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Players: 1
Price: $59.99
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studio
ESRB: Mature
Website: Mass Effect

When you look back at a game there are precious rare moments where you realize that something has changed fundamentally about how you perceive video games. BioWare has done that with Mass Effect. Oddly enough, they have not redefined the western RPG genre, which was something that the game has been promising for months. Instead Mass Effect is better than that, taking the near perfect Knights of the Old Republic system and refining it.

Starting at the character creation screen you get a sense of the approach BioWare took with the entire game. You can either choose a default appearance, or create your own. The level of detail available to tweak is vast, but not overwhelming. This isn’t the minutia of detail in a Tiger Woods game, but there’s plenty to play with in the first moments. You’ll notice as you delve deeper into Mass Effect that all aspects of the title follow a similar design structure.

After you’ve established your look, history, and personality profile you’re thrust into the game. And by that, I mean you are planted in what is essentially a tutorial level with no instruction on what to do. You’ll be frustrated, you’ll scream that the game is too hard, and you’ll generally want to throw the cat across the room. Or if you've gone with a combat heavy class, like Soldier, you'll most likely just be confused before heading out with a gun in hand. Looking back you can appreciate the crash course of being “taught” the control mechanics in such a harsh way, because the rest of the game is relentless. Taking on the role of Commander Shepard is a task for those who are serious about saving the galaxy. For perspective, at the 15 hour mark of the game it suddenly became clear that I was simply a moron during the first mission. Learn the controls, and you’ll be juggling Geth with the left hand while popping their skulls with a pistol in the right.

In order to achieve that level of control you must learn not only how the combat system works, but how the myriad of equipment options affects your current task. Those familiar with past BioWare titles may be surprised at the speed of the battles, as you’ll be frantically shooting enemies with nary a chance to think about the next move. Proper use of the combat and biotics wheels allows you to return to the glorious days of turned based party control, while maintaining the hectic nature of combat. You’ll find that presetting your chosen squad and entering battle will result in a few things, and them helping you is at the bottom of the list. Squad mates will constantly get stuck on boxes, unload pistol fire on the weakest threat, and generally cock up the experience.

For Knights of the Old Republic fans who have heard this is simply a skin of that game, they are in for a disappointment. The joy of that title lay in the heart of its combat. The same is true here, but for different reasons. Bringing up the Biotics Wheel with RB, or the Weapons Wheel with LB, is a smooth transition to a quasi-pause menu. Doing so will allow you to direct each moment of a battle, and when used well offers an amazing level of control. The choice on how far you want to go with it is up to you. You can, as promised, run through the game as a shooter. Simply map a biotic power to RB, and tap it instead of holding it down. Instant biotic action.

BioWare has left the game wide open for you to enjoy, which is something they’ve been a leader at for years. The difficulty level caused many deaths along my path to greatness, which also affords you the chance to try out new tactics. Take this as a word of warning when you first venture out: save the game before you open any door. You’re probably going to die, and going back 30 minutes in the game can suck. If you’ve just tried a run and gun tactic, only to have your spleen fed to you, perhaps a new approach is needed. Use the wheel menus and set the leader of the enemy group in a Stasis field, proceed to dispatch the minions, and then have your Tech Specialist disable the leader’s weapons as they come out of Stasis. This isn’t turn based, roll the dice and see what happens, combat. You don’t have to aim precisely either, because hits are still based on dice roll. Mass Effect’s combat is a happy mix of the two. It’s not perfect – when you launch a biotic attack the game starts back up, which means an enemy you were aiming at a second ago could be 10 feet to the left behind a box – but the foundation is already solid.

The wheel mechanic translates directly over to the dialogue system and by extension the story. The majority of the game BioWare does an admirable job of placing you in the role of Commander Shepard. You’ll often feel like you’re making actual choices, and not just selecting from a list. You’re able to choose an answer before an NPC speaks, facilitating a smooth dialogue experience. In twenty-two hours of gameplay I came across NPC’s repeating themselves within a conversation only a handful of times. On occasion you’ll feel like what you say has no bearing on the results, and that is indeed often the case. The true defining moments are clear, and everything else is simply a façade. But it’s a well polished one.

There are some glaring issues with Mass Effect, and dialogue scenes is one of them. Once again you engage NPC’s by standing around and staring blankly. The camera goes to an over the shoulder view, and sits on its “tripod.” There’s no need to go crazy with quick cuts, but would it hurt for Commander Shepard and Garrus to walk across the Normandy while talking about his concerns? How about a bartender serving up a drink during a conversation? It’s a small problem, but with such a cinematic experience overall there’s no excuse for the unnatural state of discussion throughout the game.

Everything outside of the main storyline is just not that spectacular. Since this is where you’ll spend the middle part of the game, the problems become apparent rather quickly. Side missions are variations of the same thing. You have to get something and bring it back, or you have to take care of a problem on another planet. This sounds great, right? It is the first 3 times, but soon becomes quite boring. Driving the Mako when you land on a planet is fun for a moment, simply because you can go almost anywhere and you have jump jets. But you’ll quickly learn that the game’s modus operandi is to have you land, go to a premarked spot on the map, enter one of about 4 structure styles, kill the “bad guys,” and run off with your reward. Repeat as needed.

Planet after planet you’ll enter the exact same structure and the illusion of a grand galaxy to explore dissipates. While the side missions are not necessary, you do come across interesting information that makes it worthwhile. And if you’re simply going to avoid them altogether, I do encourage you to take on the AI located on Lunar (the Earth’s moon). It is by far the most challenging, and fun, of the side quests. Other than that, they simply exist as a way for you to farm XP in anticipation of the final battle. Think of it as an elegant way to kill rats in your hometown found in lesser RPG’s.

When it comes down to it, Mass Effect is all about an epic story. Considering this is part one of a trilogy, we appear to be in for a hell of a ride. BioWare has crafted one of the finest tales in all of videogames, complete with space battles and cartoonish villains. In fact, when the game’s main villain approaches you throwing balls of biotic power and hovering around it’s nearly laughable. But that nature is quickly turned upside down with the big twist, which doesn’t nearly compare to the one in KOTOR. Rather than a mind bending revelation, what happens is everything you thought was going on is a complete lie. Mass Effect is a prelude in every sense of the word. The universe is set up, the players are cast, and the battle has begun. The finale Act is a plot driving force that will suck you in, and you had better set aside time to finish. You will not want any distractions as the reality of the universe, and what’s at stake, is revealed.

BioWare has taken their historical pedigree as a developer and refined what makes their titles so distinct. Combat is improved, offering the player a choice between KOTOR level management and free roaming firefights. Even load screens, the bane of BioWare, have been eased. You’ll no longer dread having to return to a section if you forgot an item, although load times still exist in abundance. They are at least quicker than before, and often masked by an elevator ride. The game is so wonderful that the faults are made more prevalent in juxtaposition with all that is done right. Mass Effect 2 can not come soon enough, I’d just like to request the use of a lightsabre – I mean a Phaserbeam Sword – the next time around.
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