And that's okay. Though the game's unprecedented direction often highlights its own shortcomings, it's still a great RPG for Xbox 360 owners to devour. You'll just have to deal with those flaws--most of them minor, some of them major--without smashing your controller to pieces in the process. You'll want that controller fully intact, because you'll be back for more planetary excursions an hour later.
The story of Mass Effect revolves around the character of John (or Jane, or Alfonso) Shepard. He (or she) is a member of the Alliance military, and the traditional last hope for the galaxy, herding the human race and its alien allies past the dangers of internal corruption and external extinction. It's a sweeping epic told on a personal scale, with a few key players providing most of the conflict, and a huge number of minor characters filling in the rest.
Shepard's spacious starship hails from The Citadel, a Coruscant-esque space station, a place where do-gooders and scum and villainy alike can sit down to share a drink. Themes of racial strife and mind-controlling zealotry quickly surface. Much of this is reminiscent of BioWare's classic Knights of the Old Republic, which certainly isn't a bad thing.
But right from the opening scenes, Mass Effect quickly distinguishes itself as a wholly new experience. Simply put, a video game has never been this cinematically engaging. Just gazing at a simple grain-filtered shot of a planet--complete with lens-flared sunlight, Star Warsian framing, and a disparate synth-heavy sci-fi score by Richard Jacques--can be an exciting moment. Even the most insignificant environment or character is rendered and shot in a compelling light--or shadow, as the case may be. Rarely does the polish fade. From back to front, Mass Effect is one of the first games to truly approach an actual cinematic quality.
The primary achievement comes with the conversations that take place on Shepard's travels. Beyond the major characters that populate the star-scape, there are a large number of secondary players; NPCs with problems to solve and stories to tell, ready and waiting to be unlocked through expansive dialogue trees. After initiating a conversation, a small, unobtrusive radial menu drives the sequence. The phrase choices presented to the player are usually brief--"No way" or "Tell me more"--but they translate into long sentences of exposition, allowing players to simply express their gut feeling and see it realized on screen, without having to read sentences of extraneous options. And because these choices can be selected before an NPC has finished talking, you can queue up Shepard's response, maintaining a flow of dialogue that feels more natural than any game has managed to this point.
Matching the dialogue systems in innovation is the brilliant cinematography. BioWare employs a healthy amount of dramatic angles and depth of field to its camera, making for some very visually interesting chats. Combined with impressively accurate lip-syncing, convincing facial expressions, and consistent voice work, talking to computer people has never felt this slick. As you walk down the fascinating hallways of the spaceship Normandy, chatting with random crew members, you are immediately immersed.
Mass Effect's visuals push hard on the current boundary of graphical realism--frequently pushing so hard that they break in the process. Texture pop-in mars the scenery at random. Eyelids clip through cheekbones. Teeth become strangely blackened, as if the character ate a bag of Oreos in between lines. I managed to look past these glitches on the whole, but it's a real shame they exist, because they're bound to pull people out the game at one point or another.
Outside of the bugs, player models generally excel not only in design, but also in pure polish. The alien Taurians are particularly notable, a sort of reptilian species that looks fantastic on screen. Many of the worlds and planets you'll run across are equally impressive, featuring a satisfying variety of war-torn cityscapes and dank alien ports. It really does look as good as the screenshots suggest, and even better in motion.
However, it's not all about playing tea-time with pretty Mr. Spaceman. Sometimes Shepard has to drop the veil of interstellar diplomacy, grab a rifle, and go to town. And though Mass Effect's conversation system is unequaled, its combat mechanics fail to meet the same standard.
Adopting a third person combat system in the vein of Gears of War seemed a logical place for BioWare to go at the outset. The cover system and radial menus work well enough in avoiding the slow, turn-based repetitiveness of typical RPG battles. In the end, it's a combination of poorly designed encounters, simplistic AI, and dull vehicular sections that make for an uneven, often frustrating element to this otherwise-groundbreaking game.
While an action game like Gears of War is designed as a smooth, coherent combat experience, Mass Effect's battles vary from pointlessly simple to impossibly challenging, with hardly any warning prior to the latter. They play out like an action game, but have a decided RPG stiffness to them. Most enemies will require little effort to mow down--sniping stupid, unknowing soldiers through cracks in walls or stairways is a cheap, if silly way to get the job done. However, some will charge you at random, slaughtering your teammates in seconds and leaving you to fend for yourself. Other foes will suddenly knock you to the ground with an ability, rendering you defenseless for a critical number of seconds, unable to move as you are picked off by snipers or other devices. It's hard to describe how infuriating this can be.
