Let's just get this out of the way now: Mass Effect lives up to the countless cliché names it has received since its release. Whether it is "Massively Awesome," or "Massively Effective," it is an experience that everyone should have. If it could be mandatory for a game to be mandatory -- Mass Effect should be it. That's a lot to say about a game, and though it may seem that it is a flawless piece of work, it's not – but it's damn close. For the most part though, Mass Effect brings some serious content to plow through, and more "HOLY #@!%" moments than you can shake an inaccessible Quarian at.
Role-Playing games have been around for a long time. In their lifespan, they have taken on multiple forms of gameplay. In many a persons mind, JRPG's are the traditional form of role-playing; or, at least they will argue that it is the best designed for story telling. WRPG's though, have been taking a hold, and Mass Effect is now at the head of the charge. When BioWare first announced that the game would be a shooter/rpg hybrid, a lot of people were a bit beyond skeptical. Fortunately, skepticism has been replaced with "wow this actually works….really, really well."
When you pick up the controller and begin to play, it suddenly dawns on you that this actually plays like Halo in the 3rd person perspective. The actions have been incredibly well mapped to the 360 controllers, and it takes less than ten minutes to have the controls mastered. The game has a very tactical approach to its shooter component, and those who think you'll do a whole lot of Rambo-esque runs into hoards of Geth are going to find that it does a whole lot of nothing. For this reason, we have been so graciously given a cover system. It's pretty easy to get yourself up against an object: just move to the object, and you will automatically stick up against it. A few games have attempted the automatic cover technique and have failed miserably, but here you get an awesome system. They've basically nailed the amount of movement needed to press up against, and remove yourself from cover, and this is definitely good since not finding said cover can more or less land you on a stairway to heaven (or hell for all you renegades) pretty quickly. Of course, you do have two teammates with you at almost any given time, and so to ensure they don't get blown away in the crossfire, you have a basic command function to keep them kicking. It's much like any other squad-based game where you aim at the cover you want them to move to and press up on the D-pad. This too works remarkably well, and even without telling them to take cover they do a good job of finding it themselves. The one thing people are going to have some possible troubles with control-wise is the Maeko. The Maeko is the all terrain vehicle that you use to get around the many worlds you will visit during your time in the game. The controls are awkward and touchy, but driving it well will come with time. You won't ever master it, but it becomes manageable. Driving the thing will be the furthest thing from your mind however, when you watch yourself driving up basically vertical mountains, and sticking to the slopes like you've got earth-grabbing magnets keeping your butt on solid ground.
Of course, you don't only have your shotguns, sniper rifles, pistols, and machine guns to aid you in your battle against the hordes of enemies to be found; Biotics and Tech skills are also at your disposal. Biotics are kind of a high tech version of magic. You can use them to throw, pick up and push, paralyze etc, enemies. Tech skills enable you to disarm your enemies through over heating their weapons, control enemy machines, and open up higher end locked containers among other handy things. Not everyone can use these skills – soldiers are stuck with blowing away enemies the old fashioned way. Some people can use tech, some biotics, it all depends on their class. With all of these skills at under your belt, using them at the appropriate times is essential. As a default, all computer-controlled allies will only use these skills when told to. You can, however, change this so that they will use defensive abilities only, or use all the abilities at their discretion. The only skill that they will not use unless told to is Stasis, which renders the opponent motionless, but you can't damage them. The latter setting is generally a good way to go since the computer uses their abilities very efficiently and leaves you with lots of time to worry about keeping your own player in order. You can also change the combat difficulty to easy, normal, hardcore, and insane. The last two have to be unlocked by beating the game at the previously highest setting. The higher the setting, the more your opponents will be scaled to match your level, and the more buffed the bosses will become.
BioWare has a reputation for not having the most efficient of menu systems, and Mass Effect does unfortunately suffer from some flaws. In general, the system works fine, but you cannot back out from the weapons/armor upgrades menu by simply pressing B. Instead, you are forced to choose an upgrade to be applied, or choose to apply nothing at the top of the list. The only other gripe is that with the plethora of items you inevitably pick up, lists can become cumbersome. Neither of these two small issues really much annoys you, and after you've navigated the menus for a bit, you get a handle of how they work and they work great.
A lot of people when looking at games, want to know if there is a decent level of customization involved. Mass Effect does in fact have quite a nice amount of customization to play around with. When you first create your Commander Shepard, you can choose whether they are male of female, and then you can mess with their faces a bit to make it look as much like you, or as much as what you figure you look like for esthetic glory. You also get to choose their background story such as where they were from, what they've accomplished in their lifetime, and their general personality. This is also important since it changes some dialogue that you have during the game, which is pretty cool. From there, the weapons and armor are all able to hold component add-ons that bolster them with special abilities. There is quite a large selection of components to choose from, and they all have different power levels that you'll find as you progress through the game. Want to have your enemies dissolve into a green substance that looks like it came out of a Ghost Busters movie? Yah, you can do that. Want to turn that shotgun into a mobile tank shell launcher? No problem. Even the grenades can have their wardrobe enhanced with an array of deadly accessories.
