Before its release, Mass Effect was anointed as a can't-miss prospect by practically anyone who saw or read about it. In theory, the package was tantalizing — a hybrid role-playing game with shooter elements, Oblivion-caliber exploration possibilities across a huge galaxy and one of the deepest stories ever crafted. There was also the concept of the player making gut-wrenching moral choices that would reverberate throughout the course of his or her journey. There was a special on the Sci-Fi Channel about it. And by now, you've probably heard about the sex scene with an alien babe.
So we've finally arrived at the question: Is the game worthy of its suck-proof status? I say yes. If you approach it with an open mind, Mass Effect is one of the most complete gaming experiences you will enjoy this year, and maybe the year after that. With its combo platter of story, action and exploration, it's a game that's doesn't fit neatly into one particular genre. You could simply call it an "adventure."
Mass Effect puts you in the role of Commander Shepard, and you have a lot of very cool options as to how that character is presented. Players can either pick the default versions of Shepard (one man or one woman) or create a Shepard of their very own. You can change the first name (the Shepard surname is unchangeable), as well as pick a gender and one of several classifications. For instance, people in the soldier class are excellent fighters, while an engineer-class character is really good with technology.
The fun part is the appearance customization, where you can focus on general details like skin tone to smaller, finer points, such as how high you want the eyebrows. You can even pick where to put the scar on your character's face. Once you get that character's look down, you can also pick his or her reputation (straight arrow or ruthless badass?) and backstory. For the backstory, your version of Shepard could range from being the sole survivor of an attack to a war hero who held off enemy forces single-handedly. In essence, this gave me the feeling I was creating my own franchise character, which guaranteed I would care about what happened to him or her during the course of the story.
As you'd expect with this type of game, it takes a few hours to get a grasp of the overall plot. I'm not going to get into specifics here, but Shepard and his crew are eventually tasked with taking down a rogue alien soldier named Saren, who was once a member of the Spectres — sort of an intergalactic Delta Force — but is now seeking something that would spell doom for the whole galaxy. At the risk of being slightly spoilerish, Shepard becomes anointed as a Spectre, which gives him the freedom to do practically anything he wants to track down Saren. This includes taking command of your own starship, the Normandy, and scanning the galaxy looking for clues.
The Normandy serves as your home base but is also as a microcosm of all of Mass Effect's non-combat gameplay elements. Fans of Bioware are no doubt familiar with how conversations are handled, where certain points of the dialogue open up the chance to pick different responses with one of the analog sticks. However, it's also here where you make many of the story-guiding moral choices. Once again, I'm not going to spoil the big choices for you, but some range from whether or not to shoot someone in cold blood or decide with which crew member you want to hook up (shades of Wing Commander!). One time, I had to decide the fate of the last being of an alien race.
Most conversations contribute to your character's development as a "paragon" (all-around good guy, Optimus Prime-like in a way) or a "renegade" (mercenary-like antihero). Conversations are very well-written, and they became a huge highlight of the game for me. I learned everything about my crew members, my ship's engine systems, why some strangers are where they are — it's almost impossible for one to digest it all. The long talks also add to a journal, which records and details all of the tasks you have before you. And if you want, you can have a lot of stuff to do. When you're not tracking down Saren, you'll stumble across business conspiracies, get tasked with finding a group of missing troopers — and even try to get the military to return the corpse of a dead space marine to her husband. Much like Oblivion, you could literally spend whole days doing nothing but side-quests. That's a bit much for my plate, but it's an RPG fan's dream come true.
