For those of you who don't feel like reading the whole thing: it's awesome.

Mass Effect Screenshot

HIGH Wonderful narrative from beginning to end.

LOW Inventory management.

WTF Twenty minutes into the game where I accidentally chose the dialog option to punch out a hapless NPC.

Role-playing games/Console Role-playing games constitute a unique breed of game. In no other genre must the plot and the player’s interaction with the game world work so harmoniously to create something worthwhile. A successful merging of both aspects have resulted in some of the finest games ever made, while botching either one can lead to a disaster. For me, an RPG must be a challenging, intricate, and emotional experience in order to justify those 50-60 hours I'm going to spend at the computer when I might otherwise be doing something productive (Stop laughing. Jerks). Mass Effect, BioWare's latest effort into an area it has already contributed so much to, is not perfection. It is fraught with its fair share of problems, but it is without question one of the best gaming experiences I have had in a very long time.

One thing needs to be made abundantly clear above all else; Mass Effect has one of the deepest, most engrossing narratives I have ever come across in a game. If a large, complex, and intricate plot isn't your cup of tea, you will not like Mass Effect. For me, however, it was absolutely fantastic. The game grabbed me from the beginning and never let go—I was always interested in advancing the story, and each new plot point I reached made me feel as though I had accomplished something. Considering that over half the player's interaction with the game is going through line after line of dialogue in conversation trees, the story better damn well be good, and it certainly is.

The universe I was thrown into was massive, complete with history and background information for every race I encountered, and even for some I didn't (at least not until the expansion came out). The game world's chronicle has been fine tuned down to the smallest detail, providing quite a long reading list for those who care to learn. Aesthetically, things have also been well crafted, especially for the races. As someone who grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and wondering how many different kinds of forehead makeup the artists could possibly come up with, I can safely say that each race/species has been designed to a tee, every one with a distinct look and personality. The voice acting is a notch or three above the rest and the soundtrack is one of the very best I've ever heard. The main worlds themselves are also generally unique and well-done, although the majority of the side missions consist of the same underground bunker/prefabricated base/cargo ship copy pasted about fifty times over, which got a little old after a while.

Mass Effect Screenshot

The characters all mesh well with the player character and often times with each other. The relationships and connections you develop with them over the course of the game feel genuine, as I found myself actually caring about all of them in one way or another. Indeed, Mass Effect earns its "Mature" rating the hard way (in my eyes, not the ESRB's)—providing real depth of story and character rather than wanton bloodshed. However, I sometimes felt that the instances of party members conversing with each other rather than the player were a little underutilized. For example, I wish the random conversations that occur between the two party members I had with me whenever I used an elevator had been used a little more often. (Side note: in the future elevators will still be slow as hell. Just FYI). These provided some great insight into the characters' psyches, and it was a treat to see some of the more interesting personalities bounce off of each other.

I also noticed a distinct improvement in the way the good/evil (or in this case paragon/renegade) dynamic is handled. In several other similar RPGs, the "choice" I am given doesn't leave any middle ground between the two moral extremes. On one hand I can bring good tidings, plentiful nourishment, and free candy to the huddled masses, ensuring my status as the most goodly and altruistic person in the history of existence. Or, I can routinely abduct young maidens and tie them to train tracks, twirling my impressive mustache as I do so. I can crush kittens in the street beneath my heel as I'm on my way to convince a group of orphans that selling themselves into slavery is the only way to save their villages from being burned, and then subsequently burning said village after collecting their selling fees. In Mass Effect, the primary goals are the same throughout the game regardless of which path is chosen. The difference lies on how the player gets there—careful negotiation and planning, or brute force and ruthlessness. I found the choices in most instances to be much more believable than in a lot of similar games, and the experience was greatly enhanced as a result.

