ME cover

As your average gamer, I have a shameful backlog of games I need to play.  In a desperate attempt to both polish off some of these games and write reviews, I combine the two and write reviews several months or years after games come out.   It's intended less as a review for the consumer and more for the casual reader.  Today I review Bioware's Mass Effect, which receives a sequel this coming January.  It turned out a little long but in my defense, it's a big game to cover. Enjoy!

 Bioware sure has found their niche, haven't they?   It's an amazing feat that the well-established developer has been developing more or less the same game for the last decade, each one arriving with more success than the one before it.  At some point, you'd think it inevitable that some sort of creative wall would be reached, but Mass Effect is a testament that no such barrier yet exists.  In traditional Bioware fashion, it is an expertly crafted RPG that greatly expands upon its predecessors (namely Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire), but falls short of perfection.  One has to wonder, at this point, if they don't make the jump from "great" to "perfect" just because it'd ruin the fun.
Its roots in KOTOR and Jade Empire are clear – absolutely breathtaking visuals and interactions with others tell a story set in a warring universe that has you caught in the middle.  You take the helm of Commander Shepherd, the leader of an Alliance (human) fleet.  The rest is pretty much up to you – Mass Effect dishes up a boggling amount of customization options from the get-go, from a handful of different classes with different abilities to one of the deepest character-customization interfaces (male and female) I've ever seen.  Each player's experience in Mass Effect will be their own – it's actually a little eerie watching somebody else playing the game with another character.  You nearly forget that the character you built isn't the star of the story, but rather the star of your story.


The story in general is a step up from previous Bioware ventures.  The big-time developer has crafted a universe suiting of their reputation, and the plot flourishes because of it.  Every bit of the story is immersing and believable, and by the time credits roll, the ins and outs of everything from the culture of the AI-governed Geth to the century-old secrets of the galaxy will be second-hand knowledge.  It's a deep, intricrately crafted universe capable of hosting a wealth of sequels, and certainly on par with lore from nerd-friendly series like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.  The writing remains top-notch and most of the voice actors are spot-on, something which has virtually become a Bioware staple and Mass Effect is no exception.  It all gets wrapped up in an ending that is surprisingly satisfying in regards to both story and combat.


 In terms of combat, Mass Effect certainly draws from the likes of KOTOR and Jade Empire, but ultimately it blends the genre of third-person shooter and RPG more than the others ever did.   Standard RPG affair is here – different classes can execute different abilities, and different characters focus differently on the three combat areas (combat, biotics, and tech). The shooter elements offer more freedom than KOTOR did – you now have to aim and press the trigger yourself, use a cover system,  and switch guns on the fly to compensate for strategy.   At its roots, these additions only serve to make the RPG side of combat more engaging, and on their own would feel pretty clunky and outdated.   Those looking for an action game might be disappointed – Mass Effect isn't a shooter, even if it sometimes wants to be.  It clearly should be viewed as a real-time RPG with some shooter mechanics, and in that regard, Mass Effect delivers satisfying gameplay. 

In addition to the standard three-people-to-a-party combat, Bioware also introduces a vehicle and allows the player to travel planet to planet to not only further the story, but to perform various side quests and collect various items.  Vehicle combat can't help but feel out of place in a game like this, but it doesn't help that the controls are frustrating to begin with.  For some reason, the Mako (think warthog from Halo) can't aim down, and shooting while driving is pretty tough considering most enemies take a bevy of hits to take down.  Fortunately, the Mako can take quite a pounding itself, and it's rare that you'll ever have any difficulty killing enemies despite awkward moments where you have to roll your Mako down a hill just so you can get the turret to line up with a target below.

To make matters worse, a lot of the planets you visit are bland, boring landscapes with nothing of tremendous variety.  Each planet usually hosts a larger side mission, but it does little to make the experience any more desirable – often you'll find your attention drifting off as you drive from destination to destination because the whole affair is really quite boring.  Add in a huge host of fetch quests, and the average completionist is going to find an otherwise compelling gameplay experience strangely segmented. 


 These are minor gripes though, and the fact that all of the exploration planets are completely optional makes them more forgivable.  Although exploring each planet can be a bit boring, you'll probably do it anyway, if not just to experience the extra dialogue paths and combat opportunities.  If anything, it's impressive that Mass Effect makes you actually [i]want[/i] to explore dull environments just because the gameplay elements hold themselves up so well.  When all is said and done, you aren't likely to regret much of the 30-40 hours you can sink into this game.  

Not that it really comes as a surprise – this is a Bioware game, and it feels like it.  It's an extremely-well made RPG, and raises the bar considerably over previous efforts.  Experimentation with shooter mechanics and exploration works well at times, and falters at others, but a fantastic story, compelling RPG elements and convincing dialogue make everything well worth the effort.  Mass Effect 2 in January will be an interesting experience – Bioware has laid a great foundation and ME2 has potential to be an amazing videogame.  If history is any guide – and anything like this installment – it'll be a tremendous game that improves upon its predecessor, but ultimately falls just short of perfection.