Mass Effect – Staff Review

Right from the beginning, Mass Effect presents itself as an epic RPG with a lush opening movie, some intriguing character development, and a sci-fi story that piques your interest. But then you’re dropped on a colony under attack, and suddenly there are genocidal robots with guns trying to blast you right off the miserable planet you’re desperately trying to save. That’s when you know that Mass Effect is also a no-nonsense shooter.

Those who come to Mass Effect in search of an engaging story will not be terribly disappointed. The plot blends science fiction and military elements with a dash of fantasy in a highly detailed setting. Mass Effect has an incredible amount of history and culture – all conveniently tracked in a codex – that give the story real depth. There are some predictable occurrences – the aliens in the Allied Council always disapprove of your “human” ways, for example – but the dialogue is excellent, so at least the obvious is stated in a well-written manner.

LOL, BRB, and OMG are not actual options.

Mass Effect fully utilizes the choose-your-response style of interaction to the point that the main character never speaks on his or her own. Players have to select a response every time it is the main character’s turn to speak. The responses are always in a set of three, and almost always one is well-mannered, one is neutral, and one is harsh. Players can develop the main character into a Paragon, a Renegade, or a little of both simply by choosing the right dialogue responses or completing quests and missions in certain ways. For example, kindly helping someone with a problem will earn you Paragon points, while intimidating the same person into revealing his or her actual ill motives then shooting him or her point-blank will earn you Renegade points and an inflated sense of badass. Both paths lead to interesting outcomes, such as different events during the final boss fight sequence. Flexible dialogue also plays an important part in character interaction and developing the optional and worthwhile romantic subplots. While the system doesn’t allow for truly diverse roleplaying, it is more than sufficiently entertaining and it develops two very different perspectives of the same story.

The rich, high-quality graphics are what one would expect from an Xbox 360 game, but creative design is not balanced throughout the game. Some of the environments, such as the high-tech Citadel, are very beautiful, but after a while, it’s clear that once you’ve seen one building on a non-storyline locale, you’ve seen them all. The mines, research centers, and bases all use the exact same layouts; the noticeable difference is the number of enemies waiting to smear your brains on the walls. Side-trip planets are also largely devoid of plant and animal life and chock full of repetitive terrain.

Cutscenes, however, are finely crafted. The use of shaky-cam and rack focus in action scenes gives the game a unique live-action documentary feel. Character mannerisms are very credible and life-like. Sadly, poor lighting choices and graphical limits make faces look odd, even grotesque, and skin and hair sometimes look waxy or oily. However, if the characters’ heads didn’t look so artificial at times, players would almost feel as if they were watching real people.

From the in-depth character face creation system that lets you determine the thickness of your character’s jaw and eyebrows, down to the news broadcasts in the elevator that mention events in the game and your own exploits, Mass Effect tries to spread out an immersive, interactive environment before the players. There are lots of solar systems to explore, but most of the planets can only be examined for brief summaries. Some can be surveyed from orbit, and a few can be explored on terra firma. But the exploration aspect improves in storyline areas, showing that Mass Effect is about business and not sightseeing.

Mass Effect is clearly a murder simulator.

Combat blends shooter and RPG elements quite nicely, almost like Bioshock. There are different classes with varying degrees of combat, tech, and biotic abilities. Think fighter, thief, and mage. Biotics use their skills to hurl enemies overhead while fighters blast them like clay pigeons, for example. There’s also a small amount of environmental interaction, such as movable objects just waiting to be thrown at someone and containers of hazardous materials that are primed and ready to catch a stray energy bullet and explode in someone’s face. Vehicular assault is possible in some areas. You can ram into an enemy and send him airborne over a cliff, then throw the vehicle into reverse and grind his accomplices into the dirt with your rear tires. Of course, it’s not all about maniacal destruction. You have to issue commands at times to your squad members, properly utilize cover, and avoid overheating your weapon. The result is a battle system that lets you have some fun as long as you keep your cool.

Mass Effect has different levels of difficulty, and though the game generally isn’t that difficult, newcomers to shooters should stick to Casual mode on their first playthrough. For shooter veterans, Mass Effect will be an easy title to pick up. In spite of the occasional “holy crap” spikes in difficulty, the game is very generous. There’s an overabundance of items and money, and the only actual puzzle in the game is a very simple Tower of Hanoi.

There are some interaction foibles, however. The vehicle controls are a bit difficult to grasp, but before long, players can send the Mako flying across the surface of a planet like the Dukes of Hazzard. There are some persistent “Loading” screens, and graphical details load a bit slowly, so characters may resemble Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for a few moments. The aforementioned Tower of Hanoi puzzle has pieces that flicker in an almost seizure-inducing manner. The real crime, however, is the menu format. In combat mode, it can be difficult to target the right weapon or ability. Other than that, controls are well-mapped and the game is somewhat easy to work with.

Though Mass Effect strives to deliver an epic sci-fi story, it does not devote similar energy to its music. The final assault of the game is backed by a very stirring piece, but the rest of the music is minimal and not memorable. Songs merely fill the background while voicework and sound effects – certainly two of the game’s strong points – dominate the ambiance. Sound effects go beyond being just sufficient, and voice acting is professional and spot-on. The cast includes plenty of familiar voices: Martina Sirtis (Counselor Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation), Cam Clarke, Cree Summer, Jennifer Hale, and Seth Green (Austin Powers and Robot Chicken).

Ultimately, Mass Effect is not quite the epic space odyssey it was hyped up to be, but it’s certainly worth playing. Long-time RPG players may enjoy the opportunity to try out a different genre without sacrificing essentials like character development and story, and shooter fans may appreciate the rich tale that gives meaning to each shot. The carbon-copy dungeons and limited exploration hurt the game a little overall, but the rest is rich enough that those sins can be forgiven. What’s more, the Paragon/Renegade dichotomy, class system, and difficulty levels boost replayability while making Mass Effect one of the best RPGs to hit the 360 since Oblivion.

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