Mass Effect

Mass Effect
Mass Effect Cover
Platforms Xbox 360, Windows
Genre Epic Space Action RPG
Score 9  Clock score of 9Gameplay: 8
Fun Factor: 9
Gfx/Sound: 9
Story: 10
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Mass Effect was my "must-play" game of 2007. Alas, it wasn't until 2008 that I finally got to play it. And play it I did: nearly 40 hours of gaming in 10 days is probably the most gaming I've done since Final Fantasy VIII was released (or any period of time that I played World of Warcraft). The game is not perfect, but I was engrossed the entire time and the game kept throwing surprises at me around every turn. I went in thinking I understood the game and thought I could play it the way I wanted to play it. Instead, Mass Effect played me like it was my first time saving the universe. I came out extremely satisfied and wanted to start it over again right away.

For my review on just the first hour, please see my Mass Effect review at The First Hour.

Bioware's epic is a combination of role-playing game and third-person shooter. Think of the best things Knights of the Old Republic has to offer and carefully mesh it with the best features of Gears of War, and you will have Mass Effect. However, the game is much more action-oriented than Knights but isn't as demanding as Gears, it really finds a perfect balance between the two that makes you wonder how they pulled it off. Geez, I don't know how I can go on without going into too much detail, so let's get right to the specifics!

Scores

Gameplay: 8
There's a much larger variety of gameplay in Mass Effect than I imagined. As I stated before, Mass Effect is a nice mix of KotOR and Gears of War, but that's only as far as regular traveling and combat goes. I would say there are two more distinct gameplay types: driving the Mako vehicle, and worst of all, navigating your inventory. Let's take a look at the dominant gameplay though first, combat. Mass Effect's battles are mainly focused on guns. This is a big difference from KotOR's lightsabers and Jade Empire's martial arts. You might be thinking to yourself: KotOR had guns, and you would be right. But you didn't have to shoot them manually and with some thumbstick skill. That's what surprised me the most I believe, shooting a gun really did feel like Gears of War, it was very interactive and definitely gives this game more of an action feel than an RPG feel. It works though, but not with some problems. The enemies do not respond well to being shot, they either keep running at you or fall over on their back; there is no in between. You really have to pay attention to their health bar to tell if you're hitting them or not. You're given an aiming reticule but I'm pretty sure behind the scenes there are a lot of dice still rolling determining whether you hit them or not, and even on the normal difficulty level, you will hit them more often than not. With the right partners, combat is generally easy and except for a boss fight here or there, not worth fretting over. I should also note that along with guns, you can use biotic powers, similar to force powers. And even though my character was of the Vanguard class (soldier/biotic mix), I just focused on using guns. The action moved much quicker that way.

Okay, so next up we have the Mako. This is an all-terrain vehicle similar to the Warthog from Halo. It's meant for traversing worlds, something you'll do a lot of if you choose to partake in the side missions. It handles very loose at first but I got used to it after a few hours of intense driving, the problem is, the worlds you're expected to drive over are designed in the most frustrating way. You know you have to get to point B, but in the way is a giant mountain and the only way over is in the Mako. You slowly make your way over it, trying not to slide down near vertical slopes while picking your path carefully. It can be fun at times, but since I was doing all the side missions I could, it got quite repetitive and more work than I wanted. It is still generally well designed though and fun to drive in most instances, especially since it is equipped with two different guns.

Before I get into the inventory system, a quick word on the dialogue system. It works very well, a lot better than in past Bioware games such as Jade Empire. Instead of seeing the entire line of dialogue you're going to say when choosing, you just see a short paraphrase. This makes choosing your options quick and easy. I noticed though that sometimes it didn't matter what option you picked, Shepard would still say the same thing... suspicious.

All right, the inventory. There have been a lot of complaints on this, and I agree with most of them, so I won't go into it very deep. Buying, selling, and just plain managing your items, especially upgrades, is a chore. Generally you just have one long list of items (hard limit of 150) and no way to sort them. It's a complete pain and I tried to keep my inventory size to a minimum whenever possible. I'm sick of talking about it already, go read any other review if you want more specifics.

Fun Factor: 9
The main missions in Mass Effect are incredibly fun, they are well design, scripted, and written from the moment they start to the moment they end. The optional missions definitely do not have the polish the main missions do, they're more used for expanding on the universe and helping you level up. Really the only times I wasn't loving this game was when my inventory size had ballooned to near unmanageable sizes and when I was riding the elevator in my spaceship (elevators are all over Mass Effect, but this one is the worst: a one minute ride for about 15 feet). Otherwise, this game was incredibly fun. The last hour or so had me so pumped due to the writing and generally awesome, fast-paced gameplay. And for the record, my female Shepard was smoking.

