Review: Mass Effect: Infiltrator

MassEffectInfiltrator

Many RPGs have fiction tie-ins.  Part of the appeal of any good role-playing game is a detailed setting that serves as the backdrop of the characters’ actions, hopefully ones chosen by the player.  Since fully fleshing out a world cannot always be accomplished with narrative, in-game exposition and a codex alone, and because there is money to be made in a multi-spectrum media blitz than with a game alone, novels, comic books, sometimes even animated features will come out at or around the same time as a game to provide detail that the actual game developer was not able to supply.  At the risk of underselling it, this game/app is more exciting than a novel you wouldn’t read if it didn’t have the franchise’s name on the cover.  Infiltrator is not focused on narrative or exploration, which is what one might want from a game that references what happens when you mess with element zero.  Even so, it can serve as a good palette cleanser if you’ve just come back from the Omega-4 relay and are just about to take up the fight against the Reapers, or if you want a bit of a build up to this year’s fully featured and proper BioWare game.  There is some benefit to playing this game before or during the bigger, sixty-dollar game, and it is a fairly good time in and of itself, but you could miss it.

Mass Effect: Infiltrator is a short game which takes place sometime in the early days of Mass Effect 3 and tells the story of the cyborg Cerberus agent Randall Enzo.  Cerberus is a group comprised of cells and agents which work under the loosely defined goal of promoting humanity’s interests and position in galactic affairs.  Any means justify this ultimate goal, no matter the sacrifice or line crossed.  Not a national organization or official branch of mankind’s Alliance government, it is an organization funded by dozens of front corporations, looked down upon by most in galactic society.  In Mass Effect 2, Commander Shepard worked with the group with a player-determined level of trust, and Cerberus now serves as an antagonist faction in Mass Effect 3.  The closest analog to the group is COBRA, as seen in newer, bleaker comic books (just replace the word “world” with “galaxy” in “a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.”)  None of these moral themes or major story beats are touched on in this game.  When it comes to character and universe fiction development, the take away is that not everyone who works for Cerberus does evil things and is alright with it, some rebel and defect.  As this idea is presented and developed in the second and third Mass Effects, there are no new details or motives here and things become very missible.  It is the definition of a side story.

When following The Tale of Randall the Rebellious Cyborg–also the title of my publisher rejected abstinence-themed space opera aimed at nerdy tweens–it is easy to see that this title looks very smooth on the small magazine-sized tablet.  Blood will spray out and futuristic bullets will fly all over the place as they hit detailed models.  The animation in the game is nice and when there are two of the same kind of enemy on the screen usually they will look distinct due to their movements.  The antihero will use a combination of guns and special abilities to take down a decent variety of foes.  When in the heat of combat, throwing out biotics (sci-fi magic spells) at enemies and then pulling out a shotgun to blast some snooty Turian, it is almost possible to forget that the game is not Mass Effect on a proper console.  Usually the sensation will go away when you remember how much clunkier the controls are when Randall is not in cover and he needs to avoid incoming attacks.  It by no means looks as good as any of the regular Mass Effect games, but then one would not expect it to given the limited hardware.

The icons which control and guide the action are not obtrusive and serve as a good way to supplement the limited controls.  It is easy to envision a control scheme where the use of biotics was controlled by a precise series of taps to the screen, sequences easily forgotten in the heat of battle.  Thankfully, the developer chose the more intuitive “tap the icon then drag to the other icon on a radial menu” method.  The menus used to purchase new gear, upgrades and abilities are also easy to navigate.  The menu noises and gun sounds are very familiar to anyone that has played a Mass Effect game.  If I was told they used the exact same sound assets created when Mass Effect was being developed, I’d believe them.

In addition to survival, Randall is a very self-conscious cyborg –- again, a theme ripped from the book Random House called “disturbingly graphic” –- as he is concerned with looking cool while he puts space bullets into robots, aliens and dudes in power armor.  As we all know, the most stylin’ soldier on the battlefield is one that does not kill two foes in a row with the same weapon, but the one that for no good reason switches guns constantly.  Every section of a level is given a score at its end based on time, number of shots taken, and the required firearm variety.  To get the most points, which translates into money, players cannot just use the same weapons and powers over and over again.  While an extremely game-y mechanic, it does serve to change up the action.  To get the best score, Randall cannot do the most effective – and boring – thing, which is to stay behind cover very far away and fire occasionally with the sniper rifle.  Instead, he has to turn invisible, kill the enemy sniper with a well timed sniper rifle shot, roll forward to cover, lift up some soldiers with biotics and blast them while their in the air with the machine gun, throw a tether beam onto another guy and fling him off the cliff, see the new enemies landing with retro-rocketed decent, and then turning the newly-cooled down cloak on to run up and blast their noggins off with a shotgun, then get back to cover to mop up any stragglers with another weapon, all within fifteen seconds or so.  When the action works well it is great and you’ll wonder why Shepard can’t do all this stuff with this degree of proficiency.

