Memorable choices seem to be a "dime a dozen" for critically-acclaimed developer Bioware Studios. It only makes sense for them to take an ambitious step in making an entire trilogy that's solely defined by your decisions. Becoming a household name on consoles last generation-thanks to games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire, Bioware decided to create its own space opera: Mass Effect. With an ambition of creating a new level of interactive storytelling and excellent TPS/RPG hybrid gameplay, Mass Effect delivers a role-playing experience that's out of this world.
In the mid-22nd century, humans discovered alien technology on Mars. This leads to the finding and activation of a "mass effect" relay around Pluto. The first sojourners to venture beyond the Milky Way, via the relay were eventually discovered by initially-hostile alien life. After peace was made with the Citadel Council, the human race (under the name Human Systems Alliance) was coldly brought into this new government of various alien races. Thirty-five years after these events, your character, Commander Shepard is tasked with hunting down a rouge spectre named Saren and his army of AI constructs, called ‘The Geth’.
After creating your character's backstory and physical appearance, you're greeted with a few lines of exposition that slowly begin to build up with the patient techno beat in the background. After a seeing the ellipsis in tandem with the crescendo, you're greeted with the game's title. This subtle effect delivers something rarely experienced in role-playing games: a sense of place from beginning to end. After observing the activity on your ship, the SSV Normandy you're greeted with the next subtle nuance in this game: fully voice-acted conversations (including your character). While your created character talking isn't relatively new, Mass Effect's fairly-minimalist dialogue options feel more immediate. Rather than your character voicing word-for-word transcripts, you're given a general idea of what Shepard is going to say. For example, there might be a dialogue option that says "Okay," but that might translate into "Sounds good, but watch yourself out there." These variations may seem insignificant on paper, but they become crucial to the game-thanks to the amount of excellent voice acting and presentation.
Mass Effect's plot dives into quite a few interesting subjects. Since Earth is still the new kid on the block, the more prominent aliens don't respond kindly to human nature -- that deeply imbedded drive to be on top. These conflicts lead to constant bickering about knowing our place or how we should act towards other races. You even need to bend over backwards to convince these biased races that one of their own is a double agent. Once you become a special agent that solely answers to the Council, more questions arise that will lead to robust choices. Despite the great amount of depth and immersive detail, Mass Effect's plot seems to only reach above average status, even by videogame standards. Although it has a good amount of originality, certain tropes often feel repeated, since earlier Bioware games have retreaded some of these issues. Even the explanation given for one of your main enemies hides under the "your brain cannot comprehend it" veil. The plot may be hampered by a sense of feeling too familiar to sci-fi fans that have ever dove into any works by Heinlein, Lucas, and "Science Fiction Theater" writers, but that still doesn't quell the fact that it's one of the most engaging role-playing experiences from start to finish.
Despite faults with the main plot, the question of how Mass Effect is still a great story is answered by considering all of the other elements involved in crafting one. Characters imbued with authentic personalities, a vast amount of quandaries, and a palpable universe are some of the few aspects that make this game worth playing. Seeing certain characters react to one another can be anything from vexing to heartwarming. And witnessing preconceived beliefs from crew members aboard your ship brings an air of believability. Just when you think you may have the story figured out, an appropriate twist is given to keep you on your toes. As stated before, the plot sticks out as being the weakest link, but that's only because every other facet is so great. The deep lore, rich amount of integral and secondary characters, and the sense of true importance all come together to make Mass Effect one of the best videogame stories to come out in 2007 (arguably of this generation).
Mass Effect's graphics are some of the best for its time, from more of technical perspective rather than artistic. The art style usually walks the line between Halo and the cleaner futuristic aesthetics in Star Wars. It certainly gives it a sense of looking grand and vibrant (especially on the Citadel), but…there’s a reason why this vision is usually avoided. Star Wars instilled the idea to look dirty almost constantly, such as carbon scoring being shown on hulls or pieces of armor. The slightest scuff mark should instantly stand out on any piece of armor because it feels real. Regardless, the different art styles placed throughout the galaxy are excellent, despite many being borrowed.
The technical mastery Bioware employed to create such a believable world cannot go unnoticed; however, the fluctuating frame rate and texture pop-in cannot be ignored either. Great lip synching combined with excellent animations (both facial and general expressions, such as shrugging your shoulders) makes every conversation immersive. A controversial idea to reduce the amount of times you see loading screens is long elevator rides throughout main hubs and your ship. While this may become infuriating to some, I believe it showcases the developer's yearning to have my character planted in the universe as often as possible. Filling the time with short conversations between squad mates or news updates of Shepard's quests goes a long way in making this world more believable. Although it's fair to note that an old hardware update allowing the installation of 360 games does make Mass Effect's technical issues seem minor, not all of the 360 consoles on the market will initially have enough memory to install the game on their hard drive. The noticeable amount of frame rate issues (especially on the Citadel) do show that Mass Effect could've used more time to make it more consistent. While the usual problems from the Unreal Engine may cause ire with gamers who are used to locked frame rates, that shouldn't greatly damage the game because it attempts to set new rules for what story-driven role-playing games should look like.