Graphics and Sound: 9
Mass Effect uses the Unreal Engine 3 to deliver its cinematic experience and not one CPU or GPU cycle was spared. The game uses plenty of close ups on its 100s of characters and you can see every muscle and nerve twitch as they speak. I constantly found myself making the exact same facial expressions as my on screen counterpart as I read the dialogue, now that's a sign of lots of hard and dedicated work. There is a dark side though to the graphics, and that is the texture draw-in. Basically every surface in the game (faces, bodies, environments) are made up of layers of textures. Unfortunately, not all of the layers are there when the scene starts up, so they will be drawn-in quickly as they load. This can be incredibly distracting at times, as entire characters may dramatically change their physical appearance two or three times over the course of a few seconds due to the added textures. I could have gone for slightly longer load times if it meant avoiding these graphical flaws.

Mass Effect has hours and hours of speech, and it's incredibly well written and acted. I played as a female Shepard, voiced by Jennifer Hale, and she was absolutely exceptional. The supporting cast was typically just as good featuring some notable actors such as Seth Green, Marina Sirtis, and Keith David. The sound effects and musical score was top notch. My complaint about the sound in Mass Effect are the repetitiveness of some of the voices and lines, especially while in battle. You'll constantly here the same line shouted out within just a few seconds, "I'm going to destroy you!" or "The enemies are all over!" It seemed to degenerate to Star Ocean 2 levels at times.

Story: 10
Mass Effect's story is brilliantly written, but it relies so much on the universe behind it. That universe is so well crafted, throughout the entire game you're learning new and alien things about it and slowly piecing everything together. There are at least 10 alien species and about five of them are completely fleshed out: government, history, culture, military structure, species life span, family organizations, I could go on and on. All of this information is doled out through interesting conversations and codex entries. One of my favorite species were the Quarians, though I wasn't interested in the Quarian in my party at all, she did give me some great information about her people. The most interesting concept was the pilgrimage that all Quarians must go on when they come of age. They leave the Flotilla (the Quarian migrant fleet that the entire species lives on because they were displaced from their home world by a legion of A.I.) and must find with something of value for the fleet before they are welcomed back. It was just so intriguing.

Okay, so the universe is really deep. The galaxy is full of ancient, alien technology that all the species have come to rely on. The major species have formed a Council to govern all and reside on a giant space station called the Citadel. They have commissioned an elite few to be Spectres, a special group of people above the law to preserve peace. That's where you come in, Shepard. The game begins with an on-the-job interview of your created character to become the first human Spectre ever. It quickly transforms into Milky Way spanning journey to save the Citadel and the rest of the galaxy from the bad guys, and the worse guys. It's epic, it's deep, it's thoroughly well written and researched. The dialogue is some of the best I've ever heard and the characters show their layers as the game progresses. If you like science fiction, do yourself a favor and play this. It may well be the best book you ever played. My praise goes out to the lead writer, Drew Karpyshyn, for a memorable story and universe.

Overall: 9
Mass Effect has some really annoying elements to it, but they're overshadowed greatly by an absolutely stellar game experience. From the first minute you're thrown into this incredible universe that had me marveling nearly constantly. My fellow characters were intriguing and actually helpful during combat, and I was just blown away by the number of systems and planets you could travel to and land on or scan. It is really kind of like a modern day version of Star Control 2, and I think it will only be surpassed in greatness by the upcoming Spore (ed. note: it wasn't). If you own an Xbox 360, buy this game. If you don't own an Xbox 360 and like science fiction, buy this game (and an Xbox of course). The moment I finished I wanted to start all over and do it again.

If you're curious, I created a female, Earth-born, sole survivor Shepard. She was a Vanguard and later a Shock Trooper. Sophie Shepard was 100% Paragon (essentially a nice person), but still had about 20% Renegade in her. My two main allies were Ashley Williams, a soldier, and Garrus Vakarian, an infiltrator (hey, the ones on the cover!). The game took me right around 40 hours to complete and I had every side mission I could find finished. My favorite weapon was the pistol which I used almost exclusively.

Here's to Shepard and here's to Mass Effect, my early candidate for game of the year that didn't come out in 2008.

Mass Effect Saren