Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Ever wonder what life would be like if Star Wars was never filmed? Think about that, seriously. Pop culture, specifically geek and game culture, would be a lot different now wouldn’t they? Fortunately, the infamous space opera was made, and has gone on to influence many people, be it directors or game designers, to follow in the once exalted footsteps of George Lucas.
Take the company Bioware. A little over a year ago, they released the first of a trilogy of games for the 360 (and apparently Playstation 3 now.) called Mass Effect. Mass Effect is a Sci-Fi space opera that borrows the themes of Star Wars into a more realistic, near future setting, combining some great imagination, excellent RPG play, mediocre combat into a solid, if not revolutionary, game.
You star as a user created character, Commander Shepherd, a member of the Starfleet command of the human race who gets wrapped into a giant, universal-political thriller that could threaten to destroy the whole known galaxy. Fortunately, you have been named the first ever human Jed.…I mean Spectere, essentially the right hand of a council of Aliens that tries to keep peace in the known universe. And what a right hand you are, as you can do what you want as long as the job get’s done.
With this new found clearance, you and your growing number of comrades set out into the galaxy, and here your gameplay is more varied. Like other Western style RPGS, like Fallout and Elder Scrolls, you can tackle the storyline any time you want to, or you can deal with numerous side quests to boost your stats for the future quests. The choices are literally, yours to decide. Most completionists will attempt to mow down through every single quest the game has to offer, but this will take some time, and patience to deal with.
One of the lynchpins of Biowares opera is the dynamic speech system. Depending on your charm and personality statistics, you will be granted some speech options that range from politically correct statements, to high praise for characters, to literally insulting and punching characters. These statements can open up new dialogue choices, which in turn can give you experience or bonuses, depending on your style of character. In other words, it’s a more thought out light/dark system that allows the player character to go as he pleases, depending on the situation.
While the choice system flows a lot more than previous Bioware games like Jade Empire and Knights of the Old Republic, one of the problems is its own pretentiousness. The dialogue in the game is at times too lofty and explanatory, although to be fair it is the first game of the trilogy, and the job of the first of any trilogy is to explain the universe that you are in, and set up the future plots and story points with little explanation later. The dialogue though is good enough to get past these problems and keep the player intrigued and engaged in the games narrative.
One peeve of my own though is that, despite being such an expansive universe with numerous alien races, you only really interact with three of them, plus a ton of humans, when you’re out in the actual universe. Besides the main city, the Citadel, you only meet a few races that can actually be of service to you in some form. Some races are even absent from the game itself, with only one character representing them, and letting you know they exist. Again, I can give Bioware the benefit of the doubt because this is still the early part of the story, but it would have been nice to see a little more variety in the missions, maybe work with a race other than the humans for a bit, or the council races.
One really poor aspect is the weak combat and planetary exploration system. In combat, you can use a variety of powers, gadgets, and four different weapon types to destroy enemies. The major problem is that the controls are somewhat loose when you’re engaged with the enemy, and minor hiccups occur. For example, ducking for cover on the wrong surface can easily kill you with one sniper shot. Another problem is your squad AI is incredibly dumb. You can give them orders to maneuver to specific locations on the map, but they usually stand in one place and become nothing but fodder from the enemies in front of you, leaving you to take out ten drones at one time.
What augments this is the fact that item customization is never fully explained by the game, and some trial and error is needed to give your weapons an extra kick, so to speak. There are varying augments you can give your weapons and armor, such as extra shields or armor piercing rounds, but you need to figure out how to equip them first. And for me, it took me half of the game, literally half of the main storyline, to finally get that system down correctly.
The driving segments of the game have you drop on a fixed number of planets to search for side quest items, downed satellites, or random deposits of minerals to excavate. The driving segments, sadly, are piss poor, with slow, clunky controls and a tendency to get stuck into the rocky crevices of the mountainsides that inhabit pretty much every world. The variety of items found in each world also could have been a bit more varied, instead of downed satellites and rock formations you can mine guaranteed on each world.
Thankfully the game looks beautiful. The graphics are crisp, defined, and have a nice sheen to them, giving it a somewhat cyber-like feel, very clean and very polished. There is, however, some slowdown when action gets too frantic, especially when you and your squad mates are using some flashy techniques, like throwing enemies or destroying their shields, but this is not too noticeable.
Sound wise, the game boast a lovely orchestral score that is subtle at times, and vibrant at others, that captures the space opera feel. The sound effects are all distinct and somewhat memorable, instead of the typical blams and booms of standard weapons. It is good to see different sounds for different guns or powers, and music cues when you level up or gain experience.
The winner here though is the dialogue and voice-overs. Despite every alien speaking English, the voices are done with some great feeling and power. True, sometimes the dialogue is broken up so you can load your own response, but the feelings and interaction with the characters around you give you a distinct impression of realism and the performances given essentially keep this illusion going. So kudos to the voice actors and actresses of Mass Effect, you truly are the stars of the game.
There is really not much more to be said about the game. Mass Effect is still part one of three, and like most trilogy’s, set’s up the journey ahead for you. The decisions you make in this game are supposed to affect the other two games in the future, so whatever choices you make, do so with care. Regardless of the somewhat glaring flaws in the game, Mass Effect is a fun, plentiful RPG experience that will satisfy those who play it extensively, and at the very least, give us an alternative universe to look forward to revisiting now and again.