Mass Effect's sound design is nearly impeccable. The vast amount of different soft-synth tones are played at all of the right moments. Taking inspiration from late 70's/early 80's sci-fi films, the original soundtrack elegantly executes that mixture of electronic and organic sounds. You don't have to look far to notice a familiar voice actor in Mass Effect, as well. Even certain B list/C list actors are present, such as Keith David. The attention to detail given to a varied amount of species and characters is commendable -- even award-winning if this is what was solely judged in sound design. The only gripe(s) to be found would be the somewhat static gun sounds. Despite the superfluous amount of bullet customization (such as cryo, incendiary, etc.), there's no notable difference in sound between which upgrades you use. It's a complaint that could annoy an FPS-focused gamer, but it's innocuous in a game that's setting a new benchmark in other aspects of sound.
Both of Mass Effect's core gameplay elements, the dialogue and combat, implement a "wheel" system. For combat, this wheel is shown whenever you use the "Right Bumper button". Within that wheel, you and your two selected squad mates' abilities will be displayed there. While in the combat wheel, you scroll over which ability you want to use against an enemy, and then unleash it. This is the basic setup that separates Mass Effect from third-person shooters. Rather than relying on wall hugging and pop-in-pop-out shooting to defeat foes, the wheel system brings a refreshing tactical element that makes combat feel more rewarding. The problem with the meat of the combat system is how a couple of third-person shooting elements are under-sophisticated: taking cover being the most notable. Those shooting problems are alleviated by the fact that you won't need to use them very often.
Customization: One of the greatest [gameplay] strengths to be found in Mass Effect is unfortunately bogged down by some clunky implementations. Your character's physiognomy can be varied drastically. You can change skin tone, eyes, or even place scars on different parts of the face. It may not be up to Oblivion's multi-race level, but there's enough subtle differences for two Shepard’s to look unalike (I'm sure most will stick with the awesome default Shepard though). Customization on weapons and characters begins to open up quickly into the game. Once on the Citadel, you're given the option to choose different bullets, heat sinks, and more; furthermore, the upgrades for the specific armaments you want come at a perfect pace throughout the campaign. As stated before, the main problem with this is the clumsiness when choosing which upgrades to tailor for your squad. Since there's an overabundance of upgrades whenever you tackle a few side missions, the menu for this gets bogged down in outdated mods at a consistent rate. This complaint may not seem like much of a problem, but the time wasted sorting through this proves as a distraction from the superior facets of the game.
Simply put, this universe is one worth exploring. Before even preparing for the main quest, you can expect to have about ten side quests that will have you trudging dozens of planets throughout Citadel Space. Most of these missions require you to drive in the six-wheeled 'Mako'. This tank/rover lovechild is capable of climbing almost any mountain, and packs a punch against the Geth's more powerful enemies. With this great sense of exploration comes the unfortunate feeling of repetition taking over. A problem most will notice is how often the side mission planets don't have much variation beyond the color. This problem is further realized by the similar design of mines, dig sites, and headquarter buildings. It would be fair to believe that newly-formed expeditions may look alike, but that sense of discovery becomes lost if you like completing all of the side missions. Does repetition ruin the gameplay? Not to the effect one might believe because that sense of discovering new worlds can still leave the player in awe; in fact, even your sense of worth is built up because of the air waves constantly talking about your actions. It may repeat itself contextually, but at least the sense of gratification of completing these side missions is repeated as well.
The amount of deep dialogue is another strength in Mass Effect. During each conversation, choices are divided into 6 different pieces of the dialogue wheel: the three on the left are dedicated to indirect questions that don't progress the dialogue tree, while the three on the right are dedicated to advancing the story forward. The choices are then divided into the good, neutral, or bad options. More options are unlocked as you put more points towards your Paragon and Renegade level. As stated before, the choices given to you can have detrimental effects to either entire species, or people you truly care about. Like any good role-playing game, these choices will have questioning yourself on the decisions you've made when the credits roll -- the official warrant of a second and third play through. Even your Shepard is perspicacious of the choices at hand; it's in these details that you're able to see why Mass Effect presents itself as the next step in role-playing games.
There's no shame in hiding that Mass Effect has flaws; some of these unseen in any of the other games I've played from this developer. At the same time, I have to show a great amount of prudence to articulate why this game resonates with me so much. Is there a supposed "Capra Touch" that can be only understood if you play the game, or is it something I can fully explain? In the end, it really comes down to my expectations being constantly outdone in this sci-fi experience. It may have a few considerable issues, but Mass Effect's interactive storytelling, immersive universe, and satisfying combat are only some of the reasons why this is one of my favorite role-playing experiences to date.
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