One Of The Best Games On 360
Mass Effect, while a terrific game in its own right, strikes me as something of a prototype for Bioware - a studio which has become synonymous with hardcore RPG gaming since the telephone-directory sized instruction book that came with Baldur's Gate. For a start it's an action-RPG, only the second one Bioware has made, and it's set in a brand new IP.
The Mass Effect universe is both deep and believable - which is no mean feat when you pause to consider that it relies heavily on faster-than-light (FTL) travel. The game is set in the MIlky Way (yes, it's THAT epic) about 200 years in the future. The premise is that while roaming the planet Mars, mankind came across some ancient alien technology so advanced, that it propelled our own forward by several centuries and develop space ships with FTL capabilities. This discovery then led to us to come in contact with a variety of alien species, begin to colonise other planets and try and ingratiate ourselves with the politics of the galaxy. Fairly soon into the game you will visit a place called "The Citadel" a huge, alien-made structure floating out in space - which is politically, culturally and economically the centre of the galaxy. The game starts about 18 years after mankind has been granted an Embassy on the presidium as is now trying to further strengthen their foothold in this new world - all this is explained with just the right amount of science to fully suspend disbelief, and for you that can't be bothered to read all the finer details - entries in the pause menu's codex are helpfully narrated by a man who sounds like his preferred career path was to do the voice-overs for film trailers with Arnie in them.
You play as Commander Shepard - an officer in the "Systems Alliance", the Banner that the people of Earth have united under for diplomatic, space faring reasons. Before beginning the game you first must select a few personal history details - which don't seem to make too much of an impact on the game's plot, simply providing added depth to the story. After this you've got to pick a class - there are six classes in total, the first three are Combat (which means you can train and equip all weapons and armor), Biotic (think Jedi powers) and Tech (think Jedi powers on robots). The other three are a mix of those three skills. Each class comes with its own attributes and unique playing style and are, by and large, pretty evenly balanced. As with other Bioware games - you travel through your journey with a band of followers and friends - and while on missions and assignments you can select two characters out of a possible six to accompany you - each one belonging to a different class. This long-served game design on the part of Bioware means that the friendly AI is top notch, and if you choose to play with a class that is more about buffs and re-buffs than straight-up combat on a difficulty that would make a real life space marine's eyes bleed cosmic juice, it is possible to rely on them to dispatch their fare share of enemies while you cower behind a crate you a pocket catapult and bag full of marbles. Occasionally they might catch a stray, FTL bullet to the head bite the dust - but on the whole they do their job. And while you can't directly control them as in KOTOR, you can tell them which weapons and powers (if any) to use. The leveling system is simple enough to be understood by a casual audience and deep enough to attract the attention on a more hardcore fan-base - but it could have done with a little more depth, some of it is a little bit simplistic at times - but not so much as to incur the wrath of a seasoned pro.
The first two things you will notice as soon as start playing Mass Effect are the breathtakingly good graphics and the eternal texture load-time. The game is nothing short of gorgeous and brings fully to life the story that it masterfully tells. But pitfalls in both the Unreal 3 Engine and the programming does mean you may have to wait for a few seconds after the game has loaded to get all those tasty, HD, visual details. Despite such rampant graphical problems, slowdown is almost never a problem - except on the odd occasion when the game auto-saves. A lot of the load times are well hidden (time spent in elevator or watching cinematic cut-scenes can serve dual purposes) but every now and then the words "Now Loading" appear in the middle of the screen, and you have to wait a few seconds for the game to continue. One of the most impressive things about the graphics are the faces, some of the best of the current generation and the animations during any one of the game's many cinematic cut-scenes put the characters faces to good use - provided the game engine can load every eyelash, pore and tooth stain fast enough.
