Mass Effect
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: Microsoft
Release Date: Out Now
Players: 1
Words By:

Itís not often you find a game that actually immerses you so much that youíre sad to see it end. Itís a bumpy ride but the developers of the Knights of the old Republic games have created a sci-fi rollercoaster in Mass Effect.

You would expect numerous comparisons to KOTOR and the Star Wars universe, but a completely new world has been created from scratch, all in painstaking detail. There are many different races which youíll come into contact with, all with their own looks, history and even social traits. The Hanar, for example only refer to themselves in the first person to close family; to others they refer to themselves as Ďthis oneí. The great range of alien character design is complimented by the best voice acting Iíve seen in a game. Every character you meet in Mass Effect has spoken dialogue, from NPCs wandering around or loitering in bars to Commander Shepard him/herself, the main character. The lip-synching is top notch and none of the voice acting goes over-the-top and silly.

What really draws you into the game most is something new for RPGs that encourages more involvement in conversations - the game lets you interact with other characters depending on dialogue choices. Although this sounds familiar you arenít just reading bulks of text and choosing which one to say, there is a conversation wheel and each direction generally defines your characterís mood. If you choose an option on the left then you are probing for more information, and if you choose the right you are drawing the conversation to a close. This means that when you are watching the cut scenes you also have to be thinking of how to respond to what the other character is saying. The great part is in the detail, though.

In the game you can make choices which affect your character for good or for bad, similar to that in KOTOR, except in this case even the bad deeds are justified - saving the galaxy is a just cause. These show themselves mostly in conversation where you can reason with/comfort or berate/intimidate characters, and although most responses do not change the storyline as drastically as hoped, some responses (particularly in the side missions) can significantly change things. For example, you can persuade gangsters to give themselves up instead of having to fight them, or threaten people for more money after you have completed a mission. Some side missions are specifically for players with good or bad consciences - such as rigging gambling machines or protecting a squad of outnumbered marines. This system of interaction between characters can even create bonus story arcs, such as the alien relationship I unwittingly entered into (but was rewarded by a racy cutscene!). Although this element doesnít affect your relationship with the main characters or storyline as much as I would have hoped it is still a great aspect and keeps you interested through a lot of spoken dialogue.

The actual world itself is just as impressive as the characters - for the most part. Every environment has accompanying music which when combined brings back memories from countless classic sci-fi films and TV series. The music is a combination of more modern choral and string-based orchestral and retro Blade-Runner style synth tunes which all blend very well together; the background music in the Presidium is hauntingly beautiful.

The graphics are very befitting the style of the game and although are not the best Iíve seen so far they are undeniably impressive. The game also has a grain filter which adds depth to the camera angles and adds to the feel of a retro sci-fi film. The camera is also used to great effect to create a cinematic feel to the cut scenes, rather than staying static. Unfortunately the graphics are layered so suffer the same problem as Gears of War, where as the game loads the textures everything is dull and suddenly the detail will pop in. Also the framerate has a tendency to drop faster than Jordanís knickers, which is a pain in the arse when in combat, but sometimes itíll also play up even when nothing much is going on.

The environments range from isolated ice research stations to a huge Coruscant-like capital called the ĎCitadelí, but those which are not under attack have an amazing neon-techno sleekness to them, which just feels right. Combined with the vast array of characters you really do feel like one insignificant dot in the universe, but part of that universe all the same. In addition to the main environments which the story revolves around, there are countless other planets, divided up by Solar systems and then by star clusters. Each planet has a detailed back story and description, along with technical specifications, impressive given the number of planets available to view. Sadly most are only available to view-only one planet in each system is available to explore.

In addition to the gameís storyline you will accidentally come across a wealth of side missions (more and more the deeper you dig), most of which involve landing on planets and exploring. This can range from surveying natural resources to taking down pirate bases and investigating emergency distress beacons. Unfortunately the exploration tasks are essentially one of patience and become tiresome quickly, and the combat missions are quite similar, mainly because the layout of the enemy bases is exactly the same in each instance. The best side missions are those which are found and resolved in the main colonies, which usually involve talking to one person then going and talking to someone else to resolve the problem. This is because in these missions you can use the conversation wheel and approach the problem from a few different angles, making things more interesting.

Another problem with the planet exploration side missions (which rears its head occasionally in the main storyline) is the Mako - your armoured APC - which you drive around in when not in space. The controls are similar to that of the vehicles in Halo; push forward on the left stick and the vehicle will turn around and head in the direction the camera is facing. Unfortunately something went horribly wrong and if you add the poorly implemented controls with suspension made of jelly and stupidly rocky environments boldly going where no-one has gone before really does become quite a tedious experience.

The combat itself varies depending on which character class you choose: Soldier, Biotic (similar to Ďforce powersí from KOTOR), or Tech. Now tech isnít as pointless a character as youíd think: a tech character can access security turrets, hack open weapons lockers and even break into computers and gain access to additional missions. Combat-wise a tech is also savvy as one your main enemies are synthetics, so you can disable them temporarily, or even hack them and make them go beserk! The biotics have a range of abilities, from creating vortexes which suck in everything around it to lifting enemies into the air or creating a defensive wall for your team. The combat troop has access to the bigger guns and can wear heavy armour but canít hack or throw stuff about.

The combat isnít going to blow anyone away who has played any third-person shooter on the 360 recently. The AI on both sides isnít overly smart; your squad mates can only respond to limited commands such as Ďfollow youí and Ďtake coverí, and rarely do what you tell them to anyway. The enemy follows a set pattern which if you work out, which you probably will do, means you can pick any amount of enemies off without any trouble. The RPG element of combat works quite well in the sense that youíre always tinkering around in your inventory (which could be a bit more organised) and when you upgrade abilities or change for better armour and guns you can really see the difference in-game. Although the game does have its fair amount of tricky sections by and large the first time through itís quite easy, although completing the game unlocks a harder difficulty setting, and completing it again unlocks another setting!

But even though the endless exploration eventually starts to grate and the combat isnít as challenging and engaging as we expected you need to remember that Mass Effect is an RPG at heart - itís aim is to create a believable world, and for you to play a character in that world. Iíve limited talking about the storyline so as not to reveal any spoilers, as you will find out that discovering things for yourself is the whole point of Mass Effect.

Bioware have created a living, breathing neon future with an incredible amount of detail and emotion drawing you into it. Those who are looking for a quick explosion fix will not find what theyíre looking for here, but anyone who has an interest in sci-fi (Firefly/Serenity came into mind while I was playing it) and a great character-driven storyline will get the most out of this game, and will thoroughly enjoy the experience.

Best Bits

- Amazing new environments
- Really immersive gameplay
- Nice graphics
- Good/Bad career paths
- Great soundtrack
- Voice acting that works!
Worst Bits

- Rubbish vehicle controls
- Some framerate problems
- Combat could have been better

by: Crazypunk

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