|The long-awaited sci-fi saga from the RPG masters is here, and I'm pleased to say it lives up to its promise|
Mass Effect's been my most anticipated game for years now, and thankfully, fails to disappoint. There are issues, true - worryingly more than I expected - but the greatness we've come to expect from Bioware shines through regardless, putting it right up there among their very best for me.
A brand new tale set in an entirely new universe, Mass Effect's a single player RPG from the Knights of the Old Republic team. Among other things, it tells the tale of evil alien bastard Saren and his quest to wipe out...well, everyone. The ambitious fella. Part of an elite above-the-law special forces unit known as the Spectres - tasked with keeping the peace throughout the galaxy - Saren's gone rogue you see, and casually decided to resurrect an ancient army of murdering robots to help him out. The player takes on the role of Commander Shepard - the first human to join the Spectre ranks - tasked with finding Saren and ending his 'ickle scheme. You'll do this by gathering your own crew, nabbing yourself a ship, and galaxy hopping around a vast and near endless space in search of the ugly shit.
That's the setup, making way for quite the epic ride, but arguably more impressive is how Mass Effect crafts its own fully functioning universe for which to do it all in. Rid of the Star Wars license seen in Knights of the Old Republic, the Docs have essentially out-Lucas-ed the man at his own game here, crafting just as rich and fleshed-out a galaxy, but with some pleasing new twists on top. Inspiration stems not just from Star Wars you see - in its look, colour and style - but a ton of additional sources too. The music's note for note plucked outta Blade Runner. Striking blue tentacled aliens from The Fifth Element show up regularly. Your robotic enemies, The Geth, might as well be called Cylons. And in fact the entire back-story of one of the game's races - the Quarians - is essentially Battlestar Galactica's plot in a nutshell. It even has Firefly's, er, "companions" (read: hookers) for you to woo if you so wish. Which I did. Witcher
|This is Saren - a rogue agent - and as Commander Shepard, it's up to you to stop him|
You could say Mass Effect is the perfect homage to the great sci-fi works of the past 25 years with that in mind, snatching elements and traits from all the good ones - whether they be movies, TV shows or books - while simultaneously casting off the duds along the way. Not that Bioware don't provide their own unique spin on top, of course. The resulting galaxy fills one with wonder, much like that first time they met Luke Skywalker or read Lord of the Rings as a youngster. It's a magical, mesmerizing universe, albeit one pitched a little more lovingly towards adults than the aforementioned. No bad thing.
The sheer effort put into the back-story of said universe, including its history, its races, and their various customs is pretty unprecedented for a videogame too. What's particularly brilliant is how all this information is presented to you, the player though. Each and every race, planet and piece of technology you come across adds an entry into an accompanying "Codex" - a fully-voiced database of sorts - which you're then free to read up on any time you yearn to find out more. It's almost a little Metroid-like in that regard, with literally hours of material for you to peruse here alone, and while the action-heavy players can simply ignore the lot and get on with the job at hand, my first day's play was pretty much comprised of nothing
but reading up on this shit, wondering around the opening city, and quizzing fucked up, cock-like aliens on their insane culture. And Krogan testicles.
As you delve further into the game, progressing the plot along the way, this rich tapesty pays off in dividends, adding immeasurably more depth to the proceedings and really sucking you in. I'm even - somewhat ashamedly - tempted to splash out on the Mass Effect prequel novel to find out more. Only you, Bioware.
|In true cinematic style, ME boasts a "film grain" setting that you can toggle on or off. Dig the idea, not the execution|
Before you even step foot into this stunning universe though, good old character creation awaits. Taking a leaf outta Oblivion
's book, Mass has you crafting your own character's face before anything else, with everything from eye color to nut diameter tweak-able in varying degrees. You can even pick out a back-story for him - or her - subsequently reflected in the game's dialogue and how fellow characters react to you. The facial construction's not quite as in-depth as it could be, true, but being able to dive into this most epic and captivating of sci-fi tales and see, well, you
in the starring role for a change...provides quite the buzz I must say. It's significantly cooler - not to mention alarmingly more eerie - than merely taking over some random looking pre-generated dude whom you have no connection with.
And I exaggerate not, this is indeed an epic. Bioware are renowned for their incredible stories and insane plot twists, and the boys don't disappoint on that front here. To spoil even the merest of moments would be blasphemous, but while it doesn't quite reach the dizzying heights of Knights' timeless tale, I'd say it's still - easily - one of the greatest video game storylines of them all.
