Video games have looked to film for source material for some time, but every once in awhile, a developer will release a title that blends interactivity with cinematic presentation in a way that redefines a genre. Been there, done that for BioWare. 2003's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic bonded lightsabers with an innovative dialogue-tree system, granting the player a timeless space-based choose-your-own-adventure.
Sans the Star Wars license, BioWare's back with the same template, fashioning an original near-future context for remarkable storytelling that's akin to a season of Battlestar Galactica or your favorite sci-fi series. And it's here that Mass Effect's strengths lie. If you're seeking immersion, Mass Effect's writing, elegant character models, hours of voiced dialogue, and open-universe setting will get you there. Unfortunately, its qualities as an action game leave a lot to be desired, and a handful of rushed, underdeveloped gameplay elements limit Mass Effect's value as a well-rounded experience.
Your created character, Commander Shepard, is an honored hero of humanity that becomes a Specter, an elite galactic agent for the Milky Way's governing body, The Citadel. Shepard's granted this status to pursue Saren, a powerful Turian prowling space for ancient Prothean artifacts for purposes unknown to Shepard and his crew. Without revealing too much, the story is conveyed extremely well -- BioWare's uncanny dialogue engine, coupled with some of the best facial modeling seen in a game, carries Mass Effect to another plane of cinematic storytelling. Saren's scary plans reveal themselves so well with the system the developer's crafted, and it can be said that this is the feature that defines Mass Effect's appeal. Cutscenes are pleasant, welcome engagements that pace the action, party management, and galaxy-roaming perfectly.
Likewise, BioWare did well to avoid confining the player to too many binary dialogue options -- you'll accrue a similar "light/dark" alignment as the game progresses based on your decisions, but the handy dialogue wheel leaves some room for players to define Shepard's personality outside of a measured, point-based system. You won't find more solid storytelling in an RPG, but our one, tiny complaint about the title in this regard is that it's been clearly written with sequels in mind; the scope of the universe the player's allowed to grasp in terms of factions, cultures, and history is relatively limited. Still, the promise of choices made in the first title carrying over via your save file and affecting your character in future games is all too exciting.
So: the space opera's a smash, but what about the action offering? It's here that we'd encourage evaluation of how highly you prioritize polished shooter mechanics in your RPGs. Mass Effect's gunplay is a bit messy, mostly due to incongruence between its friendly and enemy AIs, limited controls, and the relatively tame abilities available to characters. Firstly, it would've been handy to be able to independently control and direct the pair of party members that tag along with you through battles -- a feature the developer showed off in a demo video at X06. Instead, the commands are simplified to the d-pad, which you'll use to tell your alien pals to move to a specific point, fall back, hold position, or attack a specific target. In theory this should be enough, but your partymates rarely respond promptly to commands, often getting hung up on walls or objects when you point them in a direction.
Even at lower difficulties, babysitting becomes an unfortunate component of combat situations. Your partymates rarely contribute to battles in interesting ways, and you'll find yourself taking initiative to take down most foes. Hampering this further is a lack of truly articulate character models. Enemies and allies alike simply seem content to stand and shoot in the same cocked position, infrequently hopping behind cover. Enemy AI is just as simple -- foes either rush the player to point-blank range or hang back to absorb bullets. It's a shame, because the robo-alien army introduced by the story, the Geth, are annoying, lovely little baddies that show a lot of potential.
If we were to draw a Venn diagram of "story great, combat less-than-great," the area of intersection between these bodies would be Mass Effect's shallow side-quests. There's plenty mini-missions available, and they're often nicely introduced: scouting a distress beacon, dismantling a haywire AI, confronting biotic cultists -- but their gameplay execution and the level of exploration required on the player's part is less than satisfying. Among Mass Effect's planets, nearly every outpost appears identical: square rooms and corridors populated by a mess of crates and enemies. Worse is the fact that there's rarely any exposition to break things up: each mini-quest is mostly a matter of housecleaning these environments 'til you're awarded some EXP. Worse, some side-quests simply end with a tiny block of text to let you know what happened, making the missions relatively tedious tasks toward leveling up your characters rather than what they should be: quick, snack-like diversions from the storyline that reveal more of the game's lore.
Still, they don't undermine Mass Effect's primary plotline much. BioWare manages to forge five fantastic scenarios where characters, storytelling and combat merge extremely well, helped a lot by the crew of six that tag along with Shepard. The supporting cast members represent artful, emotive personalities with their own individual histories, motives, and approach. These personas are mostly revealed through one-on-one dialogues aboard Shepard's ship, but make no mistake, these are likely the richest, most well-designed and convincing alien and human companions you'll come across. Indeed, they also represent an incentive for another playthrough (the game smartly allows you to carry-over your character for a second campaign), as you'll want to include each of the six in your galactic adventures.
But again, it's a shame these elegant, unique characters don't make nearly as interesting combat companions. Aside from specific ability ratings, each party member has a combination of combat, tech, and biotic proficiency, the same that Shepard is assigned at the beginning of the game. Combat represents adeptness with Mass Effect's four weapon types: pistols, sniper and assault rifles, and shotguns. Tech abilities can disable inorganic enemies, make weapons unusable, and generally irritate foes' ability to do battle. Biotic abilities are similar: genetically-enhanced feats that allow the user to create protective barriers, capture enemies in a levitating stasis, or throw them across a room. But mostly due to the game's simple AI, even characters that are distinct biotics or bullets-only, hard-nosed soldiers don't operate uniquely enough when it comes to combat -- it's unfortunate that BioWare couldn't better represent its colorful cast in this arena as well.
All this amounts to Mass Effect being much more of a lover than a fighter: a beacon as a sci-fi storytelling, heavily cinematic experience whose brilliance only brings light to the relatively predictable, plain combat that runs in parallel. Other hitches include an inconsistent framerate and some shady texture pop-in -- there are instances where short cutscenes will open and close without clothing or background art fully loading, but Mass Effect remains a one-of-a-kind effort that rides its narrative from start to finish without too much problem. Milling about the Milky Way was never this immersive.