November last year I gave the Xbox 360 version of Mass Effect 10-out-of-10 on this very website. It blew me away, ticking all my sci-fi boxes in one giant cinematic assault on the senses. So good was Mass Effect that in my personal view it was 2007's best game, beating BioShock, Halo 3 and The Orange Box.
It was not without its flaws of course. Soon after we tore through the game we published our Top 10: Things that will make Mass Effect 2 magic feature, where we outlined our hot tips for BioWare's inevitable sequel. We called for an improvement on graphical glitches, quicker loading times, better Mako controls, better squad mate control and better equipment management, among other things. Well whaddya know? BioWare, along with Demiurge Studios, hasn't waited for the sequel to fix the annoyances of the original game. It's gone and sorted loads of them out for Mass Effect on PC. And PC owners will love them for it.
Before we get to that I suppose I'd better run through what all this Mass Effect madness is all about, since there are bound to be a few PC owners out there who didn't look on at the Xbox 360 release last year with eyes burning green with envy. Mass Effect is a sci-fi RPG from the makers of the excellent Star Wars: Knights of the Old Repulic games. You play Commander Shepard, a human soldier hell bent on preventing a rogue alien agent called Saren from leading a robot army invasion of the galaxy. The story is first class, the conversation system a revelation and the single sex scene a much ado about nothing. But the best thing about Mass Effect is its style. The film grain, the stupendous Blade Runner inspired soundtrack, the cool sound effects, the gravity-defying biotic powers and the sheer epicness of everything combine to present perhaps the coolest, most involving science fiction universe gamers have ever had the pleasure of losing themselves in.
So, back to the changes. Mass Effect's resolution can now be pumped up sky high, in accordance with PC gaming rules. The game does look incredibly crisp, as you'd expect. Character faces seem to benefit most from the sharper visuals. For me though, resolution is only one part of what makes a game look great. Indeed after only 10 minutes play I stopped noticing the higher resolution and I fell back on my default amazement at the overall aesthetic. Ultimately the game looks absolutely amazing on PC and it looks absolutely amazing on 360. Mass Effect on 360 is a sight to behold. Mass Effect on PC is a sharper sight to behold.
The more obvious graphical improvements are performance related ones. The texture pop in that plagued the 360 version is almost entirely eradicated. Detail on character faces and armour is there instantaneously, not a second late. In the 360 version the texture pop in reminded me that, actually, I was playing a video game after all. I don't have to worry about that with the PC version.
Item management has been vastly improved. Now equipping new weapons, and new mods to those weapons, is much less of a chore. The clunky equip system from the 360 game has been scrapped in favour of a much simpler interface where you can see everything available to you from the same part of the screen. Similar items are grouped together, so you'll be able to bulk convert duplicates picked up on your galactic travels into omni-gel. You'll be spending less time trying to work out what's the best pistol in your bulging bag of weapons and more time using it to send Saren packing, a change we welcome with open arms.
The decryption mini-game has been removed in favour of an odd 2D Frogger-style mini-game which sees you use the W,A,S,D keys to weave a small block in and out of other moving blocks and into the centre of a circle. Like the 360 version's face button mini-game, it's not exactly fun, and not in keeping with the seriousness of the rest of the game, but it's there nonetheless. PC owners will probably find their Mass Effect mini-game as much of an annoyance as 360 owners found theirs.
The Mako, Mass Effect's planet exploring Warthog knock-off, has enjoyed a control tweak. The mouse and keyboard interface grants more control over driving and shooting and, as a result, it's much more fun to use. You'll find deftly darting about, boosting to avoid enemy fire and skilfully dispatching giant Geth Destroyers all at the same time much easier than on the 360's clunky Mako. It's as if BioWare has let Shepard loose with an upgraded Mako that makes the poor 360 one feel obsolete.
The long loading times are still in place. The game's much maligned lifts still take what seems like an age to get Shepard and the gang from A to B, especially in the Citadel. In some cases this is inevitable, since certain mission-triggering dialogue occurs in the lifts, but we can't help but feel a tinge of regret that in all other non-essential cases lift waiting hasn't been totally eradicated.
The biggest change, however, is the HUD overhaul. The power wheel has been scrapped in favour of a much more efficient weapon select and special ability interface. This is triggered by pressing the space bar. By rotating the camera so it's pointing at the desired location or enemy you can order each ally to move to different, exact areas. The arrow keys are reserved for more general commands, like follow or stay put. As for Shepard, you can assign special powers to the number keys for instant use and the scroll wheel allows you to cycle through each of the four weapons quickly and easily. Couple this with the more precise movement and aiming of the mouse and keyboard interface and you've got a level of squad control the 360 version is simply incapable of.
Because of this combat is all the more satisfying. While I always found the combat in Mass Effect on 360 a wonderful thrill (yes, I know many of you didn't), squad mates were always capable of the odd stupid moment, either suicidally running into enemy fire or suffering from serious path finding issues. There can be no doubt that this has been improved upon. Flanking is now a real possibility, and, on the harder difficulty levels, employing strategy with careful squad mate placement is a much quicker and intuitive process. You'll be amazed at how quickly you'll be able to tear through the combat heavy worlds and side-quests in the PC version.
It's important to note that the PC version has the same achievements as the 360 game, but they're not not linked to Windows LIVE, so you won't be able to accumulate another 1000 MS points. And while the game doesn't ship with the Bring Down the Sky DLC that 360 owners have to pay for, PC owners will be able to download it free of charge as soon as they've got the game installed on their computer, which is obviously ace.
Despite the essential changes, tweaks and performance improvements, the blown away effect I experienced when playing the game on the 360 back in November was dulled, perhaps inevitably, this time around. Anyone who's played the 360 version and loved it will love it on PC, but that wow factor isn't there to the same degree. All I can say to PC-owning Mass Effect virgins is: I'm jealous. I wish I could play it for the first time once again.
There are some who would say that Mass Effect feels more at home on the PC, that when you take into account the higher resolution, the performance improvements and the interface tweaks it's somewhat of a director's cut. This would be an understandable assessment. But I happen to think that both games have different strengths and weaknesses. Mass Effect PC is unashamedly hardcore. It's the 360 version of the game refined to please PC owners. Is it better? Functionally, yes. But there's not enough here for us to recommend a purchase if you've already got it on 360.
Some BioWare fans viewed EA's recent purchase of the studio with concern and cynicism. Mass Effect and any subsequent games in the series would now be ported to every platform under the sun as quickly as possible and with scant consideration for quality. That is, as hardened gamers say, the EA way. Now that we've ploughed our way through the game for a second time on PC we can safely say that there was nothing to worry about. BioWare could probably have released a PC version identical to the 360 game and got away with it. But it hasn't. It's done it properly. It has listened to the community - its moans, groans and gripes - and given fans what they've asked for. This is a port, but it's more than a port. BioWare, with a little help from a friend, has made one of the best RPGs ever made even better.