For a games journalist, sitting down to review a game like Mass Effect is something of a nightmare. And before you panic, don’t worry – it’s not because it’s crap. Far from it. The problem is, with a game as immense as Mass Effect, there’s so much to cover, you’ll be forced to miss something out. If we had enough paper to destroy an entire Brazilian rainforest, we could still probably find some aspect of Mass Effect that we haven’t had the appropriate length of space to rave about. And that is a good thing.
Whether it’s the open-ended galaxy, the intricately penned characters, the novel-worthy storyline, or the infamous alien/lesbian sex scene, Mass Effect is a real ‘one of a kind’ game. It’s the kind that defines a generation of RPGs to come after – kind of like Neverwinter Nights before it, and Planescape Torment before that. This is a game your grandchildren can play, and see how cool life was before their virtual-reality headsets and hover cars. This is quite possibly, one of the most ground-breaking role-playing games of all time.
Even within the first 15 seconds of playing Mass Effect, it’s obvious you’re experiencing something special. Rather than just having a character-creation scheme pop-up, instead the game pretends it’s trying to connect to a military database to download your personnel file. If you choose to create your own character, the file magically becomes corrupted, and the game asks you a series of questions, to establish your background, before letting you make your own Commander Shepard.
And interestingly, the choices you make in the character creation will have a real impact on the way characters view you in the game. Depending on your choice of background (you can be a street kid, a colonist, a military hero and so on), characters will have a pre-disposed liking or disliking of you, and it’s a real weird feeling to have aliens mumbling, discussing your character’s past as you walk past them. Although it doesn’t make any major changes to the way the game plays, this is just one of the touches of attention to detail that BioWare has lovingly smothered Mass Effect with and, believe us, it shows.
If you’re looking to come into Mass Effect without knowing anything about the story, we’d suggest you skip this paragraph. Once you’ve finished creating your character, you’re inserted onto the deck of the Normandy, the game’s main spacecraft. Playing as your very own Commander Shepard (your surname is constant – you only get to choose your first name), your first mission sees you landing on a humancolonised planet, which has recently discovered a mysterious Prothean beacon that has been left behind by a highly advanced alien race. As the artefacts are of such valuable importance, the galactic council have sent along a Spectre, one of the galaxy’s elite security force, to accompany you on the mission. However, things (as always) aren’t what they seem, and it’s quickly revealed that the planet’s been attacked by a mechanoid alien race called the Geth who are also looking to get their hands on the technology. What began as a routine retrieval mission quickly plunges you into a world of galactic politics, espionage, and betrayal, ending with you joining the Spectre, and taking command of the Normandy yourself, to go on a galaxy-wide pursuit of a rogue agent and stop the Geth invasion. Phew.
But one of the aspects that sets Mass Effect head and shoulders above other giant RPGs like Oblivion, is the fact its world has been so intricately crafted. Everything here is as imaginative and deep-rooted in sci-fi lore as you could hope for. The worlds you land on, and the vistas you take in are not only believable, but, due to the lavish attention to detail, they just feel right. Cities are populated, planets are barren wastelands, and everything is there for you to explore. Even more impressive, is the fact that the game hasn’t fallen into the trap of having all aliens look pretty much humanoid. One of our favourite races is the Elcor, which is a bizarre cross of elephant and anteater that have only recently gained the ability to speak, put things across in an entirely monotonous manner. To ensure you understand what they’re saying, they begin each sentence with how it’s meant to be interpreted, leaving you with things like "Pleased greeting. Hello human." or "Nervous response. You heard that?"
As you can imagine, coming from a developer with the pedigree of BioWare, Mass Effect’s dialogue system is incredibly advanced, and must have been a huge feat to program. The conversations are powered not by clicking on your response, but instead selecting the tone of answer you wish to give from a wheel. This will offer you things like, "Who are they?", "Why are you here?", "Who says?!" to enable you to quickly select a response and keep the conversation flowing. Even more impressive is the amount of branches these conversations have – by digging further and saying the right things, you’ll often uncover incidental pieces of information about your mission that, while they don’t appear in your quest log, help you gain a better understanding of Mass Effect’s world. The animations to accompany these mini-cut-scenes are also very impressive – characters move with a humanistic (or alien-istic) quality, and facial animations have such subtleties that you can actually tell when a character’s hiding something, or if they’re feeling nervous. In that way, conversations in Mass Effect are almost like a game of poker: you don’t show all your cards first – instead, you trick your opponent into revealing a weakness and then take advantage of it.
When it comes to role-playing (and we mean that in the traditional sense), Mass Effect is one of the finest examples out there. From the ability to craft an intricate backstory for your character, to the way each character will respond to you differently, depending on your earlier dealings with different characters (sometimes even on different worlds), it’s surprisingly easy (and a hell of a lot of fun) to build up a reputation for your character as a fully fleshed human being, rather than a one-dimensional goodie or baddie. As well as the typical conversational points, it’s possible to gain good (Paragon) or Bad (Renegade) points by accomplishing missions in certain ways. While these moral choices are often quite obvious, the ability to shape your character is one that’s sadly often overlooked in RPGs, and thankfully is taken to the forefront of Mass Effect.
However, this also brings us to our first problem. While the conversation system is incredibly advanced, and for the most part really good, it’s all too easy to accidentally say the wrong thing. Often, the options you choose are very different in tone from what you actually say, leaving you telling an alien diplomat that his mother looks like ET in a much less tongue-in-cheek manner than you initially intended. While it may be a minor point, this does get in the way of shaping your character, as you will end up saying things you never meant to, and that can sometimes alter your relationship with in-game characters – permanently.
When you talk about open worlds in games, it’s often in the case of square kilometres. Crysis has this many sq km, Oblivion has this many sq km. But in Mass Effect, you’ve got an entire galaxy to explore. Within around four hours of gameplay, you’ll have gained control of your very own ship, which you can fly to planets as and when you choose. If you want to go and land on an uncharted planet then feel free, the game won’t stop you. You can explore at your own free will. Somewhat disappointingly, the majority of planets you land on are actually very small, but that’s understandable when you have so many to explore, and each one usually does have something of interest on it. Whether it’s a pirate base, a rare artefact, or a piece of lore to enhance the Mass Effect universe, if you don’t go exploring then you’ll be missing out because a lot of the fun in the game comes just from the adventure.
As we’re sure a lot of you are aware, Mass Effect is a port of the Xbox 360 original, coming a good six months after the Xbox’s November launch, yet we’re pleased to say the PC version is by far the superior version. Where the 360 game was plagued by slowdown, and texture pop-in, the PC game manages to maintain the highest of highresolution textures, and runs at a steady frame rate throughout, never dropping below 21fps on our test rig (and that was with everything on ‘max’).
To this extent, the new interface is a lot better than the 360 version, organising the interface and upgrade menu in a much more logical way, while the fluidity and precision of the mouse makes combat a whole lot easier. As the combat here is very much realtime, Tabula Rasa-style combat, it plays out a lot like a third-person shooter. With the extra precision afforded by the mouse and the PC’s optimised combat system, battles, which is one of the downsides of the 360 version, are actually a whole lot easier, and a lot more enjoyable.
All in all, Mass Effect is easily one of the best RPGs ever made. Letting you do everything a roleplaying game really should, Mass Effect takes your character-building options to a new level, in a galaxy you’ll be driven to explore every last inch of, just in case you miss out on anything special. ‘Game of the Year’ candidate already? You can bet your Pangalactic gargle blaster on it.