It was supposed to be a long-shot joke on our wedding registry, but 1 day after the ceremony, I opened an unmarked cardboard box to find 15 used Genesis games...and Mass Effect. "Wow!" I thought, "I should have put MORE crap like this on the registry!"
I don't like to skip around when I game. Old 'one game at a time' Williams, that's me. Playing a game through until it is utterly defeated, destroyed, dominated - that was how I liked it as a kid. Nowadays I feel the compulsion to uber-play a game when I reach its ending, but instead simply take in the game's end, feel nostalgic for a day or so, and move on. I don't have enough time or passion to play something for over 100 hours. (except games that require it, like FF12 or Persona 3)
So Mass Effect sat on my shelf, staring at me, taunting me, for a solid 6 months. My wife bought me Persona 3 FES, which I was really looking forward to for a looong time (but too broke to buy the $70 original version), so I spent my summer playing an hour a day of P3 inbetween day-long bouts of editing at home. When the final boss' second form was destroyed and I felt considerable time had passed since I put the game back in its case (a week later), I picked up Lost Odyssey and Mass Effect (both registry-gotten games) and made a choice. My friend Darrin, who had come back from our wedding to find his apartment violated and all of his next-gen consoles / games stolen, had highly recommended Mass Effect. In fact, I felt bad that I hadn't offered to let him borrow my unplayed copy, mainly because I had my eye on it for post-P3 playing and also, it was a wedding gift. Lost Odyssey, I felt, was another J-RPG with tons of grinding and traditional 'monsters on left, heroes on right' style battles. Because I had just spent over 100 hours of my summer doing this exact same thing with Persona 3, I decided to trust Darrin and put Mass Effect into the Xbox 360 DVD tray.
I've spent over 15 hours in the game so far. The gameplay consists of walking around in different cities / planets / space locations and finding missions and sidequests to spend your time on. After some quick space travel, you wind up on an alien world where you and your squad of two helpers kill various aliens with upgradable weapons, magic, and tech, which is like magic but sciencey. The first few missions consisted of only these two elements - and I was cool with that, but it felt a little stale. If you choose to take a weaker magic-user along with your bulky weapons expert, they both run into the heat of battle if you tell them to - there's no separate commands for movement. There are selectable commands for special attacks and weapon changes, otherwise your team will act on their own.
After 5 hours of blasting and chatting, I talked to Darrin. It felt like everyone in the game had no problem talking to a complete stranger, and frequently divulged their innermost thoughts and feelings to me without hesitation. "That'll change", Darrin said.
It did. Finally I was given freedom to choose where I went next. The entire galaxy, consisting of several clusters of solar systems - each with their own group of surrounding planets - are open to scan and explore. When I had my own ship and was cruising around the galaxy - that's when the game really picked up. Occasionally (usually once per solar system) you get to cruise around on a planet's surface in a six-wheeled explorer vehicle. You're searching with your radar for ruins, mineral deposits, and the infrequent alien monster to blast to hell. I loved this. Suddenly I was Captain Kirk, cruising the unknown planets of space, cataloging strange new worlds and laying down the law, wild west style. Suddenly my conversations with strangers carried more meaning. Suddenly I cared.
I really like the look and feel of the Mako six-wheeler. It feels like a 3D MoonPatrol. There's even a jump button! Whether I'm spinning its tires trying to climb a giant rocky mountain, or circling a giant Thresher Maw, or peppering some enemy gun turrents and snipers from far away, the control of the vehicle is awesome and it feels great to explore these worlds. What makes this experience even better is that you can pop out of the Mako at any point and take the battle on foot. I try never to leave the vehicle, as it has better shields and weapons than my characters do, but when you're forced to, you know that IT'S ON.
Case in point: the Luna Mission. I randomly received a distress call from Alliance military - there's a rouge batch of AI on Earth's moon and I'm the only one who can put it down. I hurried to the Sol system and after scanning all the planets (there's a description of the properties and history of each), landed on the moon. Roving around on the gray, colorless surface was pure joy. I tilted the camera upwards, and there was a breathtaking view of Earth - just as pretty as you've ever seen from photos taken from the space station. In this moment, I knew this game was pure gold. What other game has ever recreated driving on the moon - complete with battles against evil machines AND simple surveying goals?
The mission was long and hard, but I didn't care. I was really having a lot of fun. Before landing, I made sure to do a bunch of sidequests to level up my characters' attributes and weapons. Even with this, my team died on a number of occasions. You can't just run into a room full of enemies with your guns blazing. You will die every time. The game's enemies are tough and murderous, ranging from "giant robot with missles that will kill you in one hit" to "fast commandos that will run, dodge, and use cover". I've even run into Zerg-looking aliens that spit acid and send little explosive grubs to kill you from afar. There's a lot of variation here, forcing you to get really good with using cover and sniping - and also knowing where to send your team and what special attacks/defense for them to use.
I haven't played a quarter of the game yet, but already I'm very pleased with the overall package. There's so much to this game that I can't cover it in this blog post - and I won't, until I'm further in. Believe the hype, people! Mass Effect is that damn good. The Luna Mission combined everything I like about this game - playing the hero, planet exploration, on-foot baddie extermination. I'm sold - and there's so much more to play.