Mass of the Old Effect
|There are three main classes - a weapons nut, a hacking tech-spert, and a Jedi-like Biotic - along with combos of each|
Gameplay-wise, it could easily pass as a sequel to Knights, incidentally. Stripped of Star Wars tint it may be, but the underlying mechanics remain 90% identical. Take to space in a ship, planet hop with a goal, and collect a party of squad-mates along the way. Everything from the in-between mission conversations and inter-squad mate banter comes through intact, as does the trademark Bioware dialogue trees, "romance" subplots (i.e. fucking) and optional side questing. Thus, those disappointed at the lack of a KOTOR III - or more specifically, its rumored MMO tangent - rest content in the fact that you pretty much have one here.
One area - arguably the only in fact - where the two differ, is in the combat system. With lightsabers removed and melee all but vanquished, Mass becomes all about the guns, with a combat model to match. It looks like a full-on third person shooter on the face of it, with real-time fire-fights and full twitchy reflexes required, in what'll no doubt prove to be the main area of contention for the RPG die-hards. There's help along the way - tweakable aim-assist, pause-able action, and a variety of difficulty settings - but at the end of the day, you're gonna need to point and you're gonna need to shoot. A lot.
|If not a die-hard console FPS guy, Mass Effect's combat may prove troublesome. Take a Soldier class, ramp up the aim-assist and drop it to Easy if you know what's good for you. Fights can be brutal as shit|
Bioware's lack of shooting experience shows for sure, as it's hardly a Gears of War
or a CoD4
. When it works though, it's brill, with weapons handling satisfying and meaty, while ragdoll deaths and crazy explosions fire off regularly. In fact, doling out orders to your squad-mates, watching them fire off crazy specials and insane biotic powers, then out-flanking the enemy and peppering 'em with sniper rounds proves gloriously fab fun.
When it fails to come together though, the combat feels borderline broken, with headless chickens running around like computer generated spastoids amidst relentless path-finding "quirks", dying moments later to much ironic amusement. Holy AI, Batman! This ain't helped by the sheer brutality of the fire-fights, which can often see you dead in mere seconds when caught unaware. Often at the hands of your retarded comrades.
One only has to remind oneself that this is an RPG at the end of the day though, not
a full-on shooter as it first seems, and happy thoughts soon return. With some micro-management in effect, constant pausing, and a little patience on the player's part, the combat's a laugh, and I'd easily take the hit 'n' miss shoot 'em up gameplay of a Mass Effect over traditional RPG dice rolling pap any day of the week. It's exciting, often spectacular looking stuff, even if it often fumbles and trips up along the way.
Hell of a Talker
|Character's eyes and facial expressions impress hugely, melding well with the amazing voice talent at work. Body animation's stilted by comparison|
You don't play a Bioware game for the combat though, let's be honest. You show up for the story. Those memorable characters. That expert dialogue. The gripping yarn. All right here, I'm pleased to say. Much like their previous games, you'll find a wealth of choices in Mass Effect's conversation trees pushing that all along, with the ability to make far-reaching impact on not just the characters and your team-mates, but even the game-world itself via your choices. So much so that you have to watch what you say on occasion. I've seldom played a game where the word proves so powerful in fact, with people, races and, well, a whole lot more altering, if not flat-out perishing based entirely on what you say. Tough decisions await.
The good/evil dynamic works differently than in previous Bioware games with that in mind. Rather than choose from an all-out hero, or an evil, murdering psychopath, you forever remain a reasonably good guy in Mass, one with an underlying mission to save the galaxy that he sticks to no matter what. It's how you carry out
said mission that separates the girly-men from the nut-bars.
A hero will bargain his way through confrontations, play nice with superiors, and don the role of the square jawed pussy when out on the town...while the darker player will break the rules, batter those in his way, and take the more Jack Bauer-inspired route. Threatening your way to information, decking people when they don't comply, and even sticking a gun in the odd face when need be, all prove riotously fun, while simultaneously lacking some of that insane guilt which plagued the path of the dark-sider in KOTOR. The ability to play good cop or bad cop is an enjoyable one, and frees you up to deal with individual characters on a per situation basis this time, rather than the more black and white restrictions of "I'm good" or "I'm bad" seen previously. Love it.
|Inter-party chit-chat and friction aplenty|
This murkiness extends to your party of six actually. You'll pick the majority of 'em up pretty early on in the game, yet for all our subsequent adventuring together, none ever struck me as particularly good nor particularly evil this entire time. Pretty girl Ashley starts out as the arse-kicking US soldier, ready to do her bit and help save the day for example, but shortly reveals herself to be a god-worshipping racist and a bit of a bitch. Meanwhile calm, collected, scientist Dr. Liara can't help but grab any opportunity she can to jump the player's bones like some kinda sex-starved nymphoid...male or female.
