“Hey! You got your Dead Space in my Mass Effect!”
When EA released Dead Space for iOS devices over a year ago, it was a landmark achievement not just for iOS devices, but for mobile games everywhere. IronMonkey Studios created a chilling experience that was as much Dead Space as it’s console counterparts. There were well-written characters, and a driving plot that kept you playing in spite of frights that threatened to loosen your grip on your device. The game looked as good as it sounded, which is saying a lot considering Dead Space remains one of the best-sounding iOS games out there. I really liked Dead Space, and I gave it a 5-star score in my review.
When I read the first press release for Mass Effect Infiltrator, I assumed that the game would be coming from IronMonkey Studios. I had not heard anything from IronMonkey since Dead Space was released, but the provided screenshots gave the vibe that the same engine (or at least a modified version) was being used in the new ME title. Very soon into my playthough of Mass Effect Infiltrator, I realized that the graphics engine isn’t the only aspect of this game that was ripped directly from Dead Space for iOS.
In Mass Effect Infiltrator you are put in the shoes of Cerberus lacky, Randall Ezno. You are dropped onto an ice planet by yourself with little idea of what exactly it is you are doing there. The original Mass Effect games have made the smart decision to not include the uber-cliched “voice-in-your-head” that guides your character through the levels. The Dead Space games made good use of holographic projections to accomplish this goal, and while the iOS Dead Space stuck to helmet COM chatter, it was well-written enough to feel natural, and it never got annoying. In MEI, you’re immediately introduced to your COM-based partner, Inali. Much like Cortana in Halo, she happily gives you extremely obvious tidbits of information for the first section of the game as you blast your way through simple encounters. When you lose contact with her early on, her voice is replaced by a new character who, while less annoying and better-voiced, plays pretty much the exact same role. That said, the voice acting in MEI is generally acceptable (but nowhere near the quality of Dead Space), except for that of Randall. I can’t put my finger on it, but your character’s voice just feels really out of place. Perhaps it was bad mixing or use of wrong audio effects, but his voice always seemed disconnected from the current situation, especially when he constantly repeats one of his few victory lines after you complete a section of action. The worst piece of voice acting comes during and at the end of the final boss fight. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s pretty bad.
On top of mediocre characters, Mass Effect Infiltrator’s plot feels very phoned-in. Throughout most of the game I was simply running along corridors from one obvious encounter arena to the next, without much drive to why I was doing what I was doing. I believe that the big emotional pull of the game is supposed to be Randall’s relationship with Inali, and his desire to protect and save her from Cerberus evilness. Unfortunately, after playing through the entire game, I still have no idea what kind of connection they have/had, and who exactly Inali was. There was virtually zero character development as I played, meaning I didn’t really care what happened to Inali, or anyone else for that matter. When a Volus chap replaced Inali as the voice in my head, and I heard the familiar heavy breathing and short sentences, I felt a brief sense of nostalgia from my time with the console games. This feeling quickly left as I continued fighting through one room after another, without any info as to who this Volus hacker was, why he was helping me, or what part he played in the bigger picture.
If, after reading the previous two paragraphs, you feel I am being too hard on a title that’s “just a mobile game”, feel free to crawl out of your cave into the present, where many mobile games boast console-quality graphics, storylines, and characters. When your first foray into the mobile market is as good as Dead Space for iOS was/is, it’s a natural expectation to assume that your next licensed title will be on par with the previous venture. So yes, I had very high expectations for Mass Effect Infiltrator, just as I have high expectations for the next Infinity Blade or Real Racing game. If you think I am unfounded in my expectations, go have a look at my original review of Dead Space to see what a review for a genuinely excellent game looks like.
Like it’s console predecessor’s, MEI is a third-person shooting game that makes use of both weapons and biotic abilities. It uses the standard movement controls that use the left side of the screen for running/strafing and the right side of the screen for free-looking. One of the biggest surprises to me, and one that I believe has the biggest negative impact on the game, is the inability to freely aim and shoot opponents. As enemies reach the range of your selected weapon, a blue indicator will appear, allowing you to tap on them. Once you’re locked in, you have limited aiming movement with your right thumb as you automatically fire. You will continue to fire until you over-heat or tap the screen to withdraw back into cover. This works well until you start firing from out of cover. There is literally no way to stop firing until your weapon overheats or your target dies. (ed: According to a comment, you can stop firing by tapping the aiming reticule. Matt couldn’t get this to work consistently, as it’s not the easiest target to hit while in the middle of combat.) This proved extremely frustrating when enemies were at close range and I would have preferred to retreat rather than continue firing as I’m shotgunned to death. In addition, the lack of free aiming/shooting makes close-range encounters frustrating affairs as well. When you are toe-to-toe with your foe, you automatically switch to a melee attack to knock them back. What if I would prefer to shotgun him in the face instead? Nope! It’s automatic, and means that you must then waste time re-targeting him to finish the job while he’s on the ground, oftentimes leaving you open to fire from his buddies. This means you are pretty much forced to always shoot from cover if you want to live, which isn’t always the most fun. It’s also frustrating because, depending on the weapon you have activated, you may or may not be able to shoot at someone based on their distance from you.