As I said earlier, Mass Effect is an action RPG - it is played out in third person at all times, and the combat game-play draws influence from Gears of War with a cover system that is reliable, if a little loose. Pull a gun out and walk towards a nearby object, and you're in cover, no button presses required. Not that this is really an issue, you can only cover if you have a gun out - and if you're in a battle then that's exactly where you want to be - but it can be a little irritating if you're advancing on the battle field under a hail of gunfire and find yourself caught behind a object you don't want to be behind. The enemy AI is about as solid as the friendly AI - occasionally they might need a few buckshot rounds to the head to let them know you're standing right in-front of them, but they'll give you a challenge - they'll hide behind cover, use buffs and re-buffs intelligently and can be enjoyably strategic adversaries. The weapon and armor choices are wide and easy to get a grasp of; there are four different weapon types: pistol, assault rifle, shotgun and pistol. Every class can use the pistol, but the other are a bit more class specific, weapons are measured by accuracy, damage inflicted and the number of shots you can let of before the weapon overheats. There are also two upgrade slots per weapon - one for the weapon and one for the weapon's ammunition. Because of the way weapons work in Mass Effect, ammo scarcity is never an issue - for more details, consult the codex - so you don't have to be sparing with you shot choices. The armor works pretty much the same way - the three stats are shields (your first line of defence), damage protection (what you use after you shields are depleted) and Tech/Biotic Resistance (think ever Jedi power under the sun). You can also upgrade them, one slot per suit. It's a simple system that works well - and while it may not be the deepest ever conceived, it does allow for some obsessive altering, for the more neurotic player.
The exploration is epic, there's no other way of putting it - while aboard you space cruiser you can pull up a map of the galaxy and select within it one of a dozen nebulas, within each nebula are two or three solar systems, and each one can be visited and explored. There are a few assignments that involve searching for and finding various artifacts - remnants of battle, data disks, ancient writings and full exploration of the galaxy is necessary to complete them, despite that fact that around 80 to 90% of what you can visit has absolutely not involvement of the main plot line, there are several minor plot-lines that involve going from place to place to track down something or someone and while a lot of the planets and the buildings are identical to each other, it can be forgiven considering the size of what you're exploring. Unfortunately, it is when discussing one of Mass Effects greatest strengths, its scope - that we alight on one if it's most infuriating problems: The MAKO. When landing on a new a unexplored land, you traverse it on the MAKO, a six wheeled vehicle that is nigh indestructible and whenever you land on a new planet you watch an impressive cut-scene of it being deployed. The MAKO is, without question, the hardest in-game vehicle I have ever attempted to control and has a crippling learning curve. It took me a good hour to get the full measure of it - once you do it shouldn't impede too much in the game, but every now and then it'll come dangerously close to running, screaming into Canada, demanding Bioware to answer for their crimes. Fortunately you don't have to spend too much time in it unless you choose to - the main plot-line shies away from excessive MAKO exposure.
Conversational paths have always play a key role in RPG's, and Mass Effect is no exception - each and every line of dialogue is complete with voice acting, including yours, which, considering all the different things you can say, and the fact you can play as both a man and a woman is impressive, as you level up you can increase certain attributes that unlock more conversation options - depending on if you want to play as a good character of an evil one. Not only is the voice acting expansive, but also well performed and adds further to the kaleidoscopic colour of the story's tapestry. The other sonic feature - the music - is equally effective, a futuristic, electronic style sound that draws in further the gamer. Unfortunately it is not heard very often, and when it is playing it's very quiet, which is a real shame because it is very good.
But all these things, each with their (mostly) teeny, tiny flaws are more than made of for by the story and the world itself. Bioware have achieved something incredible with Mass Effect - it has echoes of sci-fi classics like Star Wars and Star Trek to it, and these comparisons should not be taken lightly. An incredibly deep world, with phenomenal scope for exploration, and a story that ties in with it galactic politics, diplomatic shortcomings and enough twists in the plot to make a corkscrew jealous. Storytelling has always been one of Bioware's strongest weapon and nowhere is that more prevalent than here, the creation of and incredible game world, and a story that more than does it justice. It's shame that the story (which IS flawless) is the one thing that I can't discuss in a review, for fear of ruining it for those who haven't yet played it. Suffice to say it's worth playing the game for, and that's all you want to know - "is it worth playing?" the answer is yes. If you like science fiction, RPGs, an incredible story very well told, or some kind of mystic fusion of the three - buy Mass Effect. The RPG elements are a little basic, but considering it's an action RPG and that the number of casual gamers is growing, it's not surprising - Mass Effect is Bioware's version of a game accessible to the casual gamer - and it's a lot better than any game whose title is an activity preceded by the word "Wii". At the beginning is said that I though Mass Effect was a bit of a prototype, and I mean that - they created this awe-inspiring world, an equally good story and and went to great efforts to inject life, explanation and depth to it - and they have more than succeeded, its just a shame that the technology couldn't keep up - now that the world and story have been established, it it my hope that future games bearing the Mass Effect title will fix these little problems.