Mass effect steps games out of the old guard of science fiction and drags it kicking and screaming into the world of Iain M Banks, Peter F Hamilton and Alistair Reynolds. There are probably other Authors who whould be name checked but these will do for me.
The story is set in a future where several alien races inhabit our milky way galaxy, at the start of the story at least, almost peacefully co-existing. Humans want a bigger voice in wider affairs and are being held back and seen as young upstarts by the galaxies old guard. There are several alien races and for the most part they seem to avoid the usual star trek cliches, although Krogans sounds and acts an awful lot like Klingons. The aliens are not constrained by tv budgets however and are of varying shapes and sizes that would never do for star trek as there is only so much you can do with some make up and feathers.
The galactic stage is set by an ancient race named the Protheans, who, though now extinct, seemed to rule the galaxy and have left behind many of their more interesting toys and ruins. The most important of which are the Mass relays which all races use to travel faster than light. These seem to be wormhole generators of some kind.
At the start of the game our hero commander Shephard is involved on a mission to investigate a Prothean artifact discovery on a human colony world. It turns out that a spectre agent named Saren has turned rogue and allied himself with a machine race named the Geth. Together they have attacked the colony looking for the prothean artifact. Saren gets to the artifact and activates it and receives a vision, Shephard hard on his heels arrives and also is given the visions, which are jumbled images of war between alien and machines. Shephard is knocked unconscious and when he awakes it's back to the citadel for debriefing.
The citadel is another ancient Prothean space habitat which has been taken over as a centre for galactic politics and commerce. Sounds very like Babylon 5 which I feel Bioware might have a little soft spot for. Don't take that as a criticism, I loved Babylon 5 when I watched it on first airing. It's a little hard to watch over now, however, there are still some fine sci-fi moments there. The citadel sees Shepard being made a spectre agent, think James Bond style free roaming agent, and given the task of finding out just what Saren is up too. You are given command of the Normandy one of Humankinds best warships and let loose on an unsupecting universe.
The game feels truly cinematic, it's structure is tight, with a good beginning, middle and end. I could imagine a Mass effect movie and I would be first in line for a ticket. I know it is derivative, but I think I might be more likely to see a Mass effect movie than the Night's dawn trilogy by Peter F Hamilton being made into a movie, but beggars can't be choosers.
Once in Command you can use the Normandy to fly to a large number of worlds and each of them have a main mission or side mission. The game is huge, possibly not oblivion huge but getting there. Like oblivion though the side missions become repetitive and I could never see myself completing each and every one.
As the story progresses you are drawn into an ancient story involving ancient enemies of all life. Again the shadows of Babylon 5 come to mind, or much closer the wolves from Alastair Reynolds revelation space series. The side colorings include racial hate between humans and aliens, and various love and politics sub plots. Saren is a interesting nemesis who for once isn't bad because it says bad guy after his name on the front page. He has looked at the situation and the coming storm and chosen a route that us emotional humans would never take. You may not agree with him, but in his mind he thinks he is saving the galaxy while the player is bringing down the storm with greater fury.
The game uses the unreal engine, it looks very good for the most part though the environments were a little sparse I felt. Virmire and the citadel were the only environments that actually held any beauty for me. The characters are excellent with the alien race designs being particularly effective if slightly derivative. There is a motion blur and grain filter applied which takes some getting used to. Take note though you can go to the options screen and turn these off which I felt made the game look much better. I only found this out on my second play-through. The facial animations are also excellent. Though sometimes eyelids seemed to being doing their own thing in comparison to the rest of the face. On the whole though the graphics are good. There is a lot of texture loading, sometimes when a scene starts there is a good thirty seconds before all the textures are in place. I don't normally notice this too much but recently Rainbow six vegas 2 and Mass effect have been games I have been playing and it is really apparent in both. I presume the reason for this is to cut loading times and actually have the game up and running while the textures pop in. Note to developers, loading times are not really a problem for me, i would rather have a few more seconds sipping my coffee and waiting for the textures with a blank loading screen than seeing peoples armor textures pop up.
Mass effect is an rpg, It has all the trappings, xp points, huge range of customization of characters and differing classes, some are good with biotics, read magic some are good with technology and others are grunts. The game has a few basic weapon classes, assault rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle, pistol and there are grenades and various armors and upgrades to them. As you level up and find or buy weapons your characters go from being unable to hit a target an inch away to sniping for miles and taking out lesser enemies with one shot instead of forty.