They remain a cool cast of cats with that in mind, with no real fillers in the pack - save the enigmatic Tali - and each comes complete with a pleasing back-story worth pursuing and some neat combat abilities on top. Faves for me were former copper Garrus, and his insistence of breaking the rules, along with Wrex the rock hard dino-merc who takes shit from no one. You included.
Ashley's bare naked arse takes a solid third place, mind.
Said boys and girls come complete with the trademark Bioware caliber voice-acting we've come to expect, and hugely ramped up facial details to match. Famous faces like Seth Green, Keith David and Lance Henriksen join fellow Bioware alumni of old, with Carth fans in particular due some happy times right off the bat. Sadly, the chap voicing the role of Shepard himself is something of a let-down I'm afraid, failing to match up to those around him and coming off oddly flat by comparison. Jennifer Hale of Bastila fame makes up for things hugely on the female front though.
Character interactions and fire-fights are enjoyable stuff then, but another huge Mass Effect selling point is its emphasis on space exploration. While you have your central goal of stopping Saren and saving the universe as per usual, the ability to command your own ship and head wherever you please isn't squandered, with a wealth of different star systems to persue and literally hundreds of planets to explore. 99% of these are unrelated to your quest, naturally, and thus comprise Mass Effect's side content; optional missions you can partake in for extra credits, a change of scenery...or just to see what's out there.
|The Citadel's the hub of the galaxy - a gorgeous metropolis that sci-fi wet dreams are made of - but you'll shortly set sail for locations more remote|
Sure, not all these planets can be physically landed upon. In fact, the vast majority can't. Flying around, scanning them from space, while reading up on their various histories proves enjoyable enough for a while though, and there's at least a good 20 or 30 that can in fact be touched down on too, even throwing in their own sub-quests and side-plots to work through while you're there.
Don't expect much from these side-quests, mind. Uncharted planets prove barren and empty for the most part, while their missions and storylines resemble the kinda randomly generated, pre-fab bollocks seen in early MMOs. You'll stumble across quests in all sorts of inventive and intriguing ways - news reports on the radio, distress calls from deep space, etc - but while such missions sound cool as shit on the face of it, they ultimately prove repetitive, dull and largely similar to the one before.
Don't expect Oblivion-style guilds or anything so extravagant with that in mind then, these are a mere diversion, not the bulk of the game. Still, blazing around remote worlds on your buggy and merely basking in the sheer scope of the universe is a bit of a blast in and of itself. Dismantling a series of bases on our very own moon - stunning view of Earth directly above - proved a particular highlight.
Chuck the size of the world, the cool cast, and that exceptional storyline together, and the results are a compelling and rich RPG extravaganza, no doubts there. There are however - as mentioned - a wealth of negatives plaguing this game. None of these are particularly huge to be honest - comprising tiny niggles hardly noticeable by themselves - but with so many, they turn potent en masse.
|Mass is an incredible looking game, mixing stunning designs with amazing scope. Sadly, technical issues see it literally loading in before your very eyes while you play|
ME's an ambitious game you see, throwing an entire universe at you at once - along with everything within it - and it often feels like the tech just isn't quite up to the task. Load-times, frame drops and AI bugs prove disconcerting, while the auto-save system in particular stands out as unmistakably shit (quick-save often, if you know what's good for you). My biggest peeve of the lot involves the visuals though I'm sad to say; the game looks amazing, but it streams data off the disc constantly you see, and unfortunately for us, not fast enough. The result? Textures seemingly loading in mid-scene, appearing outta nowhere, and looking truly dreadful in the process.
A shame too, as there is undeniably one of the greatest looking games of our time lurking underneath. Mass Effect has a gorgeous utopian art style - all bright, neon and clean - while boasting immense vistas and stunning architecture more akin to a Ralph McQuarrie painting than a videogame. It's just hard to enjoy the sights when the ground is literally loading before your very eyes as if jacking into The Matrix. Your 360 will rattle away incessantly, streaming in whatever's around the next corner the entire time, and it sounds as if the bloody thing's about to take off in places. The system's pushed to near breaking point it seems...quite literally, if random crashes are anything to go by.
