Released in November of 2007 with other high profile games (that have also recently seen sequels) like Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Mass Effect was the first game to be released by BioWare (makers of classic games such as Baldur’s Gate and Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic) on the current generation of consoles. It is an ambitious role playing game that casts you as an elite space cop, travelling the known universe on the hunt for a rouge agent who is out to destroy the universe with ancient alien technology.
The gameplay consists of a mix of shooting and role playing elements, such as weapon and item customisation. While arguably, the combat has its issues, the real strength of this game is its narrative, with particularly good interactive dialogue.
The game allows the player to not only customise the protagonist’s name and appearance, including gender, but select the back story as well. For instance, you can be an orphan, having grown up on the streets to enlist in the military and be the only survivor from a bloody battle, or you can choose to have come from a military family and be known for your ruthless decision making.
Each of these choices will affect certain missions that crop up later on. For example, if you chose to be the sole survivor of an epic battle, some way along the narrative you are summoned to the space port. Here, an escaped slave is threatening to kill herself because of the harsh treatment her masters have doled out to her.
If you choose to be a friendly character, you can talk the woman out of killing herself and get her the appropriate medical help. Similarly, if you choose the more mercenary route, you can put her out of her misery. This ends the mission prematurely and sends out the message that you are not a person privvy to messing around.
At the customisation screen you can also choose what class of character you wish to be. There are three main types of character class: engineers, who are good with technology, soldiers, who specialise in weaponry, and biotics, who have force-like biotic powers. The latter allows you to manipulate enemies and the environment around them.
Further choices involve whether you are a pure Soldier, Biotic, Engineer or a mixture of any two “pure” classes, such as a Biotic Soldier. The downside to this is that you are in essence a jack of all trades, master of none.
At the beginning of the game you are introduced to your protagonist: Commander Shepard, second in command on The Normandy, an experimental vessel that is escorting a Spectre agent (one of the galaxy’s elite space cops) to a human outpost on the edge of the galaxy. Little do you know that this Spectre is looking to recruit you as the first human Spectre; a particularly unpopular decision with other alien races.
Humanity has only been a part of the galactic community for a few decades, and are viewed with suspicion by their fellow community members. As well as checking out your abilities, the Spectre also wishes to examine an archaeological dig site on the colony that has unearthed some advanced but ancient alien technology.
Upon arriving at your destination, you discover that the settlement is under attack by sentient robot life forms known as The Geth, who are also after the ancient technology. Whilst on the surface, you discover that Sarren, the top Spectre agent, has gone rogue and is working with the Geth to steal the ancient technology in order to destroy life as we know it. Thus an epic quest unfolds in which you seek out evidence in order to convince the galactic counsel of Sarren’s plot.
This first level introduces the basics of the game. At first the combat might seem a little imprecise, but this is mainly down to the fact that when you start the game you have the most basic items available. Accuracy and damage stats are low and your armour offers little to no protection. During these early stages you must take your time with confrontations, or risk a swift death.
You are able to crouch behind cover and depending on your class type, use abilities, whether weapon based, technology based, or biotic based, to defeat enemies. As you progress through the game you will discover more and more powerful items, making combat a breeze. To begin with however, you must resist any FPS instincts and take your time.
You are joined by at least one squad member, with a maximum of two accompanying you at any one time. There are simple squad commands, such as advance, return, attack and defend, that give you a little control over your team. By holding the right bumper an abilities menu is brought up, allowing a choice of special moves for you and your team mates.
Exploration is the thrust of the game when not fighting. If you encounter other characters you can begin to exchange dialogue with them and must decide upon set responces. Conversation choices range from extremely positive to extremely negative and each choice builds a reputation for your character. For instance, if you choose only to respond aggressively then you will be known as a man to be feared.
After building this reputation some extreme responses will be accessible, which are used to wrangle out items or information from the people you speak to. Some instances extreme responses will even avoid boss fights altogether. As well as dialogue choices there are storyline choices, usually revolving around letting a person live or executing them. All of this contributes to your reputation.
What is interesting about Mass Effect’s reputation system is that it is incredibly multifaceted. Rather than just painting your character as a good or bad guy you can be a combination of things: a stern but fair person, a kind and compassionate person, or even cruel and unkind with a short temper, the list goes on. While it is true that the differences between personality types can be subtle, or even invisible to some, playing the game several times through to make different choices shows there is a lot more to BioWare’s morality system than most other games.
While there is plenty to praise the game for, it’s not without issues. There are a number of technical bugs that serve as a minor irritation. When action becomes hectic and the screen fills with enemies, the game is prone to slowing down almost to a stop until things calm down. There is also the occasional issue with texture popping, meaning characters do not fully load immediately, and look very blurry for the few seconds before top layer art work loads up.
Between missions you are able to send your ship across the universe to explore planets, scan for valuable minerals, and hunt for collectibles. This is all very well and good, but the planet scanning involves little more than simply pressing ‘A’ and waiting for it to tell you that, “yes, there is a gold deposit here, well done”.
Of the planets that you can land on and explore, you control a tank like vehicle to cover the vast and barren landscape. Whilst some missions are a lot of fun, such as fighting your way through a number of space pirates to recover some ancient battle armour for one of your team mates, they quickly become repetitive. This is not helped by the fact that most of the buildings that you explore have exactly the same floor plan. In essence, they are exactly the same building, barring the inclusion of a few random crates to hide behind. The controls of the tank are a little fiddly at first, but you will soon learn how to handle it, given enough practice.
GRAPHICS: 4/5 Excellent designs of the main characters in the game, and the numerous alien species are only slightly tarnished by a few graphical errors. The planets you explore are often barren wastelands that, although have pretty sunrises, are bland.
SOUND: 5/5 Some of the best voice acting to date in a video game, provided by Keith David, Lance Henricksen, and Seth Green, coupled with superb sound effects and fantastic John Carpenter-esque sci-fi sound track.
GAMEPLAY: 4/5 There is a decent mix of combat, conversation, and exploration. Some of the side missions can get a little repetitive, and the combat and tank driving can be frustrating early on.
LONGEVITY: 5/5 This is a game that has been designed to be played through a number of times, as there are so many different ways to complete missions. While the main storyline could be completed in a few hours, there are dozens of side missions to complete, as well as an extensive encyclopaedia stuffed full of data on the Mass Effect universe for those that love that sort of thing.
OVERALL: 4 ignorant Fox News Critics out of 5. While this game has some issues, they are all overcome by the excellent narrative and sheer number of different possibilities in the game. It may take a few hours to get its hooks into you, but once it does you will be addicted.