None of this would be quite as painful if the combat itself was fantastically entertaining, but no one aspect stands out. Spells are limited to a standard issue of immobilizing abilities, force powers, and other blasts. They're fun at first, but nothing to get worked up over. Popping off a few rifle rounds from behind cover is enjoyable enough, but the overall experience is no more exciting than any average shooter. Players should expect to be breezing through the vast majority of missions. The rest of the time, after you've been utterly crushed for the 20th time in a row, you'll be wishing you could just sit down with your enemies and calmly convince them to surrender.
Read more for thoughts on items, characters, vehicular combat--and why Mass Effect is undeniably worth playing despite its flaws. _PAGE_BREAK_
When it comes to weapons and items, Mass Effect never really consumes the player in the minutiae of equipment management, for better or worse. The rifles and armor you gain from battle are usually as good or better than the stuff you'll find at the few stores you run across, so I barely bothered with any trading. Aesthetically speaking, weapons look more or less the same, with some minor differences. They are typically named in a series--usually leaving players to make the hard choice between "Awesome Rifle I" or "Awesome Rifle II" --and the most that the game requires of you to outfit your squad is a simple comparison of statistical ratings.
Each member levels up no matter whether you're using them at the moment or not, and managing their skills can be done manually or automatically. Skill management is maybe the most enjoyable of the RPG elements, with an interesting progression provided by the unlocking of skills through the learning of others. For example, you might gain the First Aid skill after putting a number of points into Fitness. This forces you to choose between expending points on one skill you may not want in order to grab another.
Fighting also takes place on the road. The Mako rover, a sort of all-purpose, six-wheeled exploration tank, comes fitted with a machinegun turret and grenade launcher. You'll use the Mako to scout out planets on side quests, but also for long vehicular combat missions during the main storyline, in which you'll be traveling down pre-arranged paths littered with missile turrets and other enemies. While this might have been a fun distraction for five minutes here and there, BioWare has instead made this a major component of gameplay. It gets old fast.
Driving the Mako can be an unwieldy process. Steering is context-sensitive, in that it will adjust based on the direction you push, rather than allowing total control. Because of this, you can end up pressing both up and down on the analog stick, only to see the Mako move in the same direction no matter which way you steer. This makes dodging enemy fire a real annoyance, requiring you to use the jump-jet boosters in order to leap over incoming rockets like a bunny-hopping tank. Even shooting can be a problem, as your weapon fire doesn't always hit where your targeting reticle is pointing, for whatever reason. After a while I found myself driving past as many enemies as possible, uninterested in risking added frustration or possible death for a few extra experience points.
And yet despite its flaws, Mass Effect remains an often-astounding game off the battlefield. One moment I'll be carrying out some random, boring task, and the next I'll find myself having to make a choice between the death of one character or another. After playing out that particular scenario, I honestly felt a small pit growing in my stomach over the gruesome moment. Most of the story isn't quite that dramatic, but the game does hit enough high notes to keep you interested every step of the way.
Other little touches help to make the world feel more like an actual galaxy. As you ride on the game's numerous elevators, used to load levels in Metroid fashion, characters will idly chat with one another. Amusing news broadcasts will play over a speaker, grounding your adventures in the context of the greater populace. Instead of always having the player initiate quests, BioWare does an admirable job of having characters approach you with their problems or questions, pleasantly surprising the player with unexpected quests.
As in many RPGs, the majority of the fun is found in exploring material outside of the main plot, completing side quests and assuming your chosen role. Unlike Knights of the Old Republic, there is no absolute meter that measures whether your character is totally good or evil. Instead, there are now two meters, which separately keep track of the amount of good and evil deeds you've committed. If your charm or intimidation skills are high enough, corresponding blue or red-colored dialogue options will be open to you, letting players deal with the situation in a harsh or gentle manner, and adding to the applicable meter. Your character's choices will indeed matter in the long run, but that shouldn't keep you from moral experimentation. There are multiple endings to the game, so you won't be missing out on any one "good" ending, so-to-speak.
Mass Effect is a decidedly strange beast. The combat can be downright depressing, but I always knew that just beyond that last barricade was another brilliantly orchestrated exchange--or, at the very least, some guy I could shoot in the back. While the core gameplay is nothing new--sometimes disappointingly so--Mass Effect represents a generational jump in storytelling artistry. It succeeds in spite of its faults, and by the end, I was left excited with the idea of an improved sequel. For that reason, it's a game that every RPG fan should play.
Just remember to save often, Spectre.