In keeping with my Bioshock review, I'll be reviewing Mass Effect without having finished the main story. There are two advantages of this approach, firstly I have played enough of the game to know why it's good, why it's bad and what the overall product feels like, secondly I haven't played enough to be dying to divulge any twists or turns of the plot and let's face it, no one wants to know what happens at the end before they even start do they? So without further ado here is my review!
Mass Effect comes along thanks to the same guys responsible for the Knights Of The Old Republic games and the influence of those two excellent games are evident throughout... in a good way. Sure there's no Star Wars this time round, there's no Jedi or Sith, no Padawans, no Force (although there is something similar) but to deny this game its roots is simply naïve. Mass Effect was an odd one for me, I saw the trailer, which many of you no doubt have done as well, and thought “that looks good”. I couldn't really think much more than that because the trailer gave precisely bugger all away except that there'd be action somewhere along the line... big help, right? Even so, the game garnered a massive press following and built enough hype to float the Titanic and it was hard not to get excited about the release so I managed to get my hands on the game knowing pretty much zilch about the proceedings other than it took place in space and, presumably given its heritage, included RPG elements. Because of my almost total ignorance which I managed to remove in the first few hours of play I'll do you the courtesy of explaining the start here, though not to nearly the same extent as the game does. You play xxxxx Shepard, I say 'xxxxx' because you get to pick your own first name, I picked Mac if you're interested. You design your own facial characteristics and even pick your back story from a list of three options and your psychological profile from another three. Want to be an aggressive street thug who got into the army because you wanted away from the squalor? No problem, equally you could be a heroic army brat whose parents were in the force, it's up to you. Obviously you don't play through this but it's great to be able to choose your own history. You actually begin by going on a mission that goes a bit turbo, see your valour has grabbed the attention of an elite group known as Spectres, this group sent one of its own to monitor your performance and see if you're good enough to become one of them, and that's when the story proper begins, it's also where my description of the story proper ends because that is not what this review is about and it's not what you should be reading anyway.
The main story is good, but what sets it away from the rabble is the sheer complexity of the universe in which this game is set. The year is 2183 and mankind has entered the space age, at first we assumed we were alone but then in 2148 an ancient ruin on Mars was uncovered, something that could only have been created by another sentient being. It turns out this is a Prothean relic, Protheans being an extremely intelligent species that had died out about 50,000 years previous, kind of like the Forerunners in Halo. Protheans also set up structures at various points in the galaxy called mass relays which allow almost instantaneous travel between relays. It was these relays which allowed mankind to truly travel across the galaxy and gradually they made contact with more and more alien species. In the 'present' day humans are looked upon as a strong military force but rather cretinous and simple by comparison to the technologically superior salarians, wise asari and disciplined turians who make up the three Council races. Even though there are many games where humans are inferior it's a nice change to have them intellectually capable and fighting to become more accepted in a hierarchical structure rather than fighting for survival. The relations between humans and other races (of which there are several more than the three I just listed) are complex and interesting with most possessing a compelling and believable back story and almost everything has its own codex entry for you to peruse at your leisure. I'll allow you to imbibe the history of the universe in your own time except for a little about the quarians, simply because their story leads inexorably to the bad guys of the game. See the quarians wanted to make an Artificial Intelligence to help them with basic labour and fighting and so on, they did this and called it the 'geth' but things went a bit tits up when this AI became sentient and decided it didn't want to do the quarian's schlepping and so it initiated the war between the geth and quarians. The geth won this war and left the quarians with nothing more than a fleet of ships and so the race has remained as a gypsy civilisation that drift from system to system. What is more important though is that the geth has 'evolved' creating their own versions beyond what the quarians had envisioned for them, functioning kind of like a hive mind they get more efficient as their numbers increase, not because they get more intelligent but because their resources pool towards basic functions which allows them to devote more to advanced functions... apparently. These guys are bad, you shoot them on sight, but don't expect them to be the only bad guys. If you're after a simple shooter this isn't for you but if you want in depth stories you can't go far wrong.
Even though I could continue singing the story's praises I'll need to tell you about the other aspects of the game or this wouldn't be a very good review would it? The game is enormous, kind of. There are several clusters in which there is at least one or two systems, each system has at least one planet you can land on and explore, the thing is the layout of the structures on planets are usually the same even if the particulars are changed. Even so there are still places to explore and many, many things to do. Particularly on the Citadel which acts as the central hub for all species, built by the Protheans themselves it holds a few secrets on its own and many of its inhabitants want you to go elsewhere to help them out, you can of course choose to tell them where to go but you won't reap the benefits if you do that.
The sound is great, it's non-invasive and understated but certainly serves its purpose. The graphics on the other hand are rather a mixed bag, on the surface they're utterly beautiful, especially on the surface of certain planets, but based on several hours of play I can say that they have their downside too. Shadows are sub par, nothing to cry about but during conversations the flaws are obvious as the odd shadings dance across the faces of the people conversing. You'll also notice textures taking their time to load, once they do things look great but that delay is rather irritating.
Other elements of the game include driving sections (whilst exploring planets) and fighting. Driving is an oddity, I personally enjoy it because of the ridiculous physics but I've heard other people point that out as a negative so it really depends on the person I guess, there's no denying though that it is a relatively slow process, a faster Mako would not go amiss. Fighting is, unlike the KOTOR games, in real time which is great in my opinion. Each character gets a sniper rifle, a shotgun, an assault rifle and a pistol but you need to be a specific type of character to actually be trained in all the weapons and the same goes for your two allies you keep in tow. Generally speaking soldiers are trained in all weapons while biotics are not. Biotics is a Force like ability which allows certain individuals to manipulate the mass effect field to increase, decrease or distort the mass of a person and compensates for the lack of weapons training. It is this 'mass effect' which allows faster than light travel and a multitude of other high tech solutions and gives the game its name. I could explain more but it's too complicated for a simple review so if you're interested look in the codex, there's lots of information there.
In the course of the game you will happen across characters who become part of your group, you'll get a mixed bag such as a soldier, a biotic, a tech and then a couple more who are more of a mix of those three skills. Of course you won't be able to take all of these characters out with you, you're limited to two but that's fine, it's to be expected. Each character has their own story and it's up to you to find out what it is, or you could pretty much ignore them. It's up to you whether you're an inspirational leader, a by the books pain in the arse, a complete bastard or anything in between.
Whatever you choose you'll be needing money and omni gel. Omni gel is a universal medium which allows you to hack and decrypt things and serves various other functions while money is measured in credits. Looking through the achievements list for the game you'll see an achievement for building your personal wealth up to 1,000,000 credits, when beginning the game you'll be forgiven for thinking that's a heavy task but it won't take long until you're selling weapons for 5,000 credits each and things just go up from there. What needs improvement though is the sales interface, the only option for organisation is in terms of level, each weapon/armour has its own name followed by a Roman numeral and when buying or selling items things start with the highest number and go down, doesn't sound that bad but it makes things hard to navigate and, unfortunately, KOTOR had a much easier interface. Another annoyance is that when trying to kit your guys out by buying the latest in geth killing equipment you can only see what your current group has equipped, if you're on your own at that point you can only see your own equipment. Sounds minor but it wouldn't have taken much to include information on each team member and would have made things so much easier.
So let's sum things up now, huge, amazing, absorbing story, great gameplay mechanics, great heritage, great graphics (when they load quick enough), slightly annoying sell/buy interface, slightly repetitive side missions. Worth it? Absolutely.