Cool Sci-Fi World, Great Story, Your Way
Developer BioWare, famous for such games as Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, it looks to continue to that pedigree with their latest title Mass Effect. The most important part of an RPG is its storyline and Mass Effect delivers, with a Sci-Fi Space Opera of universe shattering proportions. You play as Commander Shepard, this man or woman, can look anyway that you desire with the fairly in depth character designer. After a short first mission you become the first Human Spectre Agent and begin to chase after a rogue spectre named Saren. He appears to be controlling a race of machines called Geth and is searching for an ancient technology that threatens every living thing in the Milky Way. But what really sets Mass Effect apart in the story category is the way you interact with the story and characters. The dialog wheel gives you the opportunity to choose how to behave and what to do during the dialog scenes. Some may argue that the dialog wheel is overly simplified, because top right is always Paragon (good cop) and the bottom right is always Renegade (bad cop), but each selection can change how characters react to you or affect the entire situation.
As a Paragon for example, you might talk out the situation, ending a potentially violent situation in a peaceful way, whereas the Renegade might just decide to shoot first and ask questions later or end violence with more violence. Another way the story is affected is by the choices you make about your origins, you can pick what kind of life you had as youth and what the defining moment is that set you apart in your military career. Based on what you pick characters will react to you differently either admiring you for your efforts or get put off by your upbringings. By the end of the story in classic BioWare fashion you will have to make a huge decision that might leave you conflicted. The story is a great one that you will want to explore for yourself, but the depth of the characters and the amount of back-story and detail about the universe and how it works went above and beyond generous.
Continuing on, with more on character customization, you can select from 6 pre-set classes. The first class is a straight up soldier, who is good at all types of guns (the four being pistol, shotgun, sniper rifle and assault rifle). The adept who is excellent at using biotics, which are powers that use dark energy to lift, throw and trap enemies in energy fields. The final main class is the Engineer who is great at using technology to his advantage, by overloading energy shields, sabotaging weapons or even hacking the enemy robots' AI using it against its own side. The other three classes are mixtures of the first three: Infiltrator, which is a mixture of soldier and engineer; Vanguard, which is a mixture of adept and soldier and finally Sentinel, which is a mixture of adept and engineer. These classes are all well balanced, but require different strategies and support characters to be effective. Also later in the game you gain access to a specialized class, which allows you specialize in one aspect of your chosen class.
As for the gameplay of Mass Effect you will take part in missions all over the galaxy on many different planets and fighting your enemies in simple, slightly tactical 3rd person shooting. There are two sets of progressions in Mass Effect the main story missions and the side missions. The main story missions will last you about 15-20 hours as you make your way closer to stopping Saren. These missions are generally longer and more detailed as you fight through all kinds of labs and bases and even take part in some boss fights. The side missions however, are not nearly as interesting as the main ones. They tend to be short, repetitive simple missions where your toughest objective might be to just kill all the enemies infesting the base. But doing a mixture of main and side missions helps balance out the repetitive simplicity of the side missions. Though there are over 20 hours of side missions to take part in, all of which lead to good gear, interesting side stories and lots of rewards.
As you play all these missions your will be introduced to the game's battle system a real-time 3rd person tactical shooting engine. The first thing that you will learn is that if you try to play it as a pure 3rd person shooter you are going to get destroyed. At first, with low levels you need to really manage your squad, consisting of yourself (Shepard) and two others of your choosing, by using the power selecting wheel that you access via the RB bumper. Activating this menu stops the action allowing you to use one special power at a time on your squad or the enemies. Using tech or biotic powers to help control the numerous enemies you will face at a time. Good strategy, such as using choke points works well to help keep you alive. The shooting is solid and exciting, so once you get the feel for the combat it all comes together, though the game doesn't really explain the best ways to fight, you just have to learn, trail by fire.
The AI of the enemies is different for each type of being you will face, the Geth like to use cover, while the humans (and a few of the other aliens) like to charge recklessly. Some of the bigger enemies are also aggressive, but this makes it much easier to run in to a room as Shepard and lure them to the rest of your squad and your choke point for easy kills. Your squad's AI is good in some situations, but there are occasions where it can unfortunately see an enemy through a wall and will just keep shooting the wall even though it can't hit the enemy. Though if you tell them to move towards a door they will take cover on both sides of the door and cover you when you open it, which is a nice touch. Your squad as long as you keep an eye on them they behave pretty well and give you pretty good support.
To help protect your characters you will need weapons and armor, each character is equipped with the four guns in the game, but only the soldier can train in them all. Without training your character will not be able to use the gun well, though each class can at least train with pistols. The same goes for armor, each class is only capable of a certain level of armor, all classes can use light, some can train up to medium and only the soldier can train to use the heavy armor. Both weapons and armor can be augmented with different types of add-ons, these upgrade mods can give you increased shields, more stopping power, different types of ammo and many other types for all situations. The only problem with all this gear is that there is no good way to tell how much you have, you are only allowed to carry 150 items (guns (all 4 types), armor, upgrades (all types), biotic amps and omnitools). The biggest problem is that none of the items stack, so if you have three of the same upgrade they all remain separate and clog up your list. The inventory system could have been a bit more streamlined, but at least the game warns you when you are close to the 150 item limit.
If you choose to do some side missions, you will encounter another side to the game, one that might be as sharp as the rest of it. Most of the side missions take place on "uncharted" planets that are nothing more than barren wastelands with maybe a single base or camp. They have no trees, no rivers and no water, nothing just rocky terrain with a different colored texture. The other thing that makes exploring planets not as fun as it could be is the Mako, your moon buggy crossed with a tank. The Mako just does not control well, it handles jerkily and will sometimes change direction without warning. But probably it's biggest flaw is the tank's turret, because it can only aim up or down a certain amount, it means that if you move your crosshair passed the end point of the gun you do not get true aim; this is especially a problem on uneven terrain, you just will not be able to hit your targets with accuracy. Then final problem of the Mako is that while it has pretty massive energy shields, they take nearly 5 minutes to fully recharge, causing a lot of wait times before you can fight some more if you get in trouble.
Mass Effect graphics are spectacular… when they run properly. The game looks great; the characters are great looking and have great facial animation which allows them to express themselves like never before. The problem is that the game suffers from frame-rate dips fairly frequently and suffers from texture pop-in after load screens and when the game switches cut-scenes nearly all the time. These things are merely distractions though as you enjoy the great art style and even though the planets often lack details, they do have some beautiful views and skylines. The final thing is the sound and Mass Effect excels here too, with an amazing sci-fi score with an old school sort of early '80 sci-fi flair with lots of synth type instruments, it's a joy to listen to. Then there is the voice acting in the game. Every single line is read with perfect inflection, prefect pacing… even the smallest of parts. The voice acting helps draw you in and become attached to the characters, you feel for them, you understand them and you want to see them all survive. Heck, BioWare even went to the trouble of having a narrator, narrate the main entries in the galactic codex, which is just amazing.
BioWare has done it again. If you are fan of RPGs this is a must play, but even if you just enjoy science fiction the amount of background details and the story can draw you in. With great graphics, great story, great well voiced characters and so much interaction with the universe and its characters belonging to you, you really have to experience Mass Effect for yourself.