Redefines the meaning of the genre and interactive media
From it's very premise, Mass Effect gleams with a promise of doing things differently. And it is quite clear from the beginning that BioWare has put on a lot of effort and work in making this game. Creating a completely original universe with diverse alien species rich in history where each and every race has it's own general personality,their own beliefs,grudges, political agenda and what-not goes a long way in creating the kind of an immersive experience that Mass Effect is. You play as Commander Shepard,a Human Spectre (which is like a law enforcer who is allowed to go to any length and limit to maintain peace and unity). Like most of the BioWare RPGs, you get to choose whether you want to play as the default Shepard or you want to customise him/her. The customisation is pretty deep with further options relating to your character's background and past. So if he is an Earthborn chances are that aliens will tend to look at you with a slightly aloof perspective and so on. Needless to say,the customisation is deep enough to ensure you will want to play through the games multiple number of times to see the difference.
Like the recent BioWare games, the highlight of Mass Effect is it's player-NPC interaction and the morality. This time around,BioWare has gone a step ahead with the character interaction and have made it totally seamless. When you initiate a conversation with a character, a dialogue wheel is brought onto the screen with various options of dialogue on it. Upon selecting any one dialogue,your character first delivers the dialogue and then opposite character responds to it.While this is happening,the change in facial expressions of the characters and the different camera angles through which the conversations are shown adds an amazing dynamic effect that is hard to create. This fluid interaction and exchange of dialogues adds an entire new dimension of interactivity in the game.
Morality and dialogues are closely linked to each other. Rather than go for the typecast, Light and Dark ways in Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect blurs morality into a haze that repeatedly puts the player into moral dilemma. Here there are two "moralities"--Paragon and Renegade. A paragon character is a one who is patient,tolerant and who usually stays within his limits. A renegade on the other hand is hot-headed,mostly intolerant person who might go to any limits to get the work done. The moral choices you make throughout the game will give you Paragon/Renegade points which will determine the kind of ending you will get. This added with the fact that neither of the Paragon or Renegade is really good or bad makes some of the decisions harder to make. There are times where you will question your own decision after you've seen it's outcome. Moreover,it's quite amazing to see much of the state of the galaxy shaping due to some of your decisions. The plot is at the heart of any RPG and the same goes for Mass Effect as well. Fast-paced,thrilling,exciting, peppered with adequate moments of tension,dilemma and emotion, Mass Effect's story is nothing short of a masterpiece. Equipped with enough twists and turns,it is needless to say that it's story will keep you engaged till the end. The story missions are one of the highlights of the game and are packed with action and morality choices.
Shepard also meets some really interesting characters along the way some of which join his party. Some of them are aliens,while others are humans. Each and every character has a unique personality which can be easily co-related to their species general personality. Combat in Mass Effect is simplistic for most of the parts. A touch of right trigger switches the player from "interactive" mode to combat mode seamlessly. Once in combat mode,the gameplay works like a normal shooter with few exceptions. Since this is a squad-based RPG where parties of three including yourself engage in combat, you are given the power to issue orders to your fellow squad-mates. These orders are simplistic in nature and can be issued with the help of D-pad. The orders vary from assisting you,to laying down cover fire etc. The drawback to this feature is that these D-Pad orders are followed by both members of the squad. So, it is not possible to separately give orders to your squad-mates.
Undoubtedly,your biggest tool in combat would be the Power Wheel. It is the very heart of the combat and very useful. Pressing the Right Bumper and holding it, pauses the game and brings up a Power Wheel on the screen. Here all the special abilities and powers of you and your squad mates are listed. This comes along with the ability to rotate the camera with a reticle on it, around you while the game is still paused. So you can command a squad member to use their special abilities and powers on the enemies while the game is still paused. Not only does this Baldur's Gate-esque element add a whole level of strategy into the game's combat, it's a very handy and comfortable tool to use without which the combat is quite unimaginable.
After a certain stage in the game, you are given the freedom to explore the universe with your spaceship,SSV Normandy. The game's universe is composed of almost a dozen clusters,with it's local systems and all. When you land on an "uncharted" planet you are dropped off in a rough terrain space vehicle called Mako. Most of your planetery exploration involving sidequests,hunting down criminals for bounties,surveying minerals or lost artifacts for credits will take place in the Mako. Equipped with a plasma gun,plasma jet thrusters and a powerful cannon, Mako is frequently used throughout the game and while it is a necessity, driving it is mostly a burden. It behaves almost like a toy car when driving on the rugged terrain of the planets and has a knack of overturning at the most awkward places. Such instances while aren't that common are frustrating enough to dislike the Mako driving sequences.
Sidequests have always been a major part of any RPG and even in Mass Effect they take up a good portion of the game. They serve as a great alternative to the story in making you familiar with the new universe and the way things work in it. Sidequests are given by NPCs or are initiated by accessing computer terminals or ports at certain places. While some of them are absolutely amazing and offer the level of thrill and excitement equivalent to the story missions, most of the sidequests in Mass Effect are rather disappointing. Most of them are repetitive and usually involve you travelling to a certain planet and eliminating a fugitive/group and earning rewards. There are minor variations among these as well but none of them are as exciting as the aforementioned story missions.
Mass Effect is easily one of the best-looking games this generation. With beautiful alien world sceneries and vistas,great detail to the surroundings and almost real human like facial expressions during dialogues Mass Effect surprises the players at every instant. It's cutscenes are wonderfully rendered and it can definitely count amongst BioWare's best works graphically as well. But even these beautiful graphics are at times plagued by texture popping problems. Most of the texture popping problems usually occur after load times or a cutscene and while they are noticeable they aren't anything serious. All the dialogues are well-written and their sharpness,wit and tongue-in-cheek humor is applaudable. Moreover,the dialogues are well-voiced by suitable voice actors and Mass Effect probably has some of the best voice acting in recent years. However, Mass Effect isn't without it's flaws. The most evident and annoying flaw is the Mako. Since a considerable portion of the game is spent driving it, it's driving mechanics are often bothersome to downright annoying.The in-game inventory is also a little messy and removing multiple items from is a little tedious than I would expect it to be. Even the "uncharted" worlds one gets to explore are all barren and lifeless and have nothing other than random minerals,events or enemy "hideouts". So even though while BioWare has created a fantastic universe, some of it's parts seem a little lifeless at times. Another BioWare's long-running problem continues in Mass Effect as well. The one of frequent load times which are mostly cleverly disguised as elevator trips. However,wisely so this time BioWare has often peppered these elevator trips/loading times with news reports or interesting conversations between the squad members.
Mass Effect is a breakthrough not only for role-playing games but for the gaming world itself. Fewer games have been able to associate themselves with interactive media without losing any of it's "gaming" part. It builds upon the previous BioWare installments in every imaginable way and more and sets really high standards for the coming games in the genre which will be hard to beat. Mass Effect's potential is hampered a little by it's flaws but if this is to be the first game of the series then one can only imagine the mammoth heights the future games in the series might conquer.