Captain Jean Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation summed up space travel and exploration best, ďSpace...The final frontier...These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: To explore strange new worlds... To seek out new life; new civilizations...To boldly go where no one has gone before!" But he left one thing out and that is to kick heaps of ass. That pretty much sums up Mass Effect.
You play as Commander Shepard and your main task is to stop the rogue Spectre agent Saren. What a Spectre agent is is not really placed into a concrete definition, but as far as Iím concerned they are Intergalactic cleaners (think Jean Renoís character in The Professional or his character in the original La Femme Nikita). They have the power to go anywhere and do as they wish under their own discretion. So what happens when one decides to stop playing by the rules? The answer is nothing good. There is a lot of story tied into what Sarenís real intention is and it is pretty juicy.
On top of dealing with Saren there is another story arch dealing with ingratiating Commander Sherpard into the illustrious and highly exclusive Spectre clan, which isnít easy. There is a lot of racism between humans and other alien species; specifically while youíre speaking to members of the Council. This is because they feel that humanity gained power far too quickly and a lot of them are not going to go out of their way to help out mankind. Part of what Shepard has to do is prove to them that humanity is worth it and not as arrogant and pig headed as they think. This job technically falls to you by dictating how Shepard handles certain situations.
You donít face the epic and nigh apocalyptic task of stopping a power hungry aspiring despot alone luckily. Within about two missions you will fill out your roster of characters. Every character in the game has a well thought out and surprisingly fleshed out back-story. Getting to know each character is a blast and youíre guaranteed to find some favorite characters. There is really a lot to like about the story. There are a lot of plot driven decisions to make so Iím pretty sure that there are multiple endings.
One other way of note is that you can shape who and what Commander Shepard is. What I found interesting is that when you create your character you also get to determine what her backstory is. You get several options and each one is mentioned multiple times in the story. They also give you a decent character editor to make your own individual Shepard. My Shepard is a raven haired, ruthless beauty that gets the job done, but also isnít above being nice and helping people out, but talk trash to her and you will get taken down.
Mass Effect plays out like some kind of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter RPG hybrid. It sounds really weird when you read it, but it works fairly well. Itís a third person shooter with RPG elements and Iím pretty sure it will play a lot differently depending on which class you decide to be. You can play as your standard grunt in the Soldier class which grants you access to all of the weapons classes and the heaviest armor, but you canít use any Biotics powers. You can think of Biotics as ďThe ForceĒ because it allows you to push, lift, stop and do other things to your opponents. If you want access to all of them you can play in the Adept class, but the downside is that you can only upgrade your pistol stats and utilize the light armor. So if you want something that will stand a chance is a close in fight you will not want to be this. I went the route of the Vanguard class, which is a combination of both. You can train to gain access to Medium armor and you can utilize pistols and shotguns. You also have access to some of the Biotics powers like Lift, Throw, and Warp. Lift and Throw are the important ones because they can put the hurt on your opponent.
Using this class you also notice the nice physics engine at work. Enemies have a bad habit of charging at you especially towards the end. Some foe decides that heís tired of taking potshots at me from a distance and starts charging at me full speed. With the help of the Lift technique I send him skyward, but he also keeps his momentum so not only is he in the air, but he is also streaking through it. He must have been launched 50 meters from his location because I had to run to shoot the crap out of him. After getting perforated in mid air his corpse drops while in open air to fall a good long distance till he hits solid ground. This ability also effects the environment so youíll also have crates, tables, and chairs floating around your suspended enemy.
On top of Lift thereís Throw, which is essentially Force Push. For awhile it took me time to get used to doing these, but once I got used to them I started to rely on them to help get the job doneÖthat and using them is hilarious at times. One time I actually managed to Throw someone off a balcony and into what seemed like a bottomless pit. I imagined the person doing that Emperor Palpatine drop from Return of the Jedi.
The game isnít all shotguns and levitation because there are other classes that play differently, but I didnít care too much for what they had to offer. Commander Shepard also has to answer to the calling of helping peopleÖif you choose to, but you should because it gives you experience for doing it, but how you do it is up to you. Just like Knights of the Old Republic you have the option to be nice (Paragon) or bad (Renegade).
There a lot of side quests in the game and it is recommended that you partake in a few to level up your character and to extend the game. Since you work for the Alliance Navy they will radio in missions for you to accomplish. These can be anything from find the missing crew to solve a hostage situation. And some of these situations can be solved differently. There was this one assignment towards the end where I had to help get this person out of a spy ring. I first intimidated her boss to cut her loose and then he sent me out to buy some weapons from a smuggler. Instead of doing what I was told (pay him), I stole his goods and killed him along with his gun toting cohorts; yes a good time was had with that one.
Along with dispensing intergalactic justice you will also do some planet hopping. I was actually a little bit disappointed with this because from all the PR hype it seemed that every planet in the game would be explorable, but this isnít true. If you are lucky youíll be able to survey a planet (itís a button command) and discover something on it to nab some experience points, but that is it. If there is no mission than there is no planet just text. The planets tend to be barren wastelands with no indigenous life what so ever (minus Vermire where I saw a couple of crabs), some planets have Thresher Maws (think the worms from Dune). The planets that you can traverse are well thought out and have their own environments, my favorite one would be the ice planet.
