Let’s get this out of the way first – Bioware’s latest game was hyped up like nobody’s business. Early builds from the creators of RPG-heavy Knights of the Old Republic showed a surprisingly complex character whose responses to NPCs determined their future interactions with him or her, a solid over-the-shoulder combat shooter, as well as some pretty damn fine graphics. Luckily for everyone just waiting for another reason to buy a 360, it turns out that pretty much everything hinted at by previews and pre-release builds was on the money.
Starting the game, you’re faced with a panoply of options to define your character – male or female; black or white; or anything in between. Want clearly defined cheekbones and artificially inflated hair a la a 1972 David Bowie? Easy as that. You even get some say in your back-story, which influences how characters react to you the first time they meet you. Every reaction after that is up to you, as you use Bioware’s new little toy – the conversation wheel. It’s a simple enough mechanic, but it allows you to control conversations that flow with cinematic timing and quality. The voice acting is remarkably good, and barring the inexplicably low-res shadows that fall over the characters’ faces during close-ups, the game’s graphics are incredible, especially given your control over your character’s appearance.
That control extends to every aspect of the way you and your squad fight, as well – you can control new skills learned by yourself and other squad members, or delegate that to the console to automatically upgrade skills you use more often. You can have as much or as little control over this as you want, and if you change your mind later, it’s only a matter of heading to the menu and switching the option.
Fine-tuning your characters, and the weapons they use, is actually quite a fun part of the game, especially when you can see what a huge impact it makes on the difficulty of firefights. Having trouble against the robotic geth armies? Switch to Shredder rounds for extra damage against synthetics. Facing off against a huge Thresher maw? Polonium rounds give toxic damage against organics. Problem solved.
From the outset of the game, you have almost too many choices. Once you’ve finished up the first hour or so of gameplay, though, you get free run of the entire freaking galaxy, all at blisteringly fast FTL speeds. Important locations are clearly marked, but it’s just as fun to avoid the main plot and explore some of the numerous planetary systems, perhaps prospecting for valuable minerals, or hunting down alien data discs along the way. Some of these planets are tied into secondary assignments, so you might find yourself saving colonists or scientists from some alien threat; or, more likely, saving colonists from the scientists. Morality in science doesn’t seem to be a strong theme in the game. Didn’t they learn anything from Alien?
These side missions are great fun, don’t get me wrong – you get to drive across the planet in a six-wheeled tank-thing, shoot at enemy encampments, prospect for minerals, and recover alien probes that seem to have crashed all over the universe. The only negative comment I could possibly make about the tank-thing is that there is no way to customise its firepower – you’re stuck with a standard machine gun and some kind of explosive. Effective in a firefight, no doubt, but in a game where every single other damn thing is able to be changed by the player, being able to swap in toxic-laced shells to kill organic enemies just that little bit faster would have been a nice touch. But I’m picky that way. Switching to third-person mode is easy to do at any point, though, and you’ll find yourself in many sequences where it’s easier (and more fun) to get out of the vehicle and fight.
As much fun as it is to avoid the plot, the main story is one of the most engaging videogame narratives I’ve played since, I don’t know, the last time I spun up my KOTOR disc. You see Commander Shepard drafted as the first human Spectre, a kind of intergalactic secret agent, and chase down an agent who’s gone rogue, while finding ancient alien technology and uncovering secrets about the universe, and the cyclical nature of civilisations. If you can imagine M. John Harrison settling in to write Goldeneye after watching two or three seasons of Battlestar Galactica in a single sitting, you’re starting to get the idea.
As for the much-publicised sex scenes, yes, they are in the game, but you have to play through the entire main storyline before Shepard gets a little nookie, and you really have to put in a lot of conversational groundwork if you want the other characters to answer you with slightly more salacious responses. If you don’t want to see your character getting it on with a blue-skinned alien (or a human crew member), if that’s the way you swing, no worries – any emotional involvement with the other crew members is completely avoidable, and it all depends on how you respond to the crew using the conversation wheel. So, just like in real life, then.
Aesthetically speaking, and contrary to much of the negative publicity about the scenes (the phrase “virtual orgasmic rape” springs to mind as one example), they’re tastefully done – plenty of side-on camera shots, a little soft lighting, and some emotional music. It’s certainly been scripted to avoid full-frontal nudity, and to tie in with Shepard’s emotions towards his or her crew – as determined by fifteen or so hours of conversations controlled by the player. Overall, I’ve seen worse scenes (and better, for that matter) in PGR-rated films or primetime television.
Completionists will probably take upwards of twenty hours to finished the game – I rounded it off in about eighteen, having put about eight hours into searching every single available planet in the galaxy, although I did leave a couple of the collection quests unfinished. As it stands, Mass Effect is probably the single most compelling reason to own an Xbox 360, at least until its inevitable sequel comes out. It’s as simple as that.