Mass Effect starts with the character creation. It’s a fairly flexible system; you’ll be able to choose Shepard’s gender, sculpt his mug, choose his history and psychological profile, and most importantly, pick Shepard’s class. Your class will have the biggest impact on the gameplay, as it’ll define how you will play the entire game. With three base classes and three combinations of the first three bases, there are plenty of ways to really choose a class that best fits you. After you’ve finalized your Shepard, it’s time to save the galaxy.
You, Shepard, have drawn the eyes of the Council – leaders comprised of the three most prominent races, who resolve political disputes and enforce law on a galactic scale – on you. You’re a prime candidate to become the first human Spectre, a branch of the military that allows highly qualified agents to ignore all galactic law and enforce their own rules to achieve their goals. Under the watchful eye of Nihlus, a Turian Spectre, you’re off on a mission on Eden Prime, which will serve as one of the many missions where Nihlus will observe you before you’re officially locked in to become a full-on Spectre.
Things unfortunately go horribly wrong. Nihlus is killed by a rogue Spectre, Saren. Saren is going after something, something that can destroy every single sentient being in the galaxy. An entire fleet can’t find one man, but a small, single ship with a diverse set of party members can (sarcasm not intended). So, you’re off with your nice and shiny Spectre status, ready to stop Saren from completely destroying the galaxy. Heavy stuff.
Mass Effect’s narrative is at times powerful and dramatic, but it is also incredibly straight-forward, and the story lacks any serious depth. It never goes beyond “save the galaxy by stopping that really bad guy” cliché, which is a shame, because the universe BioWare has created is so incredibly detailed that Mass Effect’s world doesn’t sound improbable. It’s as if BioWare jumped into a time machine, was sent 130 years into the future, and then they stole a collection of encyclopedias and used those as their foundation for Mass Effect’s rich universe. It’s that well-realized.
The main problem is how imbalanced the story’s pacing is. During the beginning of the game, you’re fed tons and tons of information and interesting developments, but as soon you venture off into the galaxy to the main quest planets, the story progresses at a painfully slow rate. Many of the main quest planets have little to offer in terms of the overarching story. Many of them have subplots of their own, which are interesting in their own right, but they never really add to the main plot. Fortunately, the endgame accelerates things into high gear. It’s epic, exciting, emotional, and powerful. Suffice it to say, Mass Effect’s endgame is an incredible experience. The narrative, while not paced well, is a good, traditional sci-fi epic. Just don’t expect BioWare to outdo themselves here.
Your party members, on the other hand, are unique, interesting, and well-developed. They have plenty to say, and learning about them is one of the best parts of the game. Some you’ll grow to like, some you might flat-out hate, and some you’ll bunk with. Of course, you can totally ignore them all by just not talking to them, but you’d be doing a great disservice to the game and yourself if you refuse to converse with them. If there’s one minor criticism about the characters, it’s that your party members rarely converse with one another. A lot of intriguing character dynamics could’ve been introduced. It’s a missed opportunity.
Conversations in general are a key component of Mass Effect. Like BioWare’s previous efforts, Mass Effect is quite talky, and you can engage in conversations that can last fifteen minutes or more, if you exhaust all dialogue options. That’s not a bad thing at all, because the dialogue sequences are presented in such cinematic manner that it really does feel like you’re watching a movie, at times. Camera angles change constantly, and NPCs emote and gesture so naturally that it’s an utter joy to just watch them talk. What’s even cooler is how you can choose your dialogue option before they’re done talking, so your Shepard will say his part right after the NPC finishes his statement, making conversations flow naturally. It’s very, very cinematic, something BioWare pulls off deftly in Mass Effect. Mass Effect is one of the most cinematic RPGs ever.
Many of your conversations will end with having make choice between Paragon or Renegade, or better known as “kind and understanding” and “rude and unforgiving,” respectively. A moral slider shows which side you’re leaning towards, but it doesn’t severely impact the game. Rarely do your dialogue choices affect much of anything. The lack of tough choices does hurt the role-playing aspect of Mass Effect. A lot of your choices are so blatantly “good” or “bad,” that moral ambiguity is practically non-existent. That’s not to say that there aren’t any; a rare selection of choices are genuinely tough, and it’ll really affect the game world. There just aren’t enough of them.
Even though the story disappoints to a certain extent, the gameplay will keep you hooked. Combat primarily plays like a third-person shooter, and it’s very well-done in that respect. The guns feel great when firing, and the way the enemy reacts to your bullets is very satisfying. Cackling with satisfaction because you nailed someone on the head with a rifle round will be commonplace. The improved tactical interface improves a lot of the issues with sending orders on the 360 version, but considering how unremarkable the AI on both sides is, it won’t be of much use. The quick slots, on the other hand, dramatically improve the flow of battle. All you have to do is press the hotkey that corresponds to the ability and it’ll activate. Anyone who hasn’t played the 360 version will take this feature for granted, but for anybody who’s experienced the pace-killing pause of choosing your abilities or swapping out weapons will find the quick slots to almost be a godsend.
