The name BioWare is arguably the biggest when it comes to Western style RPGs. Long before the publisher focus shifted toward the MMO model, this Canadian studio brought us the widely acclaimed Baldur's Gate and have continued to consistently provide a steady supply of top-notch role playing games over the last decade. Baldur's Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire and of course Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. That's five games all easily within the top 10 western RPGs of their time. Such a flawless back catalogue of course creates huge expectations for any new BioWare title, and we're happy to report that Mass Effect is another worthy addition.
Mass Effect is the first offering in a planned trilogy, intended to span the projected life-cycle of the Xbox 360 but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves - rest assured number one is a complete product in itself with an incredible amount of content to feast on before you'll be even remotely hungry for more.
You assume the role of one Commander Shepard, your character's first name, gender, facial appearance are all configurable, you'll even have the option of several back-stories, determining Shepard's birthplace and military experience. The facial manipulation is as intricate as they come, controlled by an almost exhausting series of sliders allowing you virtually limitless facial configuration and you'd do well to settle on something you like because you'll be seeing an awful lot of it. Finally, there's class selection which offers various combinations of weapon proficiency, technical abilities and biotics (the game's sci-fi equivalent of a fantasy game's magic). If all this seems a bit overwhelming or time consuming, a recommended setup is of course provided, but for the role playing purists, the options are all there.
And that's what the whole game is really about; choice. Mass Effect plays like an interactive Choose Your Own Adventure
book, one epic story where the outcome of every interactive encounter can be manipulated by the choices you make. This is made possible by one incredibly in-depth dialogue system - without a doubt the one key feature that tramples all else in the genre. We're talking dozens of hours of recorded speech that for the most part fit together as fluid conversation. In-game this is all handled by the dialogue wheel, a rotating list of options used to steer the conversation. Unlike previous RPGs this isn't just a verboten list of the speech options but short descriptions that depict the tone of the response. For instance, in reply to "Looks like they have a dozen men, maybe more" you might have the options "Can I help?", "What's going on?" or "Only a Dozen?" each of which would each prompt your character to ask a more eloquent and detailed question with the same general attitude as the abbreviated option.
For those that crave the magical Xbox 360 Gamer Points, Mass Effect offers some worthy yet reasonable awards.
You'll score the bulk of GP just playing through the game but if you really want that full 1000 you'll need to dig deep into the side-mission and get the most out of every playable character. If nothing else, it's a great excuse to play through the game with both paragon and renegade attitudes.
The attitude of your response is what shapes your character's demeanour and good or evil choices will net you either "paragon" or "renegade" points respectively; a system that functions near-identical to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic's light and dark-side force allegiances. Like SW:KotOR, how you direct a conversation can have radically different affects on not only that particular quest or mission, but the entire game itself. And of course, there are different endings in-store for those that follow the paragon and renegade paths. Spoken word is the meat of the game and BioWare have selected an incredibly experienced cast of voice actors, including celebrities Seth Green, Lance Henrikson and Mariana Sirtis as well as veteran video-game stars Keith David and Jennifer Hale.
If all this sounds more like an interactive movie than a video-game, well bear with us because Mass Effect has its fair share of action too. Combat is handled in a similar manner to previous BioWare titles in that the game runs in real-time but all interactions are handled in true RPG fashion with algorithms running behind the scenes determining what hits and misses. The more points you put into a weapon or discipline, the better your aim and higher your damage will be with related attacks. Similarly, the better items you equip the more your chances improve.
You won't find any magic or mana in this game and there's no mystical Star Wars style force. Instead we have the game's namesake. "Mass Effect" is a fictional physics phenomenon based around the real life theories of dark energy. The game's combat mechanics tap into this potential power by allowing players to equip cybernetic implants capable of manipulating the mass effect for both offensive and defensive purposes.
In addition there's also a discipline of more conventional tech skills that can disable electronics or turn robotic enemies against their own kind. The end result is an array of special abilities that can be used for strategic advantage in battles, with the different characters in your party having different degrees of proficiency in each.
As you progress through the game, you'll pick up new party members, although you can only ever pick 2 to fight alongside you on any given mission. The good news is all your team mates will level at the same time so there's no need to play favourites or worry about balancing everyone out. Inventory and character management are a big part of the game and Mass Effect provides an adequate system to handle that. I say adequate, because there's definitely room for improvement. Statistics aside, all the weapons are pretty sameish. As your character level increases, you will find more powerful items through combat and merchants, but for the most part it's just the same set of gear suffixed with a higher numeral. While this does make it easier to compare items, more variety and unique aesthetics would have been nicer.
In-fact, the only part of your kit that significantly alters your character's appearance is the body armour. Unfortunately for my character, this meant spending a great deal of the early part of the game in a pretty pink and white number - the best armour I could find for quite some time. Combined with the rather effeminate running animation and Commander Shepard had a somewhat shaky start. I'm happy to report, however, that by the end he was 100% bad-ass.
Controlling your character in combat is intuitive enough, however the game does lack any kind of tutorial so you might want to pay a bit more attention to the game manual that you usually would. Team-mates are a different matter. You can issue a couple of squad commands; spot, follow take-cover but despite best efforts they'll still get themselves killed quite often. Fortunately if you hit a tough spot, the game's difficulty can be adjusted dynamically via the options menu at any time. Other options such as auto-levelling and squad ability usage can also be changed at will, giving you the choice between a challenging videogame or a leisurely stroll to the next piece of dialogue.
As you can see from the screenshots, graphics are another of the game's strong points. The facial detail in-particular helps make the game's conversations look better than most pre-rendered cut-scenes from the last Xbox generation. While Bethesda's Oblivion looked stellar, something was still off with the facial animation. So I'm pleased to report that Mass Effect does not suffer the same quirk. Things can get a touch choppy at times but nothing that really takes away from the game. Powered by Epic's Unreal Engine tech, Mass Effect suffers from the same occasional texture pop-in as Gears of War and rather than loading screens the level designers have used slow moving elevators and other tricks like decontamination chambers to give the game a little extra time to load.
If you stick to the main quest line, everything is top notch with no shortage of tasty sci-fi scenery. The galaxy map used to navigate galaxies, solar systems and planets is particularly lush. Unfortunately, stray out too far into side missions and things get a little less polished - Barren planets that you'll want to just land, retrieve and depart. But again, the meat of the game is in role-playing the storyline and the attention to detail in the lore, characters and scripting really does make any design nuances seem completely irrelevant.
While there's undoubtedly room for improvement in many facets of Mass Effect's gameplay, the storytelling element completely overwhelms them. In this reviewer's opinion, this is a game that rivals film and novel in its ability to tell a tale. Hands down the
best Role Playing Game available on console today. The best part is, there's still at least two more games to come.