Mass Effect Review (Xbox360)

BioWare sets forth its own vision of our Milky Way Galaxy in the not too distant future, we plucky humans are in for one hell of a ride through the stars – fortunately we’ve got Commander Shephard.

Husks, a new age old foe ...*cough*zombies*cough*
Easily one of the most impressive character models ever

Every so often a games developer will pitch an idea and then throw some teasing scraps to the gaming community about a project we can all get tingly about. Therein lies the greatest danger, no it’s not some galactic invasion fleet or some deadly unstoppable plague that’s the problem, but the even more insidious villain known as “over-hype”. Fear not though my fellow Earth-clan, BioWare has one tasty treat in store (figuratively and now literally) for us gamers.

The most prominent element to Mass Effect is certainly the gorgeous complimentary pairing of the character graphics and terrific voice-over work. Every dialogue is treated to movie-like finesse, especially if you have the film-grain effect left enabled for that 70’s/80’s sci-fi feel. While the previously mentioned feature of interrupting an NPC with your response is not present, conversations are just as involving and feel personal to your choices. All the characters now fidget, breathe, blink and gesture with terrific realism making more unique moments feel even more special. Pulling out guns and waving them about can be expected on occasion but doesn’t always have to end with the pulling of triggers. The detail of the character models are a marvel of how close we are getting in simulating human behaviour, though the shadows could certainly do with an overhaul. Wrex a Krogan is perhaps the most impressive specimen; just watching him shows how much crazy effort was poured into carefully crafting BioWare’s spin on our galaxy.

Conversations which are just as vital as combat itself in an RPG game set a new level of standard here. First of all you don’t get to see your literal response but you choose the type of reaction you want to give, now this isn’t groundbreaking in itself as its been done before but it’s the conversation wheel that makes everything so easy. Using the analogue stick you simply highlight an arm of the wheel and select it – done, but it gets more interesting as options on the left will try to coax more information out of the NPC. Responses to the right will push more toward the end of the conversation but that can sometimes happen on the left.

There’s one more addition to the dialogue wheel and that lies in Paragon and Renegade. While there is no light/dark choices to be made in Mass Effect technically you can however sculpt your Spectre’s personality more by pursing a just path, fighting for freedom without sacrificing your humanity in the process – Paragon. You can also decide that the galaxy is far too important to let insignificant individuals with an over-inflated sense of worth stand between you and your mission, fighting for freedom where nothings strictly taboo – Renegade. You could have a mix, choosing to play a more tempered, neutral spectre but either way, increasing your charm or intimidate level can open up additional conversations which can help you defuse a situation, get extra information or reap extra rewards. Again another spoken feature seems to edge on complete myth, the whole grey area issue – there is very little decision wise that makes you feel being caught between choosing an ‘evil’ or ‘lesser evil’, even the introduction movie showing such a situation never actually occurs.

Combat follows a more action paced style; there are no automated turns akin to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic here. You’ll be gunning and blasting in complete real-time, now this gives great freedom and can make for some tense battles but tragically it’s not without complications. The feature(s) of controlling your squad-mates or having a quick tactical view to move them into position is not anywhere to be seen. You can issue commands but these aren’t those most intuitive of programmed “intelligences”, team-mates can sometimes take cover while exposing their selves to a flank or simply fire powerful blasts obstacles. Of course for the most part your companions can be invaluable as they help fend off large assaults or at least give you a diversion. Couple that with an ability called Unity and you can “resurrect” your party quickly with restored shields and some health to get them back into the fray, if you fall though then it’s all over.

The Geth have an array of things to kill you with
The Elcor, a monotone species you can’t help but adore

What really dictates on combat isn’t so much the “tactics” but the equipment you choose for both yourself and your squad. In the beginning stages you’ll naturally have some pretty standard gear that’ll only help you hold out for a short time, loot later on can be mouth-watering in power especially should you earn access to prototype weaponry. Gear itself is both abundant and will automatically scale to your level; in fact you’ll be selling or converting most of it into handy omni-gel by the end. Armours and weapons can also be upgraded with high-end stuff having multiple slots, these are easy to put in and take out with some combinations practically making you near unstoppable.

Of course certain armour can’t be worn by all and some weapons can’t be properly utilized by all classes. You can choose between classes like soldier, engineer and adept but you can also go for infiltrator, vanguard and sentinel which mix biotics or tech with combat. Biotics are basically your force or magic user and they have some nifty powers at their disposal, one can lift multiple objects in the air leaving foes open to easy attack. Each class has certain abilities you can improve upon as you increase in level; there are no strength, agility, intelligence or wisdom stats to modify. You concentrate on the core abilities/talents of the class not attributes though increasing certain things will increase melee strength , your ability to heal and health pool etc so they still play their part but just behind the scenes.