The most important part of any RPG is without a doubt, its story. If lacking a solid story, the game would become more of a watered down action/adventure/platformer/thing. Luckily, BioWare has mastered this all-important aspect. There was a lot to live up to after they released Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and so many thought that it wouldn't be up to par. Well not only did they write in the most detailed gaming universe (quite literally), they brought story telling to a whole new level. Even though at its roots it's a "stop the bad guy to save the universe" sci-fi build, the detail and plot twist are where the substance is (how many other games can you say let you have girl on alien girl action?). There is more detail in this universe than any other game to precede it. When you zoom in to scan a planet for example, and find a short novel written about it's unique traits, followed by technical jargon that geeks everywhere will have giggling fits over, you realize that this is one meticulously designed game. Of course, the most obvious aspect everyone still gawks at is the conversations.
Take everything that you've ever wanted to have for a conversation mechanic, and toss it together. What you'll get it Mass Effect's biggest pull factor: it's discussions with hundreds of NPCs. The first time you witness a conversation in Mass Effect, your jaw drops, your brain tries to comprehend what it's seeing, and you may even have a small heart attack out of sheer joy. Once again, BioWare has given us the opportunity to be an angel, demon, or anything in between with the Paragon/Renegade system. It's the same deal as the light and dark side choices as found in KOTOR, but with more chances to find a gray area instead of just going with one of either extremes. Of course, the conversations are made so fantastic by the graphics and sound that comprise them.
Graphically, Mass Effect excels in every department. It truly is a beautiful game to look at. Unfortunately, unless you shut your eyes for about ten seconds every time something loads, you may not be looking at the most eye pleasing of sights. Many of BioWare's games have this graphical pop in issue, and Mass Effect is no different. However, if you can look beyond this small issue, you will be in awe at the detail to be had in everything from the character models to the landscapes and buildings. Not all Character models look as good as the next one though. Humanoid characters are generally pretty good, but some of them suffer a bit. Such is the case with Captain Anderson. The poor man's ears have a nasty habit of catching light in the most unpleasing of ways, making them look like they were melted with a car's lighter. Alien races however, are basically all amazing. From the Asari to the Turians, they all are beautifully put together, and look fantastic. None of them look better than one particular bad @!# named Urdnot Wrex. Wrex, as he is referred to as, is the most detailed character model in any game to date. Every wrinkle and line is perfectly modeled and casts the most realistic shadows out of any other model in the game. You will more than likely find yourself showing off the game's graphics to your friends by having a chat with him.
Artistically speaking, Mass Effect does some things very well, and some not so well. What it does well is to be found in the character design, and clothing. The alien races are all very unique, and the attire you find them in is as unique as they are. Personality is reflected in how they appear which is something that isn't easy to portray. What it doesn't do well is that in its architecture; it very much looks like a Halo clone. The other thing is, all of the worlds that do not deal directly with the plot are barren. They all have a slightly different land structure, but there is no foliage and rarely any animals. This is ok for those planets where neither are possible to host, but for very much Earth-like worlds, it would have been nice to see some more of them both.
One of the first things you are going to notice when you start up the game, is its music. Mass Effect has an extraordinary musical score that does nothing but compliment the story and universe in every way. Dynamic and never too repetitive, the music will put you at ease at one moment, tug at your heartstrings at another, then throw everything out the window and get you geared for battle the next. Even though the score is about as good as it gets, the voice acting is where the real party is. The short answer to how good it really is would be to say that there is not one bad piece of dialogue to be found in the game. The voices match the character and their individual personality perfectly. With there being countless hours of voice-overs to be heard throughout the game, it truly is a great accomplishment for BioWare to have such a perfected display of voiced audio glory. Weapons all sound deadly, and the sound effects in general are spot on and without flaw.
With such an enormous universe to play around with, Mass Effect will keep you occupied for hundreds of hours without boring you with repetitiveness. If you do decide to skip over the side quests in their entirety (which is a travesty and kick in the proverbial family jewels for BioWare) you can plow through the game in 8-12 hours. However, if you are actually going to play the game the way it should be then you will be blessed with a game length of anywhere between 25-50 hours for one play through. Since you have the Paragon and Renegade sides to explore along with multiple endings, you've got a lot to chew on before you've seen it all – and you'll want to see it all. With downloadable content bound to be released, Mass Effect has a lot of bang for its buck, and even without the extra content, is well worth its weight in gold (providing it was weighed down with a bus full of Japanese tourists).
Mass Effect is a truly special game. It's not often you get to immerse yourself in an entire universe built from the ground up with more detail than you can imagine. Top it all off with a great story told through the greatest conversation mechanic and voice acting to be found in any game to date, and you have a game that should be experienced at least once, if not many times.