Bioware are responsible for such great titles as; Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. Throughout the years they have never ceased to amaze us, and never failed to deliver.
When I first sat down several years ago, with a massive clumsy Xbox controller in my hands and 'Knights of the Old Republic' in the disk drive. I didn't know what to expect, because even though all the hype was there I had never played a Bioware game before. I was amazed at the incredible story telling and pacing the game provided, and at the role-playing aspects giving the player actual choices to impact the way the story plays out. I must have replayed that game at least 10 times these past few years, and I can still to this very day pick it up and have a hell of a time playing it.
So in the face their history, how does their brand new title "Mass Effect" measure up?
Mass Effect puts you in the shoes of Commander Shepard, you are humanities face to the galaxy as the very first human Spectre. You're tasked with the mission to hunt down and stop a rogue Spectre named Saren that has allied himself with the Geth, a sentient machine race. Every action you make will determine how humanity is regarded, but also decides the very fate of the galaxy.
So how does it start?
The player is given the option of completely customizing his character, from the color of the eyes to the width and shape of the cheekbones down to the scars that decorate the Commanders face. Whether you want to make a gruff looking army man, butchered by scars or a beautiful flawless woman with blue eyes that is sure to make any Geth overload at sight; there are plenty of options to keep you busy for a very long time as you build your very own Commander Shepard. Personally I made the gruff one, with a constant frown on his face even when he smiles.
You get to shape your characters past as you pick and choose between where and how you grew up as well as your military background. Were you born and raised on the streets of earth among the criminal gangs until you managed to escape the life of petty crime by enlisting in the Alliance?
Maybe your parents were spacers, forcing you to never remain in one place for too long; and then to make your parents proud you enlist in the Alliance as soon as the time came?
Or perhaps you're a colonist, raised on a distant planet living a happy and content life until one day the when your colony was suddenly and without warning attacked by slavers. Forced to watch your parents killed, you are saved by the Alliance and later enlist.
Given those first options as your background you are then given the other option of choosing your military career, were you the sole survivor of an unimaginable destruction, a war hero decorated for valour or a ruthless soldier willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done?
I was amazed how big of an impact all these choices had, depending on your combination of choice it actually opens up different missions and dialogue choices as well as how people regard you and your past. It goes a long way to establish who your character is and how you interact with your friends and foes. Without spoiling, for example if you chose to be a war hero - people may regard you with awe and respect and treat you in such a manner. However if you chose to be ruthless they will instead fear you or hate you for what you are and what you represent.
The first thing you'll notice after creating your character and being introduced to the world is the amazing eye for detail that has been put into creating not only the world but especially the characters. I actually felt as if I was watching a movie being played out in front of my eyes, but I was the star. The facial animations and body language immediately convey the emotions of the character, sometimes even more so than any amount of voice acting talent could. Combine that with an all-star cast with some of the best voice talent I have seen in a game to date, and you have a very good start of what is already building up to be a great experience.
The new dialogue wheel is the first thing you'll notice in the game, which gives you real-time access to a conversation that plays out very fluently like any conversation would. Rather than like in past titles such as Knights of the Old Republic or Jade Empire, where you see your entire response listed in your dialogue choices. In Mass Effect you are given the idea of what your character is about to say, and then you get to hear Shepard say it. With even the main character voice cast, this really does feel like a cinematic experience. There is nothing I hate more than to enter a game and find out that the main character sounds like a donkey stuck in a tube, thankfully that's not the case here.
Every time your character learns something new, it is added to the codex of the game. There is a primary codex and a secondary codex, I myself liked that the primary codex was actually narrated. It was a nice listen after a long gaming session when my eyes were about to pop out due to the pressure of my brain about to explode and all I wanted to do was lie down and relax. If learning about the world of Mass Effect through the codex isn't enough, you also get some experience points from learning it. I haven't seen such a detailed world in a long time, it's obvious a lot of work has been put into the creation of this universe; and it has become like a breathing entity of its own.
Ok but what about combat?
Combat is something of importance to many people, it is also what in the end constitutes whether or not a game lives or dies. Will your companions be idiots and run out in the line of fire while shouting "LEEEROOOOY!", or will they obey your commands and tactically take down the enemy threat? Thankfully it is in most cases the latter, while your companions do listen to your commands - sometimes there are the occasional glitches in the path finding which may lead to their very untimely and painfully agonising deaths that may or may not be entertaining.
If you choose to play on easy or normal difficulties you are not going to face a lot of a challenge, especially if you have your aiming assistance set on high. This is probably the best option for the RPG gamer that dislikes action shooter combat, and prefers to stick to the role-playing aspect of the game. If you're looking for a real challenge though, playing on veteran, hardcore or insanity is your best option. Given that Hardcore and Insanity must be unlocked by completing the game on the previously high difficulty, this offers a few replays in itself for the gamer that wants to do it all.
There are several classes, Soldier - The marine, skilled in weapons of mass destruction and creating piles of dead bodies by a hail of bullets.
The Adept - Talented in the use of biotics, to pull, throw and send enemies to their very timely painful deaths by flinging them out into open space.
The Engineer - Able to use technical skills to disable, destroy or take control of synthetic enemies and cause a tiny little civil war between the unsuspecting Geth.
