Perfection in videogames, as well as life, is impossible. There will never be a truly perfect game, flawless in every aspect and irresistible to all players. Putting aside the fact that some people will dislike Mass Effect for no other reason than it's not their cup of tea, what's actually wrong with the new blockbuster science fiction opus from superdevelopers BioWare?
The textures during certain scenes can take a few seconds to load, resulting in a distracting "pop-in" as the game adds the details. The framerate drops during crowded firefights. A player's inventory can become bogged down with too many duplicate items, and there's no quick way to clear them out. The nondescript title lacks a certain pizzazz, and the in-game elevators are quite slow. That's about it. Oh, and by the way... those issues? Utterly insignificant.
Besides the things listed above, Mass Effect is as close to perfection as a game developer working on modern consoles could realistically hope to come. I honestly can't remember the last time I was so hopelessly addicted; so completely drawn in to a game that I started to neglect responsibilities and push all other activities aside for the sake of carving more game time out of my schedule. To a been-there, done-that, seen-it-all jaded critic like me, immersing myself into Mass Effect felt like falling in love with games again for the first time.
Considering what it does and the approaches it takes, I almost hesitate to call Mass Effect a videogame, really. Something along the lines of "virtual emotional experience" or even the hideously cliché and outdated "interactive film" come a little closer to capturing its essence, but even these terms can't sum up what it's like to play through the adventure.
Anyone who's spent time with BioWare's previous efforts like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or Jade Empire (both excellent) will recognize the structure in Mass Effect immediately. The game is clearly built upon the bones of its predecessors by putting the player in the shoes of a customizable main character and surrounding them with a cast of interesting personalities that can be engaged to a depth that's extremely rare on consoles.
Although the plot may not revolutionize the science fiction genre in terms of originality, the relationships that develop between the player and the characters are the heart and soul of the experience, and the one thing that the house of Greg and Ray does better than any other developer in the industry today. Simply playing the game and saving the universe would be enjoyable enough, but when coupled with BioWare's undeniable ability to make real connections with those holding the controller, Mass Effect transcends expectations to deliver something that has no equal.
Throughout the game, the player is surrounded by endless opportunities to take in and explore a universe filled with diverse life that's been developed to an unparalleled degree. By being able to believe in the situation, the opportunity arises to believe in the characters—and these characters are the best-written I've ever seen. Despite being set in a fantastic future amidst circumstances that are pure fantasy, every single face, whether human or alien, has depth and resonance. Their logic, emotions, and attitudes all ring true. From the naïve researcher to the prejudiced squad member with something to prove and everyone in between, each portrait painted through conversation and camaraderie contains real slices of the human condition.
Although similar to other efforts with "good/evil" or "light/dark" paths for players to follow, the quality of the characters is reinforced by the fact that many of the moral situations to navigate have no "right" answer, only a hard decision that must be made. With the peerless scripting and dialogue that happens along the course of the game, making some of these choices is agonizingly painful because the consequences possess a gravity and relevance that are in a class all by themselves. It's not hard to relate to what happens onscreen, and I was surprised several times by the level of emotion that was elicited. It's not very often I feel paralyzed by a choice I don't want to make, but it happened time and again in Mass Effect.
Additionally, I want to recognize BioWare for consistently furthering the cause of "mature" games. As in previous efforts, there are romantic subplots completely nonessential to the experience to be discovered, and the way this subject matter (including sexual content) is handled is a perfect example of what games could be like if more developers would steer away from the lowest common denominators and address the topic with some sophistication and good taste.
Intellectually satisfying to an unbelievable degree, Mass Effect follows through in every other aspect by crafting a game that is a joy to play, completely apart from the characters. The graphics showcase a level of imagination and artistic ability that rivals anything in any medium and the level of energy and excitement generated by the events in the dramatic arc are second to none. Although the critical path leading from the strong start to an amazingly explosive blockbuster finish can be whipped through at a breakneck pace, it's just as satisfying to get off the rollercoaster for a while and explore the vast array of planets and celestial clusters at will, discovering unexpected surprises in uncharted corners of every galaxy. For those wanting a little more purpose, following any of the game's plentiful sidequests will lead to interesting situations and people that all significantly contribute to the Mass Effect canon and strengthen the ties holding its world together. No matter how play time is spent, it always feels rewarding and rich.
An incredible effort from any perspective, Mass Effect sets the new standard for story-driven games, and has unquestionably surpassed all others to become the preeminent science fiction franchise today. As far as I'm concerned, nothing else can hold a candle to it, and the great minds at BioWare should be extremely proud of what they've created. I was honestly sorry when the game came to an end, although in a way, I'm glad it did. I'll start showing up to work again, and my pets will finally get fed. I'll just have to console myself with the knowledge that this disc is the first of a planned trilogy—and if the next two are even half as good as this one, it will make the torturous wait to return to the Mass Effect universe well worth it.