
NVIDIA 8800GTS 512
Vista 32 Bit
Interlaced 22” Monitor
The game performed well on an 8800GTS 512 in 1680X1050 resolution. Any 8800 series or better GPU should give you similar performance. However, it is important to point out that these results are based on an interlaced or half resolution monitor solution. It will be interesting to see how the game performs when full resolution solutions become available for the NVIDIA S-3D drivers.
Mass Effect is a must have game that creatively combines an enveloping story with a large universe to explore. I confess that it has a slow start, but quickly becomes enveloping to the point of eating hours and hours away from your day.
With the NVIDIA stereoscopic 3D driver solution, Mass Effect becomes even more visually impressive, and is a strong example of what S-3D adds to gaming. It also marks a clear technological victory for the NVIDIA camp because it is one of the first games that demonstrates NVIDIA’s S-3D driver potential, and leaves me feeling more hopeful about their software’s future.
In contrast, while the iZ3D solution offers a borderline success with this title, I would best describe it as a work in progress that I hope will be improved in a future driver release. The inconsistent camera angles are a big handicap for this game, but given iZ3D’s previous history and that NVIDIA has demonstrated success with this game, I foresee it to be a temporary problem.
How Memorable Is This Game
Stereoscopic Effectiveness iZ3D
Stereoscopic Effectiveness NVIDIA
iZ3D Overall Rating:
NVIDIA Overall Rating: