hoices are what you make of them, aren't they? It is said that we are defined by the choices we make, what we choose to do and what we choose to ignore. Choose to lend a shoulder to someone who's hurting and you might make a friend for life, or choose to ignore your rent payment and you'll find yourself out on the street. Many choices lie ahead, none of them easy.
Mass Effect is the newest release from BioWare, a company that has become a household name in RPG circles. The creators of such acclaimed titles as Knights of the Old Republic, its sequel and Jade Empire have taken the next step forward in storytelling with their sci-fi space epic. Set in 2183, across the entirety of the Milky Way galaxy, Mass Effect follows Systems Alliance Military Commander Shepard and his crew in a quest to save the known universe from a rogue agent named Saren.
Choose to explore and
broaden your skills. It's up to you.Like any other BioWare RPG, Mass Effect's gameplay is broken down into three elements: conversation, exploration, and combat. Where BioWare previously succeeded in each of these areas, Mass Effect shows evolution. In Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire, conversation trees opened up the game's content for you, dialogue unnaturally paused for your choices. In Mass Effect, conversations are fluid, allowing you to answer other characters in real time. As with previous BioWare games, they have a direct effect on the demeanor of your character, responses earning your character points towards either paragon or renegade status. Conversation complements a well-written storyline, full of emotion and substance.
Mass Effect is set in one of the most sprawling game universes to date. Think of games like Morrowind and Oblivion, set them in space, and you have an idea of what Mass Effect is like. There is a set amount of planets you'll visit in the game's story mode. Limiting yourself to these places, however, will diminish your experience. The game's star map is littered with dozens of systems, each with many unique worlds. Some you can land on and explore whilst completing side-quests, and some you can simply survey from space to locate deposits of minerals or lost relics. Either way, exploration is the real key to this game. Completing the numerous side-quests adds new elements of plot and depth. You'll learn new things about your allies and your adversaries by traversing the depths of space. Choose to explore and broaden your skills or not; it's up to you.
As part of the game's extensive character creator, you will have access to different combat weapons and abilities depending on class. Do you favor the ability to slug it out in a straight up firefight? Then choose the Soldier class. Do you fancy yourself someone who'd rather take advantage of your surroundings and exploit the weaknesses of your opponents? Then choose either the Infiltrator or Engineer class. Or are you a person who wants to bend opponents to your will and alter the very space around you with your biotic powers? Then choose the Adept class. You shape your character to your particular tastes, each class having a profound impact in how combat will play out. No matter what you choose, combat is fast-paced and fluid, and occurs in real time — it's a blast with just the right amount of challenge.
Combat in Mass Effect does follow a different path than previous BioWare works in its focus on exchanges at a distance. Characters use firearms and ranged biotic abilities as primary forms of attack. Occasionally, your compatriots exhibit traits that one might deem less than intelligent. There were moments throughout the game where I would issue a command to my allies to take cover only to have one of them stand out in the open where they would find themselves overwhelmed and dead within moments. Also, allies had moments where they would fire blindly into the cover they were behind, effectively hitting nothing. Team AI has always been one of the very few low points in BioWare games, and unfortunately, it rears its ugly head in Mass Effect as well.
Graphically, Mass Effect is out of this world, no pun intended. Everything from the vastness of space, to character models, to the surroundings in which you'll find yourself are created and imagined to magnify the game's otherworldliness. The inside of your ship, the Normandy, was one of my favorite places in the game. There are flickering status screens all aglow throughout the ship, with many NPCs going about their work. In the engineering bay you'll find engines pulsating with the raw power needed to propel your vessel, while the command deck has a real-time galaxy model hanging in midair. Mass Effect's look is one of beauty in the monumental and the minute.
At times, like watching a movie.However, not everything graphical is as glowing as a comet's tail. First, perhaps most annoying, are load times. Mass Effect is plagued with them. I was repeatedly taken out of the moment as my attention shifted to the loading. Loading in general is an issue for the game with general asset loads becoming frequent, and with no real pattern. General lag was an issue as well during fights involving lots of combatants. The other issue I have with the graphics is that of the female human NPCs in the game — in that there is only one. She has short brown hair. All the human female NPCs have it. Apparently, in the future, all manner of redheads and blondes have died out and women are only allowed to wear their hair short.
On sound, Mass Effect excels with convincing and appropriate voice acting. Characters speak with real emotion and inflection while being mapped to realistically rendered facial features. This, coupled with the improved conversation trees, gives the sense of watching a movie at times. It is a very immersive experience. Combat sounds are standard sci-fi fare with lasers, explosions, and other sounds you would expect. The musical score is very ethereal during some of the story-driven sequences, heightening the plot. A minor issue: some enemies use the same vocal threats in combat repetitively, but it's forgivable. Not everything can be perfect, right?
Mass Effect is a giant step forward in storytelling for gamers. Not many companies go to the lengths that BioWare does to impart a deep story with believable and convincing characters with which gamers can connect. Choices made by the lead character affect the galaxy as a whole. There are some parts during the game when you'll laugh, and maybe some parts where you'll cry. Though the game's combat and exploration are top-notch, the story is what does the most to advance the medium. Many critics still do not see games as a legitimate "art." With Mass Effect, we are getting closer, if not already there.