With popular titles like Knights Of The Old Republic and Jade Empire under their belt, you could be forgiven for expecting big things from BioWare with their latest offering, Mass Effect. To the relief of KOTOR fans everywhere (and broken-hearted KOTOR 2 ones), Mass Effect is not only served on a shiny silver platter but tastes as good as you’d hope. Space adventuring has rarely been so delicious.
While not technically set in the Star Wars world, it’s still clear that the influence (Force?) is strong. You take the role of Commander Shepard of the Systems Alliance Military, a soldier striving to earn a place as the first human in the elite Spectre team. With near immunity to laws and regulations, the Spectres are agents of the Galactic Council, able to go and do as they please in order to enforce order across the planets. When Saren, one of the top Spectre agents, turns bad, your promotion into the team is fast-tracked so you can take off across the Milky Way in pursuit of him.
For gamers keen to specialise in particular combat skills, Mass Effect is a dream come true. The character creation tool allows you to select a range of soldier classes, each with their own weaponry expertise and background history. A limit on the number of weapons you can specialise in forces you to choose a preferred style of combat right from the start, which echoes the theme of the game and indeed the mood of most BioWare games. Players are forced to make choices every step of the game and Mass Effect is no different.
Your conversations and interactions with NPC’s can definitely change the direction of the story and although less emphasis has been placed on being “good or evil”, the choices you make are often hard and can stretch your morals to breaking point. One of the most refreshing features to emerge in Mass Effect is the conversation wheel. The idea of selecting from a range of replies isn’t uncommon, but in Mass Effect you won’t always be selecting the response, but rather the general tone of the response. The difference may seem small but ends up giving the game an incredibly dynamic feel when you select an answer and then wait to see what your character will come out with.
The BioWare storylines have a reputation of being top quality, usually involving betrayal or deception along the way. In this case, the betrayal happens right from the start as top Spectre Saren goes rogue and disappears in search of a mysterious and powerful object. The plot twists and turns as you’d expect, but with the complex and lengthy cut scenes needed to progress it, the epic storyline lacks the wow factor that Knights Of The Old Republic delivered. The strength of Mass Effect lies in the immersive world the developers have created. Overflowing with details and a plethora of alien history, the result is a polished, in-depth and often humourous game.
The main story could be rushed through in about 15 hours, but there’s easily 30 – 40 hours of solid material to keep you entertained on each play through. The galaxy is littered with unexplored planets and backwater outposts just dying to be discovered. A large portion of the game could be dedicated to roaming planets in your Mako vehicle, searching for precious minerals to survey or crashed probes to raid. Some of the non-key quests feel slightly duplicated in design but the quest objectives are generally varied enough to keep you interested. A genuine effort appears to have been made to cut down loading times between areas to give the game more of a seamless feel. On the occasion where loading between areas is unavoidable, characters chat among themselves and elevator speakers broadcast current new events from around the local star systems. The ADD gamers love BioWare and now, BioWare loves them!
Another major strength which puts the icing on the Mass Effect cake is the sublime voice acting. A wealth of voice-acting talent can be found throughout the game, including the lead female role voiced by the legendary Jennifer Hale. Making up a few squeaky alien voices might seem like a cinch, but the voice actors from Mass Effect have done a superb job.
The graphics aren’t as visually breath-taking as a game like Oblivion but you get the distinct feeling that more love and care has been put into the development of each area. Granted the map size is probably a tenth of The Elder Scrolls territory, but Mass Effect manages to gently guide you where you’re supposed to go without letting on that all of your exploring freedom has been taken away. Hidden lockers and equipment packages still lurk in the far corners, rewarding the dedicated explorer to the point where you’ll run across an entire plaza to pick up an armour upgrade you already have seven of. RPGers tend to like material rewards and with Mass Effect, you’ll hone your stockpiling skills to perfection.
As an Xbox 360 game, it would look even better on HDTV and an immediate purchase of one is advised. The in-game font is surprisingly small and you’ll spend a good deal of time browsing through menus and stats. If not to enjoy the view of sweeping alien landscapes, it’d be worth playing Mass Effect in high definition just to save your poor over-strained eyes.
Take 1 cup of Star Wars, blend in 2 tablespoons of Firefly and mix thoroughly. Mass Effect might not create as much of a stir as KOTOR did, but it's an undeniably good game that manages to showcase the incredible talent and dedication of the BioWare team.