You drive across the planet in a moon buggy on steroids that goes by the name of ďMako.Ē I honestly wish that this thing handled better because there are times that you have to shoot while on the move (to survive of course) and the controls just arenít tight enough. When you donít have rockets or energy balls flying at you then you donít mind. The physics are also a tad loose at times. You will get hung up on things and running into something stupid will make you shoot up into the air at times. My last grievance comes from the combat itself.
If youíre expecting the next Gears of War then you wonít find it here. The cover mechanic is a tad sloppy because you have to press towards the object or pull away from it if you want to get off of it and since it is based on camera rotation youíll get caught on something when you really just want to get the heck off of it (like when a rocket is flying towards you). Also the AI of your teammates is all over the place. Sometimes they will take cover but also they tend to hang out in the open and when you point them towards cover they will go there but they wonít always get behind it. Also when it comes to attacking theyíre actually pretty good and you can actually rely on them to kill things so that is definitely not a complaint, but the enemy has to be in the open and not behind cover. You can try taking the Brothers In Arms route and use them to flank the enemy, but that doesnít always go the best way because there are times when they will say that they canít get a lock on them or some other equivalent expressing their blindness leaving you to go in shotgun ready and hope that it will suffice.
Also you get so much crap in this game and a lot of it you will not use. You get upgrades to ammo and armor and depending on your play style you may or may not use it. All I know is that once I received the first aid armor upgrades I didnít use anything else and there are so many versions of the same weapon (stats are different). Youíll use the best stuff and just ignore everything else and the problem is that there is a cap to how much that you can carry. What makes that a real big problem is that you never know how close you are to the cap until you reach the limit. So then when you pick something up (pray to god itís not useful) when youíre at the limit you essentially have to smelt it down to omni-gel. There is also a huge money management problem. You never really know how much cash is on you until you go to the store and you rarely buy things either. Throughout the whole game I think I purchased four to five items. This is because youíll find stuff all over the place and that in the beginning of the game youíre broke and then the next thing you know youíre rich towards the end and since you really donít need to shop youíll rarely know how much money you have.
All of this may sound really nit-picky but it is really hard not to notice them. The game from a macro point of view is pretty much top notch and highly entertaining, but there are little quirks that bring the game down just a tad.
This game is pretty much Unreal Engine 3 at itís best, but since it is using that engine it has the quirks along with it. So far this is the game that seems to be doing the most with the engine and that is because the art direction for the game is stellar. The texture on the alienís skin and just how they were designed is spectacular. It really puts a lot of developers to shame and almost says, ďThis is what Unreal Engine 3 is supposed to do.Ē Not enough can be said about the texture work in the game. One alien of note is the Krogan alien species. You can see the crevices in alien skin and it has a very distinct leathery lizard like texture to it. You can relate them to dinosaurs because theyíre big, pissed off and bred to wreak havoc.
I like how when they drop you from the Normandy (the spaceship) they give you an overview of the planet and, they show the Normandy cutting through the air as it jettisons you from the cargo bay. The architecture on the buildings are exceptional and you can really see that Bioware spent their time on the universe that you spend your time in. As nice as the game looks there are still some glaring imperfections.
As with all games using the Unreal Engine technology there is texture pop in after long loading times (after you die, going to a new environment, during some cutscenes). You will see a low resolution model and within seconds everything will get filled in. Personally Iím still shocked that this is a problem and I hope eventually Epic will find a way to iron this out. On top of texture pop-in the frame rate will dip at times. Itís far from game breaking, but itís still a flaw.
Everybody send thank you emails or letters to Jennifer Hale for lending her vocal talents to this game. For those that donít know who she is she is a very talented voice actress. She has provided the vocals for most notably Metal Gear Solid as Naomi Hunter, Metroid Prime as Samus Aran and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic as Bastila. She is pretty much the reason why you should play as a woman. Her vocal performance eclipses that of the male Commander Shepard. It has a more commanding tone and has a lot more range. Her voice pulls you right into the story.
The musical score is one of the best this year. At times it can be pulse pounding and other times itís soothing. Itís definitely a sci-fi score that fits the theme of the game. Weapons donít sound like phasers and the shotguns are sublime, with a loud echoing boom. And since after the boom something is sprawled out on the ground dead, itís definitely satisfying. Since your main foes are sentient machines youíll hear a very distinct piercing beep when they take that trip to see robot Jesus.
There are a lot of reasons to go back to this game. Outside of it being a great story you can play again as a different character in a different class, which is good because it allows you to go after achievement points for certain powers and weapons. Also you can play again as the same character and fully max out the character plus you also get to just mop the floor with everybody. Plus all your other characters stay at the same level. You can also change up your decisions as well and maybe tackle a couple of side missions that you opted not to do.
The story campaign may be shorter than what people expected, but there are a lot of side quests to keep you busy if you opt to do them. The universe is well thought out and the dialogue is some of the best to ever grace a videogame. Characters tend to talk to one another and the universe seems alive. Learning about each character through engaging dialogue is a treat and everything that you do seems to have an impact on something, which youíll realize through the occasional news broadcasts on elevator rides. Being able to choose how you resolve situations and how you respond to dialogue is great. It falls short on some things but once you look past it you will get sucked into the story. Now to further quote Captain Picard, ďEngage!Ē