The sweet warbles of the sprightly songbird greeting the day. . .
What abominable, detestable noises. You know what they mean. Nope, not that Spring is come or that love is in the air. No, these lilting trills of the winged clan are nature’s way of saying, “Hey you! It’s five A.M. and you’ve spent the whole night playing a video game. The whole goddamn night.”
[image1]And then comes the difficult choice. Do you shut the blinds, keep playing, and sacrifice those last few hours of darkness for the next save point? Or do you hang up the controller, wasting the virtual fruits of your labors for a couple hours of, let’s face it, pretty much worthless sleep? You must choose, and when the game in question is Mass Effect, chances are you will not choose wisely.
But that doesn’t mean that staying up all night is the wrong choice. It’s just the one that endangers your job and your significant other’s opinion of your maturity. On the other hand: more Mass Effect!
Deciding when one stops playing might be the most difficult choice Mass Effect presents, but it is far from the only one. This sprawling RPG from Bioware (Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire), reaches new heights in its blend of strategy, action, and space exploration in an immense and rich science-fiction universe. But what in other games would be ultimate success is, for Mass Effect, just the wrapping paper for its deeper pleasures: its balanced ethical dilemmas and their consequences.
Let’s put it this way. If Mass Effect is a many-tentacled spacebeast, and its deadly suction-cuppy appendages the considerable action, customization, and exploration elements, then its heart would be the fully-realized and not-at-all-dull conversation mechanic. And each pulse of that heart would be one among hundreds of carefully-wrought ethical problems that enrich nearly every aspect of the game. The result is a game that, despite a host of tiny flaws in presentation and mechanics, feels alive in a way that you, after staying up all night with it, most definitely won’t.
Mass Effect starts slow. You begin by creating your player character, Shepherd, and choosing between a few pre-set backstories. Once you’ve finished your best recreation of William Shatner’s face using the more-than-adequate facial editor, you’re inserted into an immense science-fiction universe as an Alliance officer caught up in interstellar intrigue. Getting the various factions and races straight takes a few hours, most of which is spent in a single capacious starport. Before you even get your own spaceship or land on your first planet, you will complete a full adventure on the starport alone, choosing who to put in your three-person party, befriending or betraying confidants, and spending a little q.t. at the spaceport nudie bar.
[image2]By the time you finally get off the starport, you’ll be adept at the delicate art of conversation. When talking, a response dial appears at the bottom of the screen, allowing you to choose the attitude and direction of your conversation. Responses from the top of the wheel are generally positive and polite, responses from the bottom often rude. In addition, as your character gains talent in either charm or interrogation, new persuasive options are made available.
The conversations are truly incredible feats, and they benefit from having some of the best writing, best voice-acting, and most expressive facial graphics in videogame history. And on top of that, you take an active role, deciding whether to side with the corrupt arms dealer or the corrupt security officer, whether to exterminate a dangerous but contrite species, whether to take the hard or soft line with someone threatening suicide. While your moral sway is gauged on a meter between the path of the “paragon” or the “renegade,” the true value of these dilemmas is that they make unique each adventure and each mission. Sometimes options will be closed off by your decisions, others will open up. Hence, replay value.
The action, while less impressive than the conversations, is better than one expects from an RPG of this depth. Depending on which character class you choose—either a soldier, a tech-specialist engineer, a bionic adept, or some combination of the three—you can use either big guns or special skills to dispatch enemies.
The best special abilities hurl enemies into walls, others make them fight each other, drain their shields, or rejuvenate your own. The only frustration is that using special abilities means pausing gunfights. Only a single special ability can be button-mapped, and that leaves all of your other hard-earned skills to waste away in an awkward and intrusive pop-up menu.
[image3]Shooting works even better. The third-person perspective works fine, and sticking to cover is accomplished in non-obtrusive, Gears of War, style. There are only four types of guns, but there are many weapons manufacturers (some of which you can double-cross) and many different slot-able upgrades. You won’t be hurting for ordinance.
But you will be hurting for framerate. The most noticeable problem with the game is its chugging graphics engine. Almost every environment is choppy, and textures and details (like your clothes) frequently pop in and out of existence as the 360 tries to keep up. The small areas, divided by ubiquitous elevators of dubious speed, testify to the amount of data the game can present at one time. But even if its particular areas are small, its full expanse is truly galactic.
Eventually, after enough talking and shooting, you get off the spaceport and into the final frontier. There you can zip around between star systems, exploring planets, accomplishing lots of side-quests, and finding hidden collectibles. Exploration isn’t as deep as in, say, the classic Star Control (you can usually only land on one planet per solar system), but there are still plenty of neat surprises. For instance, I happened upon a pirate hide-out, and that triggered a long back-story from one of my crewmen revealing his softer side. Arrr. Feelings.
There are more stories in this game than in decade of Reader’s Digests. From obvious allusions to Firefly and Aliens to the technical detail of Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke to an 80s-camp score that Vangelis might have composed, the science-fiction of Mass Effect is one steeped in the genre’s best achievements. The main story, involving a cosmic threat from a conspiracy between a rogue special agent, some evil robots, and something from the deep past, is excellent. But so are the hundreds of sub-plots: the de-fertilization of one race by another, the Branch Dividian-like cult of bionic humans, the intergalactic council that has a beef with humans. Mass Effect’s universe is deep and, better yet, coherent. If there’s one thing we can count on, it’s lots of upcoming Mass Effect fan fiction that got grammer much yes.
[image4]Speaking of errors, Mass Effect isn’t altogether immune. Driving over unexplored worlds, which should be ecstatic fun, often means climbing and bouncing through mountain ranges with little control. The rover frequently gets stuck, moves annoyingly slow, and gets totally screwy when trying to back up. This is compounded by the fact that there is little to find on the planets, and long bouncy stretches of terrain between them.
And there are a host of other little problems: the menu interface is non-intuitive, the maps, especially of the huge Citadel starport, are confusing, and the autosave feature often hangs you out to dry at the worst moments. There is a discernable lack of polish on Mass Effect, and one wonders what might have been if Christmas was more than a month away.
Call it inertia, but when Mass Effect is rolling, even these apparent problems are brushed aside. For Mass Effect is truly massive, with enough material for at least three all-nighters. . . the first time through.