The science fiction genre provides endless fodder for video games, because it is one of the few ways, apart from the movies, to let players experience the story for themselves, and it also affords the player the chance to become the characters depicted in the story, which makes for an even more in depth experience for the player. BioWare’s space opera title: Mass Effect is a prime example of how sophisticated technology combined with good story telling can drag a player into a game and make it very difficult for them to pull themselves away.
Mass Effect may be your story, but it is also the story of Commander InsertNameHere Sheppard, an elite agent of the Human Alliance, who is trying to stop a hideous threat from being reborn and let loose on the galaxy. To do this you will utilize various conversational techniques and your skill at arms to win the day and keep the galaxy safe. Players have the option of sticking with the default character type, one Commander Alan Sheppard, or creating a custom character, which will not only be different in terms of physical appearance, age, and gender, but also the character’s childhood, war record, and personality type can be adjusted to create a completely new character. The personal background that you create is seamlessly worked into the story, and determines how other characters you encounter will regard you either favorably or with other less positive emotions.
The game takes RPGs to new heights with the capacity for expression the characters in Mass Effect possess. For many years, RPG players have had to rely on text and body language to penetrate their character’s emotions and within recent months, visual and auditory cues have become more prevalent in next gen console games, but the subtlety of expression available in Mass Effect is unequaled. Body language and tone of voice still play a part, but facial expression also comes into play. At the start of the game, there is a moment when the Taurain SPECTER agent is shown a picture of another SPECTER agent and you can see the skin covering the sides of his mouth twitch. Of course, in a lot of alien faces, it’s hard to monitor the change of expression, but the cues are there and it’s an achievement that can only be described as amazing.
The only problem that newcomers to Mass Effect will have is that the game tends to bombard you with information early on in the game about Mass Effect’s various game mechanics leaving you to catch up at your own pace. This sink or swim approach to the game can be frustrating at first, but once you begin to sort out how the game works it is easy to get into the swing of things. There has also been a lot of muttering regarding the elevator rides in the game as concealment for loading time, but this it seems interesting to note that no matter how far technology advances elevator music is always the same. Think about it, won’t you? Thank you.
The conversation system in Mass Effect does away with the tried and true conversation tree in favor of a more fluid structure that can best be described as a conversation circle. When a character talks to you are offered a number of summarized conversation options for you to select. It is important to study the NPC you are talking to in order to be able to pick the best response to use in answer to that particular sentence as they will either push the character further away from you or get them to open up to you either through intimidation or by charming them. For instance, if you have to interrogate a suspect the easiest way would be to pull out your gun, put it to his head, and do your questioning in a Godfather-esque style. You can also take a more subtle course in getting the information you need but the choice is entirely up to you. The choices you make in the various social interactions you make are listed on a scale that either lists you as a Paragon or a Renegade. The one will result in a favorable approach for some or a suspicious approach from others, or you may be so far gone that not even the scum of the galaxy will deal with you. The choice is out there and it is yours.
The hardest part of the game, at least for this reviewer, was the combat system. The in game combat is a 3rd person over the shoulder type, and has a rather intricate control scheme that controls both your actions and the actions of the squad members with you. The system does allow for the player to take as much of a hand in the running on their squad as they like. You can control your squad’s actions minutely, telling them where they should place themselves and what kind of weapons and abilities they should use in a course of a firefight. If, on the other hand, you don’t want to deal with that hassle the player can simply let the AI have free reign in a firefight. It is perfectly reasonable to do this as the AI is very well developed in that it will take cover where this cover to take and back you up as you advance or retreat as you do. They will also shout out reports on their status to you as the firefight continues such as “Enemies everywhere!” “Contact with enemy!” or “Sheppard’s hit!” It’s nice to know they’re looking out for you, isn’t it? All in all, the AI is very useful once you learn how to use it right but for the starting player it can all seem overwhelming.
When it comes right down to it, though, Mass Effect is a game that is well worth the time required to learn how to play it properly. The novel approach to character study and interaction, the way BioWare has raised the bar in terms of character realism, and the ways you can take your character almost anywhere you want to go in terms of personality and attitude are something that any RPG fan should experience for themselves.