Six months after BioWare's stunning science fiction RPG exploded onto the Xbox 360, PC owners now have the chance to jump into the Mass Effect universe. BioWare's drafted in help from Massachusetts developer Demiurge Studios to help tweak some of the 360 game's annoyances - but has it resulted in a better experience? We pit the two Mass Effects against each other in a sci-fi showdown to find out which version is most deserving of your hard-earned cash.
If all you want to see is how the two versions compare visually, head straight to our comparison screen shots.
Mass Effect's graphics are stupendous on both the Xbox 360 and the PC. Let's get that out of the way first. The film grain effect, stunning backgrounds and character detail help create perhaps the coolest, most cinematic sci-fi game ever made. But we can't get away from the fact that the PC version facilitates higher resolutions than the 360 version - much higher resolutions. The 360 version peaks at 720p, while the PC version can be set far higher. Obviously this results in a sharper, crisper game. To our eyes the biggest improvement is in the character faces, which in increased res look so convincing you'd be forgiven for thinking you were watching a live action movie.
The graphical differences extend to performance improvements too. The 360 version suffered from incredibly annoying texture pop in. This has been almost entirely eradicated for the PC version. Mass Effect on 360 was about as immersive an experience as you could hope for, but when bits of armour and face textures appeared as if from nowhere seconds after the main model loaded it reminded you that, actually, you were playing a video game after all. The problem simply doesn't exist on the PC version.
We happen to think a game's graphics are more to do with the overall aesthetic, the look and feel, than resolutions and performance. That's why a high definition game can look worse than a standard definition Wii game. We loved the aesthetic of the 360 version - the film grain and motion blur all playing a part in the 80s sci-fi feel of the game. For us the increased resolution doesn't necessarily make the game's aesthetic better. Much more important is the improved texture pop-in performance. It is for that reason that the PC version just about pips the Xbox 360 version.
Read on for Item Management...
One of the biggest issues with Mass Effect on 360 was how clunky and frustrating management of your gear was. Throughout your galactic travels you would pick up tons of stuff, most of which was useless. Sifting through the rubbish in order to find out if you had anything buried in your deep pockets that was better than what was currently equipped was a complete chore. Some players found that they spent more time buried deep within their own equipment than actually playing the game.
BioWare has completely redone the equipment screen to make things more streamlined, efficient and manageable in the PC version. Now all four weapons as well as armour, grenades and equipment are visible from the same part of the screen and you can easily see what else you have in your inventory to compare. Equipping is a simple case of a double click, a vast improvement on the confusing 'leave it in the slot, confirm and exit' system the 360 version uses.
The evidence is irrefutable - item management is much better in the PC version than in the 360 version. We spent much less time fiddling about with pistols and armour than in the 360 version, helping us to 'stay in the game'. Perhaps the PC menu is a glimpse into how things will look in Mass Effect 2?
Read on for Combat...
BioWare and Demiurge have completely scrapped the 360's power wheel in favour of a new HUD and a new squad power and command control screen. Pressing space bar stops the action and brings you to a new screen where you can give your squad mates individual commands. In this way you can make one squad member move to one area and the other to a completely different area. This sounds simple, but it was impossible to do in the 360 version.
Commander Shepard's controls have also undergone refinement. You can now drag powers to a hotbar displayed at the top left of the HUD and assign them to the number keys, ensuring that you'll always have instant access to all your abilities. You can also scroll through the four weapons (pistol, assault rifle, shotgun and sniper rifle) with the scroll wheel, if you don't fancy pausing the combat and clicking on the desired gun.
While we found the combat in the 360 version a spectacular joy, many fans found it somewhat cumbersome. We have to admit, squad members were prone to the odd suicide run and sometimes suffered from hilarious path finding issues. This has all but been eradicated for the PC version. In the heat of battle you can now instruct squad mates to take up separate and exact positions, making quick, run and gun tactical play a real possibility. The combat is more satisfying and rewarding, especially when played on the harder difficulty levels. We loved the combat in the 360 version (the cool sci-fi pulse sound effect whenever you brought up the power wheel is sorely missed in the PC game) and the 360 dual thumbstick controls do lend themselves to the gameplay perfectly. But we have to admit that the mouse and keyboard interface delivers precise movement and aiming on a level a joypad can't compete with, and the level of control over squad members is unparalleled. When we fancy kicking back in front of our big screen TV with our feet propped up by a footstool the more laid back 360 version's combat is right up our street. But when we're in the mood for some serious gaming, the PC version is the one to beat. At the end of the day though, the PC version has more intuitive, efficient and rewarding combat.
Read on for driving...
OK, we'll admit it. Driving the Mako, Mass Effect's Warthog knock-off, was a complete ball-ache in the 360 version. Shooting in one direction while driving in another was nigh on impossible. It wasn't helped by the fact that most of the planet surface driving missions were repetitive and involved slowly moving from side to side from a great distance. While the PC version has the same missions and, at least on the harder difficulty levels, requires a similar level of cowardice, the Mako's controls have been tweaked so that it's much more fun to use.
Shooting in one direction while driving in another is now a reality with the keyboard and mouse interface. The Mako also feels quicker and more responsive, although the reason why is hard for us to put our finger on. It feels more nimble. You'll be able to dodge Geth rockets and plasma fire much easier with the W,A,S,D keys and the mouse than you were ever able to with the 360 joypad. We were able to literally run rings around Geth Destroyers, something we never had the confidence to do on the 360 version.
While the side quests and Mako driving sections are still somewhat of a bore compared with the other parts of the game, the Mako is a much more enjoyable beast to drive in the PC version. It feels like Commander Shepard and the team have been given a new and improved vehicle to play around with, making the 360 Mako obsolete.
As they say in football, the table doesn't lie. The PC version is, when you delve deep into the tweaks and changes implemented by BioWare and Demiurge, obviously the better Mass Effect in almost every respect. The resolution is higher, texture pop in is reduced, combat is refined and item management is more efficient. That being said, the 360 version retains a certain appeal that the PC version simply doesn't have, and much of this depends on what mood we're in. If we fancy kicking back and relaxing in front of the big TV, the 360 version is the one we would go for every time. But if we're in the mood for an intense, more hardcore experience, the PC version wins. Overall though you can't escape the truth - Mass Effect PC is the best sci-fi RPG ever made.
Click through to the next page for a series of comparison screen shots. PC screens were captured with all graphics settings maxed out and at a resolution of 1680x1050. Xbox 360 screens were captured at 720p over HDMI.
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