There are the usual sandbox conventions, you can go to any mission in almost any order and go off the beaten path and level up before taking on the big missions, which I would recommend. Missions are broken up in bite-size, or maybe unreal engine sized chunks with loads in between disguised by elevators. There are missions, mostly on the citadel which include meeting a certain character and then doing something or killing someone for them. The main missions basically move you from point a to point b with lots of enemies in the way. There are small puzzles and the usual little blind alleys to go down and find better weapons upgrades etc.
The conversations in the game are interactive, which means you are given a few responses to choose from a list at each junction in the conversation. Some interactions will go a certain way whatever you do, others will be dictated by your choice of diplomacy or idiocy. There are a few times when your choice will mean the life or death of certain characters. In some instances you must have your charm levels full before certain options become available. One particularly memorable instance is when you are given the options of saving one person or another, both are in different directions and going one way to save one of them mean that you won't have time to go back for the other before a nuke goes off. Either choice doesn't affect the outcome of the game greatly but if you want to have some romance I suggest saving the girl.
Combat is unwieldy at first and it seems like a case of spray and pray with wide reticule weapons. As you level up you see your shots hit the cross-hair dead on and you sniper rifle doesn't wave around quite so much. Finding or buying better weapons improves your damage with each shot greatly and adding special ammo and upgrades to each weapon also improves their effectiveness. You see you character from a third person view, though you can hold the left trigger in to zoom into a first person view. there is also a cover system which is sometime clunky to get in and out of but is worth mastering as it helps greatly. The vehicle section of combat in the mako is reasonable, though I have to confess I did prefer to fight on foot. It does get you from A to B quickly however and it's weapons are satisfactory. It has a rapid fire pulse weapon and a rocket launcher type weapon. With all the upgrade capabilities on offer to the rest of your armory and technology I found the omission of upgrades to the Mako puzzling. The a.i. for the most part is fairly basic and standard though at times they can be really really stupid and stand still in the open allowing you to pick them off, not even moving properly into cover after you shoot them a few times. There are some good set piece battles and all the environments for the major missions vary and make a good stab at structure being dedicated to function rather than nice level design.
The soundtrack to the game is adequate, there are some nice scene setting mood musics. Weapons and explosions are suitably heavy sounding although tinged with a little sci-fi electronica.
The game allows you to save at any point unless you are in combat which I found very helpful. There are some checkpoints where the game saves automatically, though you can turn this off. The menus for upgrading and buying and selling seem complex at first but after a few hours into the game you soon find them simple. On second play-through familiarity really does pay off.
Achievements are solid enough, mostly given out for using each of the weapons, and abilities a certain amount of times. There is 100 points for completion, and also more points for a second completion, which certainly encourages a second play-through of the main story. I received 390 points on my first play-through, this was only really completing the main story, and it took me 18 hours. I will play through the game again and will probably attempt to grind my character up to level 70 for those achievements. The game has much replay value as you can go back and find out what it would have been like to say all the nasty things you were too frightened to say the first time in case you wrecked the game and didn't get the proper ending.
There is no multiplayer here, and nor is it needed, it isn't that sort of game.
I would recommend this game to anyone, yes it's a hardcore rpg. It doesn't feel like say Blue Dragon or Eternal Sonata though, for one the story and dialogue make those two seemed penned in pre-school. The combat is real shooter style combat. The stats are all there but hidden under sneaking up on a Geth while your team keep it pinned down and placing your shotgun to it's head and blasting it into pieces. When I completed the final boss fight I felt truimphant, I genuinely am really looking forward to Mass effect 2 now, and I was never really waiting for this one. I hope our next adventure with Commander Shepard is as much fun as this one was.
Mass effect has a steep learning curve, everyone should persevere with this rewarding and brilliant game.
Spoiler warning for Mass Effect 2: I think the Reapers will transfer their consciousness into the Mass relays and in that way stop all ftl travel as a first strike and then convert the resources of the mass relays into ships and soldiers and then fan out and take over planets. This will confine the game to the citadel system or whatever system Shepard is in at the start of the game. Until they can get the small mass relays working and fight back.