A Slightly Flawed Masterpiece
Mass Effect is an epic sci-fi action RPG from the folks at BioWare. You play as Commander Shepard, the first human to be inducted into the Spectres, a group of elite agents whose goal is to maintain galactic stability at any cost.
Your job is to hunt down Saren, a rogue Spectre Agent who, without giving too much away, wants to use old technology to do bad things. That's the basic gist of the story. And I mean basic. It's near impossible to sum up the story in a few sentences because the Mass Effect universe is just so deep.
You'll constantly be learning new things about the galaxy throughout the entire game, and it seems you can't go two minutes without it dumping a 5-paragraph essay into your Codex describing whatever you were just looking at or talking about in great detail. The Codex is basically an encyclopedia for Mass Effect, and it has thorough descriptions for pretty much everything, ranging from the thrusters on your ship to the reproductive processes of the races in the galaxy.
A lot of your time in Mass Effect will be spent talking to people, and this is where one of the game's defining features comes into play--the conversation wheel. As characters talk to you, you get to select your reaction from a wheel of responses. It's not quite as innovative as it was cooked up to be, as the general formula for most conversations seems to be, 'select the top option for a nice, friendly response and select the bottom option to be a complete prick.' There are some parts of the game where your responses can affect the outcome of the story, but they're usually clearly labeled so it's not really much of a surprise. It's a really cool feature nonetheless.
When you're not talking to characters, you'll usually be exploring the world or fighting, whether it's on-foot or in the Mako rover. On-foot combat is really fun and the game's cover system works well enough. You even have basic control over your squad with the d-pad a-la Rainbow Six: Vegas. Your squad can be a bit dumb at times though, just standing there in the open while enemies pelt them with bullets, despite the fact that there is cover just a few feet away. They also have a habit of stepping right in front of you and getting in your way while you're shooting, which can be a bit of a nuisance. There were also a few bizarre happenings, like my squad not listening to my commands for part of a level, though these issues were few and far between.
While the on-foot combat is pretty good, the Mako combat could use some major improvements. The turret has limited vertical movement, so you have to be on the same level as your enemies to hit them. Problem is, the majority of the planets have constant elevation changes. It's rare that you'll be on the same level as your enemies without being right up in their face, making your vehicle an easy target to hit.
During one of the side quests I had to defeat a bunch of Geth Snipers, Rocket Troopers, and Shock Troopers, all surrounding two Geth Colossi. They were at the bottom of a small valley surrounded by mountains on almost all sides. If I tried to shoot at them in the Mako from the safety of the mountaintops, I couldn't aim low enough to hit them, but if I went down there my Mako would be immediately pelted by gunfire and explode a few seconds later. I just could not pass this part using the darn thing, so eventually I ditched it and ran around on-foot with my shotgun instead (and it worked!). If a shotgun is, at times, more effective than a heavily armed APC, you know the APC can't be that great.
The Mako combat isn't helped by the fact that most of the planets you use it on are just downright boring. Pretty much every planet that isn't a main quest planet is an "uncharted world," meaning a barren planet that usually doesn't have more than a few people living on it. The majority of side quests take place on uncharted worlds, so if you're a completionist you'll be spending a lot of time exploring these planets.
Navigating the worlds is fun at first, but by the time you've done a few of them you start to realize that they're all the same. Every single one is just an empty, rocky environment with a different texture for the ground. Even the buildings on the planets are repetitive. You've got your square base, your circular base, your mine, and a few other structures. These buildings appear on the uncharted worlds and they look exactly the same. If you've been in one circular base, you've been in them all.
This means the side quests are very repetitive as well. The game may give you a different reason to go to each base, but in the end you're just doing the same five things over and over again. Go to an uncharted world, travel to a base, kill some mercenaries, go back to your ship. The next side quest will probably have you doing the exact same thing, but this time the ground on the planet is green rather than brown, and instead of mercenaries there'll be Geth inside the base. And that makes it completely different. No, really.
Mass Effect's problems don't stop there either. The game is also plagued by a hard-to-navigate inventory system. There is a 150 item limit, which will probably be hit about a third of the way into the game. From then on you have to get rid any item you pick up until you make room in your inventory. The inventory system has many small annoyances that make it a pain to use. You can only delete things one at a time, instead of selecting multiple things and deleting them all at once.
In addition, if you have more than one of the same item, it will be listed multiple times in your inventory instead of just once with the quantity next to it. It's really annoying when you want to delete all ten of Item X and have to navigate the entire list to find all of them separately. The inventory also suffers from lack of consistency. When you delete weapons or armor, the cursor will stay in the same place on the list, but if you delete weapon or armor upgrades, the cursor will scroll back up to the top of the list. Since your worst items tend to be at the bottom of the list, this means when you're deleting upgrades, you have to scroll to the bottom of the list over and over again for each item you want to delete.
The game's last problem is the constant texture pop-in and slowdown. Mass Effect is one of the best looking games out for the Xbox 360, but when you're talking to someone and see the background loading behind them it's a bit of an immersion breaker. This is apparently a "feature" of Unreal Engine 3, but I own other games that use the engine and none of them have pop-in as prevalent as in Mass Effect. There are also frequent frame rate drops, though they aren't bad enough to make the game unplayable, but once again, it's an immersion breaker.
By this point I'm sure it sounds as if I hate Mass Effect, being that I've been ragging on the game for the past eight paragraphs, but that's not true at all. I loved Mass Effect, but it had a lot of problems that need to be pointed out. In fact, despite all my whining, none of the issues make the game unplayable, and when the game shines, it really shines. Mass Effect has an amazing story and one of the deepest universes I have ever seen in any game, period. Having conversations with NPCs is surprisingly fun, and the combat is pretty good as well. Mass Effect has plenty of room for improvement in the sequels, but even with its problems it's still an amazing game and shouldn't be missed by anyone who even remotely likes story-driven RPGs.