A big part of Mass Effect is spent exploring galaxies, and much of this is done through the Normandy's galaxy map. When you access the map, you can zoom out to include most of the galaxy or zoom in on specific planets. The planets that deal with the main story are highlighted in blue, but you're free to set your sights on any other worlds you want. Each one has a lot of detailed text, but you can also scan some and land on others. When you land, you get to control the Mako, a six-wheeled combat tank/buggy that has a machine gun turret. Control-wise, it feels a lot like the Warthog in Halo, which means it can be a bear to handle sometimes. I also wasn't a fan of the turret's stopping power. I spent a lot of time chipping away at armored vehicles, while they seemed to have the kind of armament to hack chunks off of my shield and destroy me with heavier fire. However, these are aliens you're fighting, and the rule about aliens is that they have better stuff than you do. I guess I can live with that.
Mass Effect is at its most dynamic — and most flawed — when it's you and two other squad members on foot. As more characters join you on your travels, you get the options to pick who to bring with you whenever you leave the ship. It's also on the ground where you get to see the talents of you and your crew. Weapon-wise, you've got assault rifles, grenades, pistols, sniper rifles and shotguns. All of the weapons are upgradeable, via either buying better stuff in a shop or finding it in a locked crate or canister, which can be unlocked through a nifty button-pressing mini-game. Every enemy you take out gives you points to try and upgrade your character's abilities (stronger melee attacks, more powerful healing, better tech skills, etc.)
That brings us to combat. Actual fighting is handled much like a Gears of War-style third-person shooter, where you pull with the left trigger to zoom in while the right trigger fires. If you don't want to zoom, you can just aim with the right thumbstick for some spray-and-pray action, while the game tries to help you out with an auto-aim feature that comes in the form of a red aiming sight. There's also a cover system as well as basic on-the-fly squad commands that can be triggered with the directional pad.
The right and left bumper buttons can be used to have your teammates change weapons on the fly or use special abilities. A lot of the more special abilities are tied to the concept of "biotics." A character who's good at biotics is essentially like a character who'd good at magic. It's a mind power-based concept, so really powerful biotics could be comparable to someone like Jean Grey of the X-Men. Biotics can help you pick up stuff, Force-style, and hurl it at a group of enemies, as well as engage a nearly impregnable shield around you. Other special abilities include being able to revive downed teammates, fire your weapon longer without it overheating (there's no ammo in Mass Effect, stuff just overheats) or disable enemies' shields around you.
While the combat is solid, it's clearly not the game's strong suit. Left alone, my AI teammates found ways to cross my line of fire or find ways to get themselves killed in a very short time. Some of these people just refused to duck; instead, some walked toward enemy fire like an intergalactic Wyatt Earp, only they got shot. A lot. Other times, they were very clutch, coming up with a nice, life-saving kill or a timely special attack. I handled this problem by simply pointing them to a certain spot or instinctively ordering them to find cover. Some of the fighting looked a little funny as well, as I would watch a teammate and an enemy run up to each other and blast away, even though they were two feet apart. I also had more than a few moments where an enemy would essentially say, "Screw it, you're dying right now," click on a shield, sprint toward me while shrugging off my rifle shots and then bludgeon me to death. It got better as I got stronger, but I can't say it was fun in the early going.
While I mentioned how much I enjoyed the conversations, I can't help but feel that the concept of romantic relationships wasn't handled quite right. The relationships that Shepard ignites seem a little forced, with the occasional random line about someone being "special" popping up in a conversation. Why? When was that established? Just now? I'm no expert, but if you're going to introduce romance into a game, then more attention needs to be paid to chemistry. Even the dialogue between the Boss and Snake in MGS3 felt more natural, and that was just weird.
I really enjoyed the life I saw in the game visuals. They make each world worth exploring, and everything from structures, such as the Citadel to ships like the Normandy, carried an overall sense of wonder with them. I spent a lot of time checking out the Normandy and its impeccable design — if you get the chance, take a trip into the engine room. The frame rate is solid, with some slight instances of choppiness when you're in extremely heavy combat.
Mass Effect really doesn't have anything more to prove. It's one of the best hybrid RPGs I've played, as well as a serious game of the year candidate. It's the video game equivalent of "Battlestar Galactica" or "Babylon 5": a space epic that reaches for the stars and manages to hit most of them.
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