The biggest problem with the game is the controls.  It is not easy to maneuver when you really need to.  The game insists on thinking it is a game with dual analog sticks when the system it is on has no sticks whatsoever.  The movement and aiming is handled by dragging on different sides of the screen, as seen in every other game that pretends the iPad has two analog sticks.  Without a tactile response, it is difficult to tell if the game is not interpreting your thumbs correctly, or if your thumbs are not in the right spots.  In order to not cover up the action, there is a tendency to keep one’s digits on the sides of the screen, but unfortunately, the iOS device’s screen does not go to the edge, and the border and touch screen feel the same.  Therefore it is easy to drift off the edge and not know it unless you’re looking at your thumbs, which means you’re then missing the action.  I died more than a few times due to an inability to move where I wanted to, when I wanted to.  I really wish this game was on the Vita, but I understand there are more potential sales on iOS.  Thankfully, most of the time the action will take place when Mr. Enzo is behind various pieces of cover and is mostly moving by diving from one spot to the next with swipes on the screen.  This really comes to a head during encounters with bosses that have specific attacks to dodge or simply ignore cover.  The bosses look good, but because of the controls, fighting them is not fun and actually defeating them is not satisfying.

The story of the game is a vision of what BioWare’s original science fiction universe would look like if it was embodied in a run and gun action game and not a role-playing game with an emphasis on narrative and consequence.  The voice acting and storyline is generic, but at least it’s a Volus giving mission objectives over the radio.  That’s a thing from Mass Effect.  Asthmatic, space Halflings are absolutely a thing from Mass Effect, a thing that is artificially forced into the experience here. 

A more troubling example of shoe-horning BioWare creations into this cover-based shooter are a series of random moments that occur throughout the game where the action stops for a moment and big blue and red buttons pop out on the bottom that say “PARAGON” and “RENEGADE”.  True to form, the nicer blue option causes the cyborg to not kill someone like a paragon of virtue and when acting like a renegade, he’ll do the opposite of not killing someone.  In the main entries in the series, these moments of moral decision making are integral to the experience and help players shape out and play their own unique protagonist.  Here, these moments are more like the developer asking, “Do you want to see this guy murder someone?,” with blue “YES” and red “NO” buttons.  If these have an impact on anything in the game other than what amount of scripted digitized slaughter one gets exposed to, then it was lost on me.  There is the ability to replay everything with a New Game+ option; same game but you get to keep all your stuff, so the extra curious can see all of that killing or not killing without having to start over from scratch.

Like the Mass Effect Datapad app, this game/app has an impact on your Mass Effect 3 game’s outcome if you are at all times playing with the same EA account and can, at least periodically, get online to sync ME3 and Infiltrator up with EA servers.  When going through the base and killing everything in sight, Randall will come across out of place looking icons that represent intel packets.  They are simple sprites that appear when some enemies die, so one does have to wonder if they were part of the original game or tacked on later.  No matter when they were introduced in development, their impact is that they can either be traded in for additional credits for agent upgrades in the app or as a way to boost Galactic Readiness in ME3 by transmitting the Intel to the Alliance.  They do this at a substantial rate, possibly even more efficiently, from a time perspective, than through playing the ME3 multiplayer.  It is strange that this game is more meaningful to the Readiness Rating than the mini-game in the Datapad.  There is no good reason I can think of as to why Cerberus intelligence gathered by one rogue agent would matter more for the galaxy-wide conflict with the Reapers than sending fleets to intercept enemies and secure various resources and strategic locations.  But I can say that Infiltrator costs seven bucks and the Datapad app is free.

Despite what it may say at the top of this webpage or on the App Store description page, this is not a true Mass Effect game.  It clearly takes place within the fiction BioWare has created, but there is no story immersion, decision making or discovery in this game that is at the core of what makes a Mass Effect memorable.  It is more of a licensed shooter that happens to have Turians and Asari in it.  The game could very well have come out as ‘Cerberus: Infiltrator’ or ‘Infiltrator: Reckoning’ and the vast majority of people who bought it would have no idea it was related to Mass Effect.  It is a good shooting game with nice visuals, probably one of the best on the iPad, and it is possible to have a lot of fun with it, but it doesn’t feel like anything involving a ship named Normandy. 

Expectations need to be tempered a bit before the investment is made, that is to say do not expect the full space exploration RPG experience.  It is a fun, little, unnecessary side story to the main games which serves to humanize the antagonist faction known as Cerberus, but not in a way that isn’t already done in Mass Effect 2 and 3.  I was disappointed this game does not tie into the narrative of Mass Effect 3 more.  But if you have an iPad or iPhone and want a good action game, then Mass Effect: Infiltrator is easy to recommend.  If you also happen to like Mass Effect, it’s even easier.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Good looking title
+ Diverse set of ways to slay the opposition

Cons:
– Controls can be frustrating in tight spaces
– Minimal integration to regular Mass Effect

Game Info:
Platform: iOS (Reviewed on iPad)
Publisher: EA Mobile
Developer: IronMonkey
Release Date: 3/7/2012
Genre: Action-RPG
Age Rating: 9+
Players: 1
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.