Speaking of cover, this system works fairly well in MEI, allowing you to easily move from one cover point to another with the swipe of your finger. There is a cloaking ability that can be used when you want to shoot while moving, or sneak up behind someone, but be sure you don’t get too close or you might end up fighting with the combat system more than your enemies. The combat in MEI is broken up into checkpoints, with gold points being delegated for how well you handle each section of fighting. Killing with different weapons, using biotics, amount of health lost, and the time taken to clear the area are all taken into account when giving you a one, two, or three-star award for each encounter. If you stay back and spam with the sniper rifle, chances are you’ll get only a 1-star rating, versus sniping a few guys, then cloaking and rushing forward to get a few shotgun kills. This determines how many points you get at the end of each encounter when a score screen pops up. IronMonkey has essentially taken the classic “3-star” level system that App Store consumers love so much and applied it to the combat situations found in MEI. I like it. It provides a reason to go back and play each combat instance to try to achieve a 3-star rating. You can do this by choosing specific encounters in each chapter of the game. This gives that a game some great replay value, and will allow you to quickly jump in to play specific encounters rather than starting from the beginning or from a checkpoint.
The points you accumulate from combat are used to upgrade weapons, armor, and abilities in an easily accessible ”store” interface. Yes, you can buy more points for real cash, but after playing through the full game once, and then getting about half way through the “game+” mode, I felt absolutely no obligation to spend extra money to get upgrades more quickly. There wasn’t a single tough encounter that I wasn’t able to get past after a few tries. To be honest, the more difficult encounters turned out to be that way due to the frustrating combat controls more than good enemy AI. That said, while the enemies aren’t exactly geniuses, they will certainly wait for their shields to recharge, or rush you if they have a close-range weapon in hand. There’s nothing scarier than a shotgun-wielding Krogan rushing at you at full speed!
There are a few boss encounters scattered throughout MEI, and they are surprisingly good. Some of the encounters will toss in some extra enemies to mop up, but I think the best boss fights involve a one-on-one battle. There are also some situations that involve Cerberus forces fighting against the Gesh android army as you stumble in. You can pick off enemies from either side, and they may or may not turn their attention to you based on who’s on the battlefield. Despite a few varied encounters, the majority of the game falls into a very monotonous pattern of using conveniently placed cover to cut through enemies without much challenge. Several of the environments feel ripped out of Dead Space up to the blood on the floors and walls, and there is minimal to explore outside of the linear story path. However, there are a few various consoles and safes that can be looted for spare credits here and there. I was able to complete the MEI campaign in just a couple hours- about half the time it took to complete Dead Space. Yeah, it’s short. Really short.
One of the most intriguing features of Mass Effect Infiltrator is it’s “Galactic Readiness” system. Essentially, you can use intel that you collect from fallen enemies to boost your “Galactic Readiness” in a galaxy map that’s available to you in-game. If you link up your Origin account, this readiness will be added to your experience in the console/PC version of Mass Effect 3. During one play through of the campaign I bumped my readiness from 50% to 58%. Considering I have yet to get my sweaty hands on Mass Effect 3, I honestly can’t say how this number will apply to the main game, but I assume it will give a minimal boost to ensure you get the “best” ending when the time comes. If you don’t care much about ME3, you can trade in your intel points to earn gold, which can then be used for upgrades with the rest of your earned points.
There’s no denying that Mass Effect Infiltrator is a great looking game, both on the iPad and iPhone/iPod. Graphics are crisp, and textures are generally high-enough quality for mobile devices. The effects for biotics and weapons are great, and pulling off a headshot or shotgun blast to the face is extremely satisfying. The sound is equally high quality, although it isn’t used as effectively as it was in Dead Space (mainly due to the fact that MEI isn’t a survival horror game). There is a great little piano piece that plays during the in-game menus, and when I launched the game and heard the ambient tune that plays while viewing the galaxy map in the main Mass Effect series… well, let’s just say I hung out in the menu for much longer than I needed to.
Based on my opinion of the iOS Dead Space and my fanboyish commitment to the Mass Effect franchise, I really expected to absolutely love Mass Effect Infiltrator. Sadly, it simply doesn’t deliver the way I feel a game in the Mass Effect franchise should. Granted, it’s not some cheap mini-game or crappy animated comic, but it still feels more like a quickly-planned tie-in than a full standalone experience. MEI is a genuine 3rd-person shooter with a great 3D engine at it’s disposal. It looks great, sounds great, and provides some satisfying action, but it also has some poor voice acting, features characters and a storyline you won’t care about/understand, and has surprisingly limited/frustrating combat controls. As a fan of the Mass Effect series, I feel I am much more prone to be disappointed than those who are simply looking for a good action game for their mobile device, but it really comes down to the fact that MEI is as flawed as it is great. For every “Oooh, that was cool!” moment you’re going to have a moment of “What the hell! Why can’t I shoot him!” (Followed by death and cursing.) As much as Mass Effect Infiltrator draws many of it’s design features from Dead Space, one of the best games of 2011, Dead Space it ain’t.