Detail is what makes worlds come alive, and Mass Effect has enough details to keep even the most fanatical of completionists busy. You’ll be playing the role of Commander Shepard, and he (or she) is whoever you want him to be. There are six classes available at the beginning of the game, myriad facial feature options, and as you gain experience there are plenty of ranks to take in different skill areas. Favor the shotgun and the sniper rifle like I do? Then that’s where you can dump your points, but your neighbor who is also playing as a soldier may prefer the assault rifle. No two players characters will be the same – even if they are the same gender, the same class, and come from the same background. Choices made during character creation don’t just affect how your character acts and what he’s good at, they also affect the story. You’ll be playing Mass Effect more than once.
Story is the heart and soul of any good RPG, and as mentioned before Mass Effect can and will tell you the same story in slightly different ways with each playthrough. You also have the option of ignoring the story altogether and exploring the galaxy. Your commanding officer is paying attention to your travels and fills you in on side quests as you approach an appropriate system. There are crime lords to take down, enemy outposts to destroy, research teams to find, and backstories to discover. These side quests aren’t just opportunities to gain experience and take another rank in sniper rifles; they flesh out the universe and introduce elements of Commander Shepard’s history without feeling heavy-handed. You could plow through the main story in about 20 hours, but it’s just too tempting to explore the uncharted worlds to pass them by. Even if you don’t complete each world’s objectives you owe it to yourself to see just how many worlds BioWare has created for the Mass Effect universe. Each planet, moon, and asteroid feels unique even if their interior structures are obviously recycled. When you pull up the map you’ll surely notice that the interior of the MSV Ontario looks suspiciously like the interior of the mercenary-taken research facility. There’s also a galactic standard layout for mines, but the slight repetition in layout can be forgiven because of the difference in objective each time you notice a recycled interior map. Sadly, you won’t be able to go to any of these places until you complete a number of objectives on Citadel Station, Mass Effect‘s opening area. There’s a lot to do, and a lot of good information is disseminated, but you’ll be glad to be through with the area and odds are good that you won’t go back unless you absolutely have to.
If video game stores were arranged by genre than Mass Effect would end up in the RPG section, but it would fit just as well in the third-person-shooter section. There’s no battle screen; combat happens when you come across an enemy, and if you happen to out in the open then that’s too bad for you. You’ll need to run for cover and heal up before the fight can begin properly. Both enemy and teammate AI is impressive. Terrorists act differently than mercenaries, and that last remaining enemy will act differently than he did when his team was five men strong. You allies will fire off their biotic (techo-magic) powers on their own, but you can recommend that they fire off a warp or biotic lift at any time. They won’t always listen, but their goals are always in line with yours, and more often than not they get the job done nicely. Cover is implemented well, too. With your weapon drawn simply run up to a vertical surface to press against it. Then hold the left trigger to pop out, aim at your opponent, and fire away. Weapons changing and biotics use both temporarily suspend the action, but the pause is a relief. The quick interface for both weapons selection and biotics use really drive home just how important both concepts are in Mass Effect. That sniper rifle that was tearing up mercenaries at 100m just isn’t going to cut it now that they’re charging your position. There’s still a time delay involved in transitioning to your assault rifle, but you aren’t punished for bringing up the wheel and choosing new weapons for each member of your squad.
It’s not all guns and ammo. Well, it is if you want it to be, but diplomatic options present themselves fairly often. Raising your charm skill finally has a more noticeable affect than a slight discount at the shops; you can genuinely reason with your enemies. It won’t always work, but when it does the victory feels different. Not only did you bring in the head of that terrorist cell, but you also managed to save the life of a government official and see to it that new legislation protecting a group of outcasts will be brought up for senate consideration. And if your charm skill is too low then a key conversational branch was grayed out and your only choice for resolution was to kill the outcasts. It’s nice to see character development directly affect the choices available to the player, and Mass Effect implements the system in a natural and believable way.
Stepping even further back from combat is the conversational system. Gone are the days of reading our dialog choices, choosing between “start an orphanage” and “kick puppies,” and picking the one that nets us the most light side points. Now, most conversations have several different paths, and most seem neither obviously good or bad. Some choices are aggressive, others concerned, and others yet just make you sound like the good soldier that you were trained to be – don’t ask questions, just get the job done. And your conversational partner will genuinely react to your choices. Telling a squad mate that what they did was stupid will cause them to look remorseful and sad which in turn made me feel guilty. Instead of making me feel good for running over that group of mercenaries in my Mako (the six-wheeled ground vehicle with which you will explore strange new worlds) Mass Effect‘s more memorable reaction was guilt at chastising a team member. These characters feel like real people, and for that, BioWare should be applauded.
Along with satisfying combat and meaningful character interaction, Mass Effect is a visual wonder to behold. Each new world, space station, and ship you visit looks unique and beautiful in its own right. Watching your ship, the SSV Normandy, fly through a Mass Effect field is a visual treat and a decent way to hide the planet-to-planet loading. Characters are beautifully modeled, and lip synchronization to spoken dialog is the best I’ve ever seen in a game. Add the fact that Mass Effect‘s voice acting feels more like a movie than a video game and you’ve got some of the highest production values the medium has ever seen. Characters sound distinct, and their lines feel appropriate for the situation. Similarly, characters will banter with one another on the elevator, and it all feels right.
Mass Effect is beautiful, tactical, challenging, full of replay value, and most of all – fun. The story woven is a gripping one, and you’ll want to play through multiple times to explore different classes and squad combinations (and to get all of the achievements). This is what science fiction role playing games are supposed to be