With the likes of Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire under their wing, developers BioWare have created a solid foundation of action Role-Playing Games, so it was exciting to hear that the Canadian based developers would be dipping their toes once again into yet another sci-fi action-RPG, with their latest title - Mass Effect. After many years in development, and seeing the title slip down the release date ladder many times, it was great to finally get to play what has become one of the most anticipated titles for the Xbox 360 this year. So let’s suit up and find out what this sci-fi RPG has to offer us.
Booting the game up for the first time you are asked to choose between selecting a default character profile or to create your own. Creating your own enters you into one of Mass Effect’s whirlwind of customisable character options. For the benefit of the script and cut-scenes you will always be Commander Sheppard though you can change your first name and gender down to your hair style, facial hair, skin tone and countless other facial character features. There are enough features here to make your character unique to suit your own tastes and it is using these features you become aware of how drop dead gorgeous the character modelling is in Mass Effect. Once your character is created, along with its background profile, you are ready to be thrown into a deep and fulfilling storyline.
I could easily fill up this entire review with Mass Effects’ storyline but this should really be experienced first-hand and shouldn’t be spoiled, so I will scrape the surface and keep this brief. The year is 2183—you play Commander Sheppard, an honourable solider well known for his bravery and performance in past war campaigns. You have been selected by the Citadel Council, the rulers of civilised space, made up by three of the most powerful alien races in the galaxy for important mission; to salvage a recently discovered beacon from an alien race called the Protheans which has been dug up on the mining planet, Noveria. Years ago, the human race had discovered this same alien technology which has helped create interstellar travel where human civilisation has met with new worlds and different alien races. Being such a key discovery back then has lead to the Council into believing that this beacon could be yet another life-changing artefact. Of course such simple tasks are never easy and there are many people with the desire to possess it, most of which Saren and his control over the Geth, a race of cybernetic species with death on their minds, mainly yours and the rest of the human race. It is in the story of Mass Effect that you will come across Saren, the Geth and many other races in your quest to track down the beacon, its power, technology and its threat towards wiping out all organic life in the galaxy.
The entire game is played through a third-person perspective with many high-quality cut-scenes thrown in that ooze the best character modelling and the most convincing voice talent you will see and hear in a game this year. Your main hub in Mass Effect will be onboard the advanced spacecraft SSV Normandy. On this ship you are able to walk around the many areas of the ship which lead to areas that take you to different parts of the game. From star maps & navigation to the cargo bay and medical, each area will lead you to either the outside world on a spaceport or planet to navigating to the next solar system in the galaxy. Located around these areas is your crew, who you can talk to and discuss your current mission and its goals through hearing more about any background stories and events you may wish to hear about. This kind of small talk isn’t important to your mission but it can help you understand the many races in the game as well as to learn the backgrounds of the characters you meet, letting you soak up with game’s atmosphere even further. Not all the characters you come across in the game are talkative though; some will just give you a passing comment while others will pull you into a much deeper conversation, which can be necessary to find out valuable information in order to continue with your mission, or even begin a new one. The conversation system in Mass Effect is very fast and intuitive, selecting your choice of conversation is done easily by choosing a response from a simple menu of discussion summaries, rather than giving you a word for word view of your responses. This makes having conversations in the game quick and easy to listen to, leaving you free to focus on the talented vocal dialogue that plays out in front of you.
There is a lot of travelling in Mass Effect and selecting where to go is done via your galaxy map, which is found on the navigation deck on the Normandy. From here you can zoom in and out of the galaxy and its solar systems through surveying planets for information and materials, and landing at spaceports on planet surfaces. Each explorable location has had a great deal of care and attention applied to its appearance. Internal locations can seem very bland and simple, but it’s the outside locations that make up for the lack of detail found on the inside. Considering the amount of completely different locations that can be explored and what has been squeezed onto a standard DVD disc, Mass Effect is visually stunning, especially with all the hours of dialogue in there too. The highly detailed characters fit in very well with the surrounding environments which vary in style from each planet, inside and out. Each of the planets barren exterior location features some very atmospheric weather conditions. Exploring these vast locations is made much simpler with the aid of your all-terrain-vehicle, the Mako. This lunar vehicle makes trekking to even the most challenging locations on the planet fast and easy. Should you face any threats from the planets inhabitants a handy turret located on top of the Mako makes light work of these foes and can be a very one sided battle at times.
Mass Effect’s real time combat system gives you complete control over your characters movement and actions, as well as giving basic squad commands to your two available team-mates via the D-pad. You can pause during any action to equip the available weapons to each of your crew members, making combat a swift and tactical experience that can rival any action game on the Xbox 360 alone. Throughout the game you can skill-up not only yourself but also your six team-mates, issuing specific skill points to help boost each character’s ability in such areas like combat, medical and fitness. You can decide to assign either these skill points evenly or build each character in your team towards a specific task or role, this can make choosing which crew member to fill your two available slots that little easier, knowing which character is best suited to the mission you’re about to face. When in combat all those assigned skill points can mean nothing though, thanks to one key element—good old A.I. Although your enemies can run and gun around with some degree of intelligence, your team-mates can sometimes struggle with even the smallest of commands or obstacles. There has been a few moments where either one or both of the crew members failed to budge from their positions when a simple order of moving behind a box was given. In a more open area this isn’t an issue, but it is when you are in a tight area full of obstacles where your crew members are less gun-ho, failing to navigate the environment and refuse to go where you order them to.
Audibly Mass Effect excels just as much as it does in its graphics. We’ve already touched on its impressive dialogue and the effects and musical score mirror this attention to detail, rounding off what is already sensational package that positions Mass Effect up there with any motion picture production.
With its faultless audio, ambitious graphics, incredible digital characters and compelling storyline, Mass Effect feels like you are playing though a sci-fi blockbuster with a bottomless movie budget. Every character you encounter brings its own personality, combined with highly detailed and unique appearances and dialogue can make watching the many cut-scenes in Mass Effect an engaging experience. There are many side quests and decision paths to make in this game, enough to warrant some replay value, though whether you can face another 25-30 hours required to play through the main parts of this game is another question. This question maybe an easy one to answer considering the amount of worlds there are to explore, different characters to meet, all the way down to the type of character skills you choose at the beginning. All these areas can make replaying Mass Effect a different experience altogether, but even if you play this only once it will be an enjoyable and memorable experience, something BioWare manage to achieve with ease in their titles. With additional storylines via downloadable content rumoured as well as two more sequels, it’s looking like Mass Effect will become a successful franchise for the king of action RPGs.