Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year you’ve probably heard of Mass Effect and, since I’m always late doing these reviews odds are you’ve already played it, or – lacking the luxury I have of spending more time playing games – are still playing it. A brief summation then at the start of this review is ‘buy it, it is good’. Above and beyond Bioware’s existing reputation for creating good computer game RPGs this shows they’re masters of it and, until they perfect freeform AI for running roleplaying games this is about as good as the genre gets.
The collector’s edition for Mass Effect came in a natty looking tin, quite solid compared to a lot of other tin-box special editions with the Bad Guy on the front and the Good Guys on the back. Inside you get your usual controller guide with some basic background on the game, character creation and so forth plus a more in depth Galactic Codex with 33 more pages of slightly deeper information about the various races, planets, technology and so forth from the game. The game DVDs are housed in a slightly disappointing card case and disc inserts in plastic within that. One of which is the game disc, the other is a series of documentaries and art sketches which you can watch and geek out at.On a side note I would like to mention that it is now around twenty-five years since the Compact Disc made its debut and engineers still haven’t designed a non-fiddly way to get discs out of a package without a) hurting your thumb, b) breaking the packaging or c) breaking the disk. How hard can it be?
Lastly you get a flimsy art book ‘A Future imagined’. When ‘art book’ is mentioned as part of a special edition I tend to think of something a little more expansive and this was just a controller guide sized pamphlet with a few bits and pieces of art within, no larger than postcards. I think I’d rather have had actual postcards of the art if a more substantial book wasn’t a possibility.
If you’re not making up your own character you play as Commander John Shepherd of the System’s Alliance Military, the military force of Earth and all its colonies. Earthlings are the brash, up and coming race in the setting, a common SF motif, and they are resented, hated, envied and admired in equal measure by many of the other alien races who are loosely united under the banner of The Citadel Races, a concord of aliens based around a huge alien artefact, left behind – apparently – by the same alien race that left behind massive transfer portals between distant star systems.These aren’t the only artefacts left behind by this elder race – the Protheans – and rivalry over archaeological finds is great in terms of military action, espionage and science. Any Prothean find can accelerate a race’s development and technology massively creating potential disparities between the races and throwing alliances out of balance. Besides the Protheans there are rumours of an altogether less benevolent elder race, the Reapers, who may or may not be gone and whom most regard as a myth.
With Earth bucking for full Citadel membership and wanting humans within the Spectres (Citadel special forces) you’re thrust to the fore as an example to help the first problem and a candidate for the second. At much the same time an important Prothean artefact turns up with some important new knowledge that could affect the fate of the whole galaxy and you get caught up in the thick of it.
I can’t say too much more without giving away plot and surprises and with a game this good spoilers are a real problem. Suffice to say it is a really good story, albeit your usual sort of galaxy saving fare that these universe spanning games will tend to go in for, it develops naturally and yet contains enough twists and turns to keep you going. There were elements that were left out that I felt could have done with a bit more exploring, I was dying to visit the Quarian refugee fleet but that never happened and the homeworlds of some of the other species, more understanding of the Krogan and more exploration and understanding of The Attican Traverse would all have been nice but understandably there wasn’t room. Still, it felt like a bit of a lie to describe Mass Effect’s universe as huge, there’s a lot that is simply empty.
Mass Effect plays and feels like a pre-Star Wars science fiction film, or book, with a military slant. If you’ve read or flipped through the old (or new) Terran Trade Authority books that’s precisely what it feels like. A clean and crisp future as imagined in the 70s and 80s and everything from the graphics through to the sound emphasises this. Kudos to Bioware for including at least one truly alien looking race – the Hanar – amongst all their other humanoid species, though I felt the alien sex goddess Asari were a bit of a cheap shot really.Still, it manages to be engrossing, the effects applied to the graphics – which are mercifully adjustable – can give you a more cinematic feel to the game and the Vangelis style music really does top the whole thing off nicely. It maintains its sense of alienness even when you’re just driving your buggy around the surface of the planet and each location does have a good feel to it.
Mass Effect foregoes the more usual RPG controls for more of a first/third person control setup. Initially I was rather wary of this as, in my opinion, first person shooters and consoles don’t get on, I can’t aim for shit without a mouse and moving without a keyboard just feels… weird. Mass Effect compensates for this with some aim correction – if you’re a spazz like me – and I never felt too imposed upon by the first/third person mechanics. I can see how this might upset some RPG enthusiasts who prefer the character to express the skill rather than themselves, but I don’t think it was too obtrusive and there are enough statistical modifiers as you advance down the skill trees to keep a statistic junkie happy. Hacking is accomplished by dance-dance-revolution style timed button presses, combat is done using the sticks, conversation is handled by a nice and fluid stick-based selection mechanism and everything else is easy enough.The story is advanced through missions, but there’s plenty of side quests and planets to explore if you want to go off by yourself chasing down pirates and otherwise being a galactic do-gooder or menace. Whether you’re mean or nice opens up different conversation trees and you have the option of two romantic sub plots, at least you do if you’re playing a male character. What’s a lot of fun is just romping around the surface of planets, shooting at giant killer bugs, raping resources and seeing just how many flips you can get out of your Big-Trak looking space buggy before it explodes.
Mass Effect deserves the hype and it deserves a sequel. I’ll be interested to see what additional materials for it come out over Xbox live – if any ever do -and I can see myself putting together an RPG fanbook for Mass Effect very easily. Its a compelling universe and unlike many of these world-hopping, galaxy-spanning adventures this one leaves itself open for future stories very nicely indeed.