In my opinion, classes seem imbalanced too, with tech guys in particular at a distinct disadvantage, while the game also piles in waaay too much loot and useless junk for you to pick up as well. Constant off-loading to your onboard shop, along with endless, monotonous inventory management? Rookie mistakes, from a veteran of the genre.
|Effect's buggy, no two ways about it. AI will casually stop working for no real reason, performance can be a problem, and I even had a corrupt saved game at one point|
Nothing truly game-breaking by their lone-some then, but a handful of these niggles will be present at any one moment while playing Mass Effect. Whether it be the team-mate who's stuck behind a wall again
, or the 10 frames per second fire-fight you're scraping through by the skin of your slideshow teeth, the game constantly feels falling apart at the seams. It's a pity, and comes off flat-out unfinished at times.
Of course, you find such issues a whole lot easier to overlook in light of all the game does right. It only takes a wonder around The Citadel, a chat to your nearest crew member, or a kick ass shoot-out with exploding space zombies to see smiles blossom once more. For all the minutia they drop the ball on, planets like Virmire and Ilos see Bioware at the very top of their game in fact, crafting imaginative personas as they always have, then dropping 'em into the most compelling and fucked up of situations to shockingly ace effect. A selection of epic and enjoyable endings doesn't hurt either.
I should also mention, this game boasts quite possibly the greatest video game soundtrack ever laid to disc. Vangelis-style '80s synths meet Jerry Goldsmith-esque orchestral stuff, all the way up to more contemporary techno/dance stylings when you hit the underworld clubs. It's a mish-mash of styles and eras that blends together perfectly, giving the game a very distinct and unique voice. Even the title screen music forces you to sit back and listen, unable to hit the Start button in aural paralysis. Much like Star Wars, it shows what a good score can do, tripling your enjoyment of an already ace experience.
|Word is, we'll be able to resume our characters in the sequel, of which two have been planned for the 360's lifespan|
If you ever watched movies like Star Wars as a kid and wanted to go running around planets like Bespin and Coruscant - exploring the galaxy and saving the universe along the way - well, here's your chance. We've done these things in games before, of course, but not to the beautifully epic, stunningly realised level set here by Mass Effect. It redefines all that is possible from both video gaming universes and storytelling combined, crafting one of the most compelling interactive journeys seen in years.
It's a depressing shame to see it so regularly fumble along the way, technical glitches and corner-cutting rearing their heinous heads when they really shouldn't be, but it speaks volumes as to how little you end up caring when all's said and done. Because the game has you...hook, line and sinker.
Oh so often would I head back to The Citadel amidst my 30 odd hours of space-faring, content to merely sit back and gaze out at that view from the Wards. Brain ablaze with all the possibilities laying before me. Mass Effect feels like a real place you understand, in that same way all the best literary and cinematic creations do...so much so, that when it finally draws to an end, you can't let it go. These people you know and these places you've been to essentially exist in your heart at this point, and it's sad to say goodbye. You may even feel guilt over the eventual outcome.
|Bugs, glitches and general roughness aside, Mass is easily one of my fave RPGs in years. Not to mention another 360 winner|
Of course, we have the final two parts of the "Mass Effect Trilogy" to look forward to, and hopefully they'll see fruition sooner rather than later. I'd happily wait an extra six months if it meant the smoothing out of this game's numerous flaws in fact, as for all its utter brilliance, it could have been one of the all-time Diggler greats without 'em. But who am I kidding? It already is.
Those who see videogames as more than just a chance to align cross-hairs over minorities' heads and blow the odd brain out - instead investing emotionally and on a more engaging level - need look no further than Mass. This game will make you laugh out loud at its dark sense of humour and bizarre alien customs. Cheer in ectasy at downing the bad guy and saving a planet. Then growl in anger at the odd design decisions and numerous glitches forever clawing at your tits. It's not quite the KOTOR beater with that in mind then, but it sure is a rollercoaster of a game that you won't wanna put down.
I for one fell for Mass from the first note onwards, and now laying to it to rest a mere three days later, am already plotting a sicky to commence play-through numero two.
That's WoW-like addiction right there.