You stand victorious over the hordes of beasts that have clawed at you, come close to killing you, and are menaces to the galaxy. Finally, it's down to you and the last of its species. It shows remorse, it knows why it had to be wiped out. It seems that it has learnt its lesson, it wants a chance to live, a chance to see its children thrive. You alone have the choice of life and death. Kill it, and the entire galaxy will be thankful. Kill it, and you'll effectively be guilty of genocide. Welcome to the world of Mass Effect.
Set 200 odd years in the future, after humanity has discovered new alien technology and hyperspace travel, the plot reads like almost every sci-fi game ever made. You know, there's some kind of threat to the universe and it's up to you as Captain America to end it by travelling about in a spaceship named after an American military victory etc. But a couple of twists on a tried and tested formula make this game compelling and compulsory playing.
First of all, humanity is rather late to the hyperspace game, and it finds itself in an uncomfortable position as an outsider. Humanity is distrusted amongst the other races of the galaxy (this comes up almost incessantly), and is only recently been given a morsel of power in galactic affairs. Every move you make is being watched by others, some wanting humanity to thrive, some wanting it to be subservient.
It all makes for some fascinating game play when faced with the choices that almost every quest brings up. You not only have to think of yourself and the character you're playing, but the consequences of your actions as a representative of the human race.
One of the most compelling aspects of this game are the moral choices that you are forced to make with almost every quest. How you handle any given situation will give you food for thought. Combined with the well drawn characters, this makes for compelling game play. For example, do you try to handle a hostage situation all guns blazing or do you try to resolve the situation peacefully using a bit of the ol' charm/intimidate? The ability to try and talk out a situation rather than go in all guns blazing is a refreshing change from the 'go here, shoot that' linear mentality of most games today.
For example, during the main quest, you not only have the lives of your squad in your hands but often you are forced to choose whether a party member survives or not. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book, but it's still effective in investing the player in the game morally and emotionally and also getting the player to think about the wider scope of their actions.
Much has been made by the tomes of dialogue that the game throws at you, and with good reason. Sometimes the sheer amount of it can seem a little overbearing, but instead, the dialogue system, instead of bogging you down in the mire seems organic and natural because of the conversation wheel. This sees the player giving a response to a particular bit of dialogue not once the particular line of dialogue has been finished, but a few seconds before. This feels more like a natural conversation, as in most conversations, people are busy thinking of a response rather than listening to what is being said. Of course, this leads to missing out on a bit of dialogue, but it's a feature that is remarkably well implemented. You actually feel as if you're having a conversation rather than choosing a response after having a good long while to think about the implications of your choice. Though by far the most impressive part of the dialogue is the superb voice acting.
Almost all of the dialogue is this game sounds pitch perfect for the situations you are confronted with, and this doesn't just cover the main characters. The amount of interesting characters you will meet are staggering, and this can be attributed to the fact that not one sounds like the other. They all have their nuances, and the voice acting reflects this perfectly.By far the most impressive voice acting comes from the male and female versions of the main character, Shepard (played by Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale respectively), with their dialogue spot on for the vast majority of situations, a quite lofty achievement given the reams of dialogue they spout. An honourable mention must go to Steven Barr for creating the enigmatic Urdnott Wrex, who although a murderous alien, is someone you you'd actually want to have a conversation with.
However, if there is one criticism of the voice acting in Mass Effect it has to be directed to Raphael Sbarge and the character of Kaidan Alenko. You see, Alenko's voice seems a little... familiar, and if you've played Bioware's other space Action/RPG Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), you'd recognise the voice of Kaidan Alenko as the voice of Carth Onasi. I say recognise, but they are the same voice. Exactly. I'm all for voice actors working on more than one project, but there's just no difference between the performances! People who have played KOTOR will become frustrated by the character very quickly.
Another source of frustration for the player lies in the combat. Employing a third person shooter approach, the mechanics of the fighting are simple enough and will take only a short while to become accustomed to. However, what really grates is the way that squad members are used. In a party of three, commands of 'defend', 'attack that guy' and 'go there' can be issued at any given time which is all well and fine...if you could issue the orders individually. You see, when you give a command such as 'go there behind that hyper galactic space crate', both of your allies go. This can be an immense source of frustration if say, you want to issue an order of 'you go there, and you go to the other side. I'll stay here with my sniper rifle while you two flank and draw out the enemy'. I found myself reflecting on how this could be useful every time my character died from being flanked by the enemy.
Those familiar with KOTOR will feel right at home when it comes to weapon customisation and inventory management. A number of upgrades can be applied to items (such as guns and armour) to increase their effectiveness against certain types of enemy, and these upgrades for the most part really help you out.
Force powers, I mean, 'biotic powers' also make an appearance in the game. These cycle through your standard lift/throw with the power of your mind, kind of powers to more advanced powers such as stasis or singularity and how many you can use and their effectiveness depends on what type of character class you choose. For example, you can't run around throwing enemies about like rag dolls if you've chosen the soldier class. There only about seven powers in total and whereas these biotic powers are useful on occasion, one gets the yearning for there to have more powers to play with.
The graphics and sound in this game really do stand out from the pack though.
The former, while not hyper-realistic are something to behold. The light reflecting from the gentle glow of ship navigation systems, the sparkle of water and the dialogue scenes (which at times look pre-rendered they're that good) all combine well to suck the player into the world. However, for some reason the game comes with film grain turned on, which just looks like the dog's breakfast rather than cinematic. Thankfully, this can be turned off otherwise I would have to take vengeance upon the world (yes, it looks that bad).
The sound in Mass Effect and particularly the score are absolutely top notch. This is one of the few games today that you'd want to buy the soundtrack for with the score taking you back to the glorious days of the 80's sci-fi. It really sets you in that world when you hear an awesome synth piece playing in the background. It's pitch perfect every time for setting the mood whether travelling, going into a creepy room or coming up to a major plot point.
Special mention has to go to Canadian indie band Faunts and their song 'm4 pt II' which plays over the credits and captures the feel and tone of game perfectly. It's one of the very rare times that you'll actually want to watch the credits.
Overall, though frustrating at times, its flaws can be overlooked because of the journey the game provides for the player, one that you actually care about (which is a nice change). In a few areas such as character dimension and voice acting it sets the benchmark for all other action/RPGs to follow.
Depending on your disposition, you will either love every minute of Mass Effect, overlooking its flaws or be ultimately frustrated by the fact this could be a masterpiece if not for the couple of things dragging it down.
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