You can choose a bonus talent to add to a class but these must first be earned during the game and can then only be applied to freshly created careers after unlocking the said achievement. Some are more generic such as 10% increase to health, shields or letting you have access to juicy weaponry from then on all the time. These are gained through the Xbox360 achievements so not all just count towards your gamerscore but do add practicality to a future play-through. Besides who doesn’t won’t to get a BioWare romance achievement? Between the primary missions and the secondary assignments littered through-out the explorable regions of the Milky Way galaxy you’ll have bountiful opportunities to snag those bonuses and get some nice loot during.

Exploration is key to a space-faring age so naturally you’ll be doing lots of light-speed travel which is all done through the galaxy map aboard the prototype (and expensive) Normandy ship. BioWare have gone all out in crafting a plausible and interesting lore for this sci-fi adventure, aside from perusing your journal, equipment, map and squad through the pause menu you can also delve into the codex which will fill up with information along your travels. Not all star clusters you enter will have assignments for you but some will greet you with a burst transmission or a communication link to the Alliance fleet Admiral requesting your intervention. I must admit I was a bit disappointed with the lack of visits we could make to major population zones even if it was just for mercantile purposes. Each system you visit will have a general setup of just one planet to actually land on, while some will also include a vessel sometimes to dock and explore. Not even Earth can be visited, though you can land on Lunar (our Moon) for an assignment but that’s as close as you can get to “home”. In their defence though a Spectre shouldn’t really be dallying around major metropolises’ when he/she is tasked with tracking down a rogue agent who’s hatched nefarious schemes within a specific relative area of the galaxy – the games so good though I just kept on wanting more and more to visit.

Regardless of that there is still plenty to go explore with the trusty MAKO, it’s a kind of love-hate relationship that bonds you with it. First the “hate” is getting across some of the more trialling of terrains, luckily it’s fitted with boosters but they are a limited saving grace. The “love” lies in its power to put down pesky foes and in the end I regretted every bad word I said about it. You have shields but they take quite a while to recharge, if you’re really hurting you can use omni-gel to repair the MAKO but this temporarily immobilizes you. Also it’s actually better to kill as many things on foot as possible as they net you more experience points. A problem, perhaps even a major one is the lack of ingame explanation on its full array of functions. First off the turret can zoom-in, twice, which fixes the elevation problem whereby you couldn’t kill things if they were below you, even at a distance. The second is the darn thing has a canon, I frustratingly didn’t discover this until I had basically ransacked 80% of the explorable galaxy. Firing the machine gun non-stop at Threshers (sand worm-like monsters), battling with overheat and the possibility of being bashed to instant death suddenly became a lot less taxing as I could blast it with the newly discovered canon-o-doom.

Before there’s any blasting or discovering of minerals to be surveyed for some quick cash you’ll need to use the Galaxy Map. From here you can zoom through clusters and then into the star systems, the Normandy will travel as you select a system so you’re then taken in further to view what planets or possible spacecraft you can interact with. Each uncharted or newly discovered world will have some mineral deposits, artefacts, and even downed probes you can salvage for both some cash and loot. Sometimes there are places that don’t grant you anything of material worth but are there just to add atmosphere and flesh out the planet a little more. Surveying, decrypting and salvaging all follow the same mini-game system where you need only push the correct sequence of buttons at the correct time. Should you fail you can use omni-gel which will let you bypass the problem, this can be costly but you just need to breakdown some unwanted inventory clutter. There are easy, medium and hard levels for these mechanisms; even if you don’t possess the skills your present party will funnel their talents through you – it’s always a good idea to take someone with great decryption and electronics skills to new worlds.

Aboard the Normandy ship you can have proper conversations with your squad and even some of the crew to find out a bit about them. Some can lead to additional quests but for the most part the ship will get you across the galaxy and help you outfit your unit better. On board is a requisitions officer who will act as a personal merchant to trade with, but if you want him to get some real good stuff you’ll need to dock and buy some manufactures’ licences for him. These let him trade in bigger circles so when you stop at a place of worth his available stock will change around letting you get newer selections. The crew themselves, particularly Joker (Seth Green) the pilot, can have a few interesting things to say – every character really feels alive and is fleshed out remarkably.

Dialogue scenes are rarely boring, some even have dire outcomes
Aboard the Normandy, catch-up with your squad and adjust equipment

In the end Mass Effect does carry some imperfections like bugs, glitches, texturing popping, some sound volume quirks and often laborious exploration in the MAKO but even after all that BioWare still has one mega-fantastic (yes, it’s a word) game here. The depth of the story, the quality of the cinematic styled dialogue and events, the brilliant scores of music that litter throughout – all build up an unforgettable immersion and by the end I was near grief-stricken that this tale had come to an end. Fortunately this is set to be just the beginning of BioWare’s destiny for our beloved Milky Way galaxy, I cannot stress enough how eagerly I’m waiting to hear when we can get back into the action. Mass Effect is a landmark game for its charismatic storytelling power, BioWare show they are still easily at the frontlines when it comes to forging new, exciting and epic-level adventures.

Top Game Moment:
The dialogues are mind-blowing in both quality of the voice-over work and their realism. (Inter)Stellar work all round!