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   Mass Effect - Reader Review  

Mass Effect
by Obsidian J

Click here for game information
PLATFORM
Xbox 360
BATTLE SYSTEM
4
INTERACTION
5
ORIGINALITY
4
STORY
5
MUSIC & SOUND
5
VISUALS
5
CHALLENGE
Moderate
COMPLETION TIME
15-25 hours
OVERALL
4.5/5
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Bioware’s 2003 hit Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was a prime example of a western RPG done right on a console. The freedom the player had over the story coupled with a cleverly veiled turn-based battle system solidified Bioware’s bid as a premier console RPG developer. Alas, the sequel was out of their hands and the criminally underappreciated Jade Empire truthfully had an underwhelming combat engine. So what’s next? Mash-up every sci-fi inspiration they could think of, stir in some genuinely gripping dialog, top it with today’s hot genre (3rd person shooter), and bust out a diamond called Mass Effect.

   The player takes part in this riveting space opera after crafting the protagonist of his or her choice. Male or female, and whatever first name you choose you are Commander Shepard, an elite soldier of the Alliance (this game’s take on an intergalactic governing body). I would go into Shepard’s background, but you’re also able to choose that as well from a few different scenarios. Are you a decorated war hero, or are you a ruthless thug whose talents got you noticed by the top brass? NPC’s even refer to your upbringing in conversations. The surprisingly in-depth facial creation system allowed me to craft a fairly credible likeness of myself (albeit a little more chiseled). Also, for those badasses out there, you can add a pretty prominent scar on your avatar.

   The story begins as Shepard embarks on a covert mission on farming outpost Eden Prime. This deceptively simple inspection run is quickly revealed to be a much more important undertaking, and things get really out of control when top Spectre agent (think, Jedi with guns) Saren goes rogue. From then on, it’s up to you and your seemingly stereotypical rag-tag crew to track him down and put an end to his schemes. I say seemingly stereotypical because on the surface your team (comprised of humans, some ugly aliens, and one disturbingly hot blue alien) looks ripped straight from sci-fi series #175 on network television. You will soon realize, however, that each character is fully realized and developed exceptionally well by talented writers.

You feelin You feelin' lucky, punk?

   Upon gaining Spectre status, you’ll travel the galaxy in search of Saren, stopping by dozens of planets giving a real sense of scope to the galaxy, of which our “Sol” System is only a small part. The main quest only takes you to a handful of these locations, but many can be explored during a survey mission or the odd side quest here and there.

   Speaking of sidequests, most that take place outside of main locales are quite dull and only useful for farming experience and money, most of which you don’t need. The true bulk of this somewhat short RPG is met through copious amounts of dialog. That is not a knock to the game, however. Bioware is known for their strong storytelling, and allowing the player to direct the flow of conversation. Just like in Bioware’s previous console efforts, the player is free to choose positive, negative, or neutral responses to party members and NPC’s, shaping their character’s personality and the narrative along with it. What sets this apart from past games is that Bioware has used the power of next-gen technology to not only fully voice the main character, but also give players the ability to pick the gist of Shepard’s response before all the lines are delivered, rather than forcing the player to fully read each response. This is accomplished by using a radial dialog tree that contains only brief phrases that carry the same connotation as Shepard’s spoken lines. While all that sounds confusing in print, it truly helps to evolutionize the flow of dialog, and allows you to truly feel as if you’re playing a movie. Not to mention Bioware’s well-written dialog makes these sections as enjoyable as the action sequences.

   The other bulk of gameplay focuses on a tactical third person shooter mechanic, sure to earn a few guffaws from die-hard RPG fans. I applaud Bioware for incorporating this genre. It adds tension to the action and I must admit, it would be silly to watch characters taking turns shooting each other. The system is far from perfect, however. Controlling Shepard can feel clumsy in the early going, and gamers weaned on earlier entries like Gears of War, or more recently Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, can find the combat to be a bit cumbersome. Players will find it comforting to be able to pause the action and choose weapons or force-like powers called biotics, though. Speaking of abilities, the player must choose a class which cannot be changed at the outset of a game, so don’t expect to go from walking time bomb (my nickname for wizard) to elite sniper at a whim. You must play your role. This restrictive customization also affects your party members, who are preset in their ways as well. Who you bring with you largely depends on who best compliments your skill set, so read up and pick your favorites before-hand, then choose your job from there. There is flexibility within upgrading your class, however, and there are not enough points in your first playthrough to max everything, so you must choose wisley. Hint: to have the most fun with dialog (and get a few useful goodies), upgrade charm or intimidation early and often.

Do you smell that?  Hmm...Must be my enormous upper lip. Do you smell that? Hmm...Must be my enormous upper lip.

   With all this talk about speaking and fighting, one begs the question, “Does any of it look good?” Heck, yes. I fired up KOTOR just for comparison and was absolutely floored by how far technology has come in the last 4 years. You will do a double take at the detailed character models because they are just a tad shy of being photorealistic. The alien models are amazing as well, with the Krogan being my favorite design. Early environments are pretty impressive, but the planet Ilos is where the designers really outdo themselves with open areas. This is a beautiful game. Not so beautiful, however, are the minor planets and locations. It seems Bioware just used a random topography generator and picked a color. Yeah, non-major locations are eyesores, but your time there is completely optional, so I’m not going to gripe too much. I almost forgot to mention the primary mode of transportation on these drab surfaces, the Mako. This unwieldy beast of an armored tran sport tries desperately to control somewhat like the Warthog from Halo, but the programmers didn’t really succeed on that one. Take a few practice runs on it however, cause you’re going to need to know how to drive it sooner or later.

   Sooner or later is an appropriate phrase, because Mass Effect really is as short or as long as you want it to be. The game is easily defeated in as little as 15 hours. I spent just under 25, because I chose to do most of the sidequests that didn’t involve some collect-a-thon. Yes, that antiquated design choice rears its ugly head. Find one dog tag or rare mineral only to find that you need to locate 29 more on 20 featureless planets to complete the quest. Ugh.

   It is good to know that your ears won’t be taking a beating. That is, if you don’t have an aversion to late 70’s early 80’s, Blade Runnerish sci-fi music. The soundtrack definitely pays homage to an earlier time period rather than what’s current, but that’s not a bad thing. I was beginning to get a little tired of sweeping orchestral scores. The largely synthesized “computer” beats were actually quite refreshing. Sound effects are appropriate and loud. I had to turn my system down on a few occasions. Also, for a game loaded with spoken dialog, it is nice to know that the excellent voices are clear and crisp. Thumbs to the sound design on this one.

   Many good things can be said about Mass Effect. It is an engaging, well thought out game that might just be a tad ahead of the technology. The developers had to cut some promised features, such as, actually interrupting characters during conversations, but that doesn’t take away from the quality product we received. It would be a disservice to call it a “prettied-up” KOTOR, although on the surface it doesn’t really revolutionize any play mechanics. It does however, refine what we’ve come to expect from a Bioware game to a glossy sheen, and the storytelling is just as sharp as ever. This is part of a planned trilogy, so any dropped features (and some new ones) may surface in the future. I am all too excited to continue the adventures of Commander Shepard crew, and can’t wait for the next one. Buy Mass Effect. You won’t be disappointed.

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