I’ve been putting off reviewing Mass Effect for a while now. I couldn’t seem to find the proper words to express just how awesome this game is... I know I’ve talked before about how games need to be experienced, but for me Mass Effect epitomizes just what that means. Mass Effect is more than just a fantastic story and a great shooter/RPG… it has created an entire alternate universe and mythology for science fiction fans to lose ourselves in. It is, in my humble opinion, the best series available at the moment. And your journey starts here...
In the not too distant future mankind uncovers alien artifacts when we first land on Mars. The technology gleaned from these discoveries allows humanity to spread out into the solar system, where they make an even bigger discovery: a Mass Relay. These ginormous constructs allow FTL (faster than light) travel, literally sling-shoting a ship to another point in the galaxy where we find, much to our chagrin, that we aren’t alone after all. Mass Effect takes place a generation after this first contact is made. And this is where you come in, taking the role of Commander Shepard.
Shepard (who is completely customizable down to sex, appearance, combat specialization, and even his/her back story) is an elite soldier, one of humanity’s finest. Your assignment is aboard the SSV Normandy, a newly designed stealth ship and the pride of the new navy. However, when the Normandy is on her maiden voyage they receive a distress call from Eden Prime. A monumental discovery has been made: another artifact of the Protheans, similar to what was found on Mars. Now the site is under attack, someone is after the find...
Shepard is also under consideration for the Spectres (Special Tactics and Reconnaissance)… the elite security force for the Supreme Galactic Council. Basically, a Spectre is sort of a 007 agent meets Black Ops of the future, given free license to get the job done. And Shepard could be the first human into this illustrious fold, an unprecedented honor and symbolic of how far humanity has come in such a short time on the intergalactic stage. Naturally there is a conspiracy for Shepard to unravel, along with the bigger mystery surrounding the theft of the Prothean artifact. But as the story develops you'll learn of a far greater threat to not only humanity, but to all the citizens of the galaxy...
I can’t stress enough how good the writing is in Mass Effect, and not just the boatloads of dialogue. The overarching narrative is smartly conceived, born of an intergalactic history that you learn as you play. Some of it comes across in dialogue, but other times it’s downloaded into your ‘Codex’ which is essentially the Mass Effect version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. After meeting a new species you can check the guide for more information. A lot of effort was put into this, and I think it’s brilliant.
There a lot of twists and turns to the plot. When you actually find out what’s going on it’s such a "Holy crap! Now, THAT was clever!" moment I nearly fell off the couch! Sci-fi nerds will eat it up! It’s some of the best story-telling I’ve ever been privy to, but on a much larger scale than we've seen before making it even more impressive.
Now, Mass Effect is a Bioware game… and this means a morality system! This time good versus evil has been nicknamed 'Paragon' versus 'Renegade.' Pretty much every conversation has some variation on that dynamic: you'll see a "nice" response, a "neutral" one, and the "jerk" one. There are several well written morally gray areas, and as with other Bioware titles, some of your responses can affect how the story plays out in dramatic ways. Some of these moments are heart-wrenching, as you are given to seemingly irreconcilable options to choose between. I couldn't wait to play the game a second time to see how those moments might have played out differently.
I also like the fact that Shepard actually has a voice… as opposed to the mute protagonists that we’ve been forced to endure in previous Bioware titles. What’s clever is that rather than reading your response verbatim, you select what is basically a paraphrased response giving you the tone or flavor of what Shepard will actually say. It keeps the player paying attention rather than just glazing over the text...
When it comes to combat there are essentially three classes: soldier (good with guns, although the guns are fairly standard fare), tech (good with ordinance and the omnitool… basically, a futuristic wrist watch that can do all sorts of fun stuff), or a biotic (good with… well, let’s call em ‘Force’ powers for lack of a better descriptive). There are also various combinations of those three, like a tech-savvy soldier or my personal favorite, the pseudo- ‘warrior monk’ (combination of soldier and biotic).
Joining you on your merry quest through the stars is a group of truly memorable characters that you might find yourself getting more than a little attached to… and that’s not just because you can boink some of them! As your progress through the story you can go about the Normandy and talk to each teammate. Each time you engage them in conversation they will have something new to say, providing snippets of background, or perhaps even asking for your help in solving some dispute from their past. I found the evolution of my cohorts addictive, routinely running through the whole ship, cornering each one just to see if they had anything new to say. Again, your responses play in heavily here, but I can’t think of very many games where such character development is also so well rounded.
Your supporting cast also have their own combat specializations as well. The trick comes in when you assemble your team. Like any RPG, you’ll want a well balanced party. Just make sure you have tech (or part tech) at all times to unlock doors… their only useful ability if you ask me.
Regardless of your class choice the combat is pretty standard third person cover based shooter. The controls when running and gunning are good but not great. However, if you want to use any of your special skills or command your teammates to do the same you can pull up a radial menu that pauses the action. You can then select your desired skill, un-pause and play it out. Fortunately, your ally AI does a pretty decent job on it’s own… micromanaging them isn’t too necessary in my opinion.
The RPG element in this shooter/RPG is a fairly well rounded upgrade system. Shepard and his/her team gain experience and level up as you might expect. When you attain a new level you spend skill points on certain characteristics unique to each class be it becoming more proficient with sniper rifles, increasing the radius of your 'Singularity' biotic power, or upgrading your skill at hacking doors with your omnitool.
Then there are the weapons and armor… you’ll find a lot of loot. An inordinate amount of time will be spent passing it around between your team mates. The problem is that you can only change the equipment of those in your party. Aboard the Normandy you'll have to search through the locker of each teammate one by one. Why this can't be done in a menu I don't know, but by the end of the game it was wearing on my nerves a bit.
From a graphical standpoint Mass Effect is pretty impressive. Both the environments and the animations look great (although Shepard looks like he's running in pudding for some reason). There are some glitches, but considering how massive the game is that can be overlooked. And yes, the NPC’s have the classic 'Bioware stare' during conversation making them seem a tad robotic. Personally, I really like the "grainy" effect that gives the visuals a sort of vintage sci-fi feel like in old movies. Of course, if that's not your thing you can always turn it off.
As for the sound, I think it’s fantastic. The voice work, by and large, sounds great. When you consider the sheer amount of dialogue in this game it’s impressive that all the performances are so good. But for me personally, I love the soundtrack… like to the point that I actually went online and bought the CD. That’s right, I purchased the CD of a video game...
As much as I love the Mass Effect universe, this first game is not without a few blemishes that slightly mar the overall experience. Sure, you can customize your Shepard however you want, but trying to create an accurate looking avatar is an exercise in futility. You’ll end up looking more alien than the aliens themselves. The elevator rides are frustratingly long. The hacking mini-game is annoying (at least on the console version). You’ll find yourself saving before every door in case you screw up. Planet hopping was a cool idea but just didn’t work well in practice. The Mako (your all-terrain vehicle) handles like a drunken mule with a propensity to bunny hop about the landscape. Still, these are minor complaints and the story and characters completely overshadow them.
While it may seem like hyperbole, the canon of Mass Effect has evolved in depth and complexity to the point that it rivals the most popular franchises like Star Wars or Star Trek. I imagine you are rolling your eyes at my blasphemy, but if you really take the time to plumb the depths of what Mass Effect has to offer I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It's an outstanding testament to the efforts of the team at Bioware and stands as a beacon for what games can be as a medium for telling a story. This first chapter starts what has become one of the marquis series of this generation. Plus, if you play your cards right and you can end up having the highly touted, yet highly controversial "blue-alien lesbian sex" (if your Shepard is a woman). Such are the perks of saving the galaxy...
Score = 9.7 / 10