As mentioned before, classes change how you’ll approach every combat situation, which certainly ups the replay value quite a bit. The Soldier class goes in with brute force. The Adept uses its telepathic abilities to lift and throw foes off the ground, leaving them open to your bullets. The Engineer is largely focused on wrecking your opponent’s equipment while buffing your own. It changes up the dynamic, because if you’re an Adept or Engineer, you can’t just go in there and wreck the house like a soldier. At the same time, you can’t do anything beyond shoot it up if you’re a Soldier. The game does favor the Soldier class, however, because the combat is always concerned with shooting, and since using powers and abilities requires time to recharge, using the other classes prolongs the battle. Still, trying out the other classes is quite a lot of fun, even if they aren’t the most practical ways to play.
Since this is a role-playing game at its core, you’ll gain experience for every quest completion and kill you get. Leveling up will grant you talent points, and you’ll spend them to strengthen the aspects of your character that you want to improve. You can improve your social skills, proficiency with different guns, and your powers. Each class has different skill sets you can upgrade, so you can’t force a Soldier to gain some Adept powers, because the option isn’t available to you. The leveling system works very well, and it does force some tough choices, because all the skills are relatively useful.
Besides leveling up, you will get tougher and meaner with the new gear you will attain throughout your journey. There are tons and tons of guns, tons and tons of different armors, and tons and tons of weapon mods to increase damage potential. Navigating through all your loot was a migraine-inducing horror on the 360, but the PC version has a redesigned inventory, which stacks weapons, armors and mods according to usefulness. However, early on in the game, you’re going to notice that you don’t need half of the stuff you have. The problem with so much loot is that, well, it’s too much. You can either sell your extra loot or mash them into omni-gel, which allows you to bypass security locks by spending them. You will be filthy rich way before the game’s over, and you’ll have the best gear available by just finding them, making money practically irrelevant. In the big scheme of things, it doesn’t really hurt the game that much, but it’s something of which to be aware.
Much of your loot will be found when you traverse the galaxy. Yeah, you can explore dozens upon dozens of planets, clusters, and star systems. Sort of. You can land on a handful of planets, while the others are there for show or for surveying. When you do find a planet you can explore, you’ll be dropped off in your Mako, an all-terrain vehicle that will be your primary means of covering long distances on unexplored planets. The Mako controls have improved quite a bit, but it’s still way too light, for one little hitch on the road can send the Mako careening into the air. This is a big issue on tumultuous terrain, because the Mako just bounces all around, never ever going along a straight path unless you drive, really, really slowly.
Vehicle controls aside, the exploration aspect of Mass Effect is extremely addicting. The terrain skins do repeat, but they don’t repeat often. There’s something inherently exciting about landing on uncharted worlds, and BioWare absolutely nails the feeling. Finding mineral samples and ancient data discs never seems to get old. Not all the optional exploration takes place on planets. You’ll find derelict space shuttles, and finding out what happened is half the fun. It helps that the planets are visually spell-binding. Gorgeous sunsets and weather effects will absolutely blow you away, really evoking an adventurous mood.
The visuals in general are superb. NPCs are meticulously detailed, and the artistic design driving many of the grand locales is nothing less than gorgeous. From the grandiose design of the Citadel to the incomprehensibly huge skyscrapers of Feros, there are plenty of moments when jaws will drop. The technical issues that plagued the 360 version are practically non-existent. If you have a PC that meets the recommended requirements, the framerate will rarely ever pout, the load times will never ever clock over ten seconds, and texture pop-in will be non-existent. Some of the graphical issues do remain on the PC, however. The self-shadows tend to create some screwy renders, and it’ll cause NPCs to attain five o’clock shadows for brief periods of time. The many caverns and outposts found on many planets repeat the same level design over and over again, which just seems very lazy. Minor blemishes aside, this is easily BioWare’s prettiest game relative to each generation.
As far as the sonic elements go, they’re about as awesome as the visuals. The first thing that really sticks out is the electronic-heavy soundtrack. If you’ve watched Blade Runner or listened to its score, you should have a good idea of what to expect. It’s hard to really define the music. Just know that it’s downright amazing. The voice-acting and sound effects are almost as good. BioWare has a knack for nailing the voice cast, and, once again, they succeed, with the exception of male Shepard’s voice. There’s a very stoic and emotionless quality to his delivery. The female voice fares much better; her performance is stronger, while retaining the stoicism. Yes, he is a military man, but there’s a very plain quality to his performance. Understandably, it’s tough to balance, but the male voice just errs on one side more than the other. Sound effects are distinct and effective, but the all the weapons sounds exactly the same. Sure, the rumbling thud (max out your bass level) of a sniper rifle shot will never get old, but different sounds for different gun models could’ve made each model more distinct.
Your first run through of Mass Effect can take anywhere from 30-40 hours to just under 15. A ton of the content is purely optional, and exploration alone will eat up many, many hours of your time. However long your initial play-through is, Mass Effect will only impress with its cinematic dialogue sequences, intense combat, and addicting exploration aspect. There are some definite problems with the game, but when looking at the game as a whole, it’s one thrilling experience. If you’re a sci-fi junkie, Mass Effect is a must-play. If you like shooters, Mass Effect is a must-play. If you like role-playing games, Mass Effect is a must-play. If you like… just play Mass Effect.