Bioware’s own Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was one of the original Xbox’s most well-received games. With lots of dialogue, a solid science fiction story, and a deep role-playing system, it remains a classic title. The developers have since moved on, letting another developer handle a sequel to Knights while working on Jade Empire, another Xbox title. Now, though, Bioware has made the leap to Xbox 360. Mass Effect is an action game in the same vein as Knights of the Old Republic, albeit more action-oriented and far more mature. 360 owners with some time on their hands will definitely want to check this adventure out. While it isn’t perfect, it provides a great role-playing experience, as well as some exciting combat situations and excellent graphics.
Mass Effect starts off by letting players create their character. Other than the required last name ‘Shepard’, a surprising amount of options are available. As well as choosing a sex and defining a class, the creation system in Mass Effect lets the player tweak Commander Shepard’s profile a bit. Was your particular Shepard a war hero born on Earth? A ruthless soldier, raised on a spaceship? These are small choices, but they change a fair amount of dialogue, and even provide unique side quests. The customization options for Shepard’s face are equally impressive. After creating a character, the player is plunged straight into a combat operation under the watchful eye of a Spectre, a sort of intergalactic secret agent observing Shepard for possible candidacy. Things soon go haywire, though, as a rogue Spectre guns down your supervisor. After a long first act which serves as a tutorial, Shepard will go on a quest to hunt down this traitor and bring them to justice. How this chase plays out, however, is entirely up to the gamer.
Much like Knights of the Old Republic, the main character takes part in conversations with literally hundreds of other characters, and a sort of profile is built off of how Shepard reacts in different situations. Different responses will result in gaining points in either the Renegade or Paragon categories, much like the Sith and Jedi system in Knights. However, Mass Effect has no clear definition of good or evil- if anything, the profile is political- so it treads a grey area that few games venture into. Many Renegade choices are either downright nasty, or in a Paragon’s case, borderline naive. Still, there are many options which all seem entirely reasonable, making the outcome of every conversation all the more interesting. Every actor is fully voiced, and there is none of Oblivion’s annoying repeated-actor-syndrome. All the characters sound and act unique, making Mass Effect’s world all the more immersive. The atmosphere is fairly mature, including rampant racism between humans and other alien species. Some characters are more accepting than others, making everything feel far more real than simply having x race hating y race. This representation of the Milky Way is probably one of the most diverse game settings ever created.
When not talking, arguing, or romancing other characters, Commander Shepard is out kicking some serious ass. While Mass Effect is technically an RPG, it has all of the trappings of a tactical shooter, along the lines of Gears or War or Ghost Recon. Two squadmates accompany Shepard at all times, and each character can be outfitted with varying pistols, shotguns, and rifles to get the job done. The most common enemy, the synthetically-engineered Geth, fight in a similar fashion, so running around and trading shots with enemies can certainly be exhilarating. There is a psychic force called Biotic power, which Shepard or other members of his/her crew can use to lift, throw, and do all sorts of other things to foes. The squad usually acts on its own, but the player can call up menus mid-fight to select weapon tactics or Biotics for other characters. These screens simply pause the gameplay and allow the player to quickly choose in the middle of combat. It’s fluid and helpful, and overall the action in Mass Effect is exciting and fun. Driving sequences, however, are less so. The all-terrain Mako is probably the bounciest vehicle ever created, and it’s impossible to wrangle. With six wheels and a three person crew, you’d think that the damn thing would have some weight to it, but it handles like a remote-controlled car on a trampoline. It doesn’t help that the Mako is almost always driving on rocky, boring land. While it’s admirable that so many optional planets were included in the game, the fact that 90% of them are barren, poorly textured wastelands is a bit disappointing. Still, Mass Effect plays fantastically.
The graphics in Mass Effect are something else. Utilizing the popular Unreal Engine 3, the developers created a world that looks like it leaped straight out of a science fiction movie from the 1980’s. Many areas look gritty, run down, and lived-in. Other places are lush, colorful, and gorgeous. The machinery is appropriately industrial looking. The best part of the presentation is the characters, though. Every face, especially alien ones, is exquisitely textured. The animation is also impressive, with believable expressions and eyes that really look alive. Unfortunately, the game suffers from some texture pop-in, which detracts a little from the experience. At least the sound is flawless; along with great voice-acting, Mass Effect boasts a great musical score that sounds like it was inspired by Vangellis’ work on Blade Runner. Cheesy keyboard riffs accompany epic orchestral swells, setting the mood perfectly. The presentation is the best part of Mass Effect, and that’s saying a lot, given how solid most of the gameplay is.
Mass Effect is superb, but it doesn’t carry the same groundbreaking weight that Knights of the Old Republic did when it was released. The positive/negative dialogue tree just isn’t a unique property anymore, but even so, Mass Effect uses it for an even better purpose than the black-and-white story in Star Wars. By crafting every piece of a believable world, social and political, Bioware has raised the bar for role-playing games. Still, while the tale is grand, it clocks in at around 15 hours- shockingly short for an RPG. There are plenty of side quests, to be sure, and these extend the game by a good 10 or so hours. Unfortunately, most of them take place on the boring and often frustrating planets that require the Mako. Players who take Mass Effect slowly, absorbing every part of its deep atmosphere, are the ones who will get the most out of it. Even so, Mass Effect is a must buy for all 360 owners. A truly epic journey, through and through.
Nine out of ten
- Clever writing
- Excellent customization
- Solid shooter gameplay
- Beautiful visuals
- Iffy driving sections
- Story is on the shorter side
- Graphical glitches