Between those 3 "main" classes, you are also given the choice of hybrids between Vanguard (Soldier and Adept), Infiltrator (Soldier and Engineer) and Sentinel (Adept and Engineer).
After reaching a certain point in the game, if you choose to and play it right you may be given the option of selecting a specialization class. Your choice of specialization class will at least on the side of the hybrids, lean you more towards one or the other class.
Combat has a rather smooth learning curve, and you never really find yourself dealing with too much. While there are some very challenging moments in the game, none of them make you feel like they are impossible to defeat. In other words, you will not be left standing with a banana trying to kill a 30 feet tall thresher maw.
Given the ability to give orders to your 2 squad members, you can set waypoints, order them to take cover, to follow you or to attack a specific target simply by the use of your directional button.
Mass Effect also introduces the combat wheel, which contains two separate wheels that are accessible by the simple push and hold of a button (more specifically the left and right bumper buttons). One opens up the choice of weapons for you and your two squad members and the other gives you command over their abilities. Using the wheel temporarily pauses the game until you release your hold of the button.
Very simply you can order your engineer to overload a Geth by taking aim and selecting the ability from the wheel. This, aside from relying on them to make choices on their own gives you the upper hand on dealing with a battle the way you see fit.
Combat is also never over until Shepard himself dies, and "dead" squad members automatically revive after the battle is over.
Onto the MAKO, the vehicle of the game! At first I felt the controls were really clumsy, and the learning curve very steep. I found myself driving like Britney Spears, except I didn't have any alcohol within my reach. However, after I got my head around how the MAKO controls it became an easy task to operate this heavy machine of destruction. Armed with a machine gun and a rocket launcher, you're ready for the fight! With the ability to use the MAKO to launch yourself straight up into the air by use of its thrusters, you can dodge incoming rockets and send the poor Geth into machine heaven.
There is also plenty of gear in the game, most of it has the same name followed by a numerical sequence to constitute the power or level of protection it has. Each weapon and armour can also be upgraded to provide more protection or firepower and stability. My personal favourite is the sniper rifle, once the skill is maxed out you become a real killing machine from a distance! The shotgun is also quite the carnage machine, from a short distance there is nothing that beats the firepower it has. Assault rifles can send a spread of bullets into enemies at both a distance and close range, making them more versatile. Last and... least, is the pistol - but it should not be underestimated because with the proper add-ons it does pack quite some firepower. Be careful though because while there are no ammo clips in the weapons they can still overheat and you'll have to wait for them to cool down before you can use them again, while the enemies pound you to a pulp.
For the 'fashion' geeks out there, the armour sports different looks and while helmets have no actual protection they can be turned on or off. So if you're having a bad hair day it will be quite easy to hide it from the world.
A massive galaxy!
Mass Effect has a huge galaxy, with a ton of locations to visit and missions to complete, people to meet and things to kill. Counting all the locations/planets you will visit during your play through of the main story you are up to 7 main plot driven planets (counting the Citadel). Playing only the main story will probably net you about 10-20 hours of game-play, and a satisfactory grin on your lips as you see the masterful plot unfold.
You will get your missions sometimes randomly while riding an elevator and listening to a news reporter talking about the latest cattle of gnomes being enslaved by elves on a freighter called Yrdrassil, to visiting a cluster or solar system and receiving a distress signal or message from command giving you mission after mission. It can be hard not to get lost in the amount of missions that are there, and having to decide where to go can actually be quite a dilemma sometimes.
Many missions are very generic and the simple "go in and kill then get a big pat on the back" type, while others will thrust you into a conspiracy that may endanger not only your life but the lives of others.
Despite of the massive amount of hype around the hundreds of locations that can be visited in the game, only a handful of them can actually be boarded or landed on. Most of them are a simple description of a planet with the occasional option to survey them for minerals or gasses. The side-planets you do get to visit provide a very alien and authentic atmosphere in the game; however they will after awhile become generic and you'll start to see a pattern emerge as they blend into each other. There is plenty to do however, as fully exploring each planet may take anywhere between 10 minutes and 30 minutes; for the completionist possibly even more.
The underground complexes and buildings, bases and so on that are placed on the side-planets all look the same. Personally I can't blame Bioware for doing this however as they were restricted to one DVD and the size of 8.5 GB to do their game. It can become easy to ignore the repetition of the structure and design after awhile, and become immersed into the world. In other words, this is not a game breaker.
A game to last a lifetime (of the 360)
This is a game that was truly worthy of my time, and I will probably replay it a number of times. Bioware has done it again. They've managed to uphold the standard that they have set through the years of creating magnificent titles that continue to amaze us faithful RPG gamers. For all the nitpicking that one can do with Mass Effect, from the small "I got stuck on a chair and I can't get up" to "Oops did I blow up that solar system?" - Mass Effect is a golden star.
Mass Effect also allows you to start a newgame+, which basically means you will be allowed to carry on your Shepard; level and all - straight into a new game. Opening a door to a whole new experience and possibly making it just a tiny bit easier as you unlock the more challenging difficulty levels.
The differences you will get in the way you play the game, the gender you choose and who you romance will warrant several playthroughs. Some of the differences are subtle, while others are highly significant and many of the choices you are forced to make will have you twitching in your seat wondering what to do. The many subtle nuances and outstanding branching story telling makes this game a strong contender for the Game of the Year award, and at least to me a clear winner.