Mass Effect does however carry with it one of the most loathsome aspects of many RPGs that I have encountered over the years—forcing me to choose between which party members to take with me and completely separating me from the others for the duration of my time in that particular area. The only way to switch anyone out most of the time is to go all the way back to your ship. I hate being separated from parts of my party if it isn't directly related to the plot, and I hate being forced to choose between the most powerful or well-balanced group and the one I feel will provide more entertainment value. I always feel like I'm missing out on some juicy piece of dialogue or some great side quest when I leave people behind. I understand that the player must be forced to strategize in regards to his party members, but couldn't this be accomplished by simply disabling the ability to switch out during combat and in other specific instances? Why does it mean I have to live with the feeling that I'm missing out on something and there's nothing I can do about it? I have learned to live with this trait over the years, but it still bugs the hell out of me when I know I might be missing one of the funniest or most thought-provoking moments in the game.

Mass Effect Screenshot

The non-dialogue portions of the game are solid, if unspectacular. Moving and shooting is smooth and intuitive for the most part, and I found most of the battles engaging and sometimes challenging. Combat is an area where many RPGs miss the mark quite badly, and getting some real enjoyment out of the fights to go along with the story was a pleasant surprise. I was able to switch between weapons with ease and use special abilities with little to no trouble, as the pause/select target/use power system used in Knights of the Old Republic makes a successful return here. However, the game's greatest failing by far is the inventory system—this could've really used another trip or two to the drawing board. As I progressed later into the game I hit the stored items limit, which required me to dispose of some of my inventory to be able to acquire anything new. There is no "clear multiple items" function, so getting rid of all those low-level items is a massive pain. Something that allowed me to drag and highlight (at least on the PC version) all the items I wanted to get rid of would have been ideal, but even putting a checkbox next to the items and a "dispose checked" function would have been better that having to click dispose, confirm it, then do that over about fifty times. Getting rid of weapon mods is even more of a problem, as they are only displayed in the mod addition/removal screen and not in the main item list, adding another layer to an already frustrating system.

In the end the positives of Mass Effect are so overwhelmingly strong that every single problem in the game is almost totally eclipsed. The superb narrative, smooth conversation tree system and surprisingly engaging combat far outweigh any technical problems or annoyances. An RPG needs to be an overarching, epic playing experience in order to make it worth the time that I put into it, and Mass Effect is just that. BioWare, you've officially sent my hopes for the sequel in to the stratosphere—don't let me down.  Rating: 9.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: The Xbox 360 version was obtained through borrowing, and approximately 60 hours was spent in the first playthrough. The PC version was obtained through retail purchase, and approximately 60 hours was spent on the second playthrough.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains language, partial nudity, sexual themes, and violence. Younger children might be frightened by some of the imagery, but I wouldn't be concerned with an adolescent playing it.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All spoken lines can be subtitles, and audio is not a factor in gameplay. However, the soundtrack is at times extremely influential in setting the mood for a particular area.

Richard Naik

Richard Naik

Born and raised in St. Louis, MO, Richard received his first console (the NES) at the age of six, and from that point on games have been an integral part of his life, whether it's been frittering summers away with the likes of Mario, Mega Man, and the Zerg or partaking in marathon sessions of Halo, Team Fortress 2 or Left 4 Dead. After being a longtime reader of GameCritics, Richard joined the staff in March of 2009, and over the years Richard grew into the more prominent role of part-time podcast host.

In 2016, he spearheaded a complete rebuild of the website, earning him the title of Chief Engineer.

His gaming interests are fairly eclectic, ranging from 2D platformers to old-school-style adventure games to RPGs to first-person shooters. So in other words, he’ll play pretty much anything.
Richard Naik

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7 Comments on "Mass Effect Second Opinion"

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Matthew Kaplan

Sorry for the confusion, Richard. My mistake! (Although with the flood of communication on the site recently, you’ll have to forgive me if I thought this was ME2-related.)

I certainly admire your position on ME1; you’re willing to stake a claim that “narrative is the game,” and you’re sticking to it. I wholeheartedly disagree about the nature of such games, but if you’re sticking to your guns on this one, I don’t think there’s much to argue with for my part.

Richard Naik
@AceM02 Just to clarify, this is a review of Mass Effect 1, not 2. @Matthew The narrative *is* the game, and everything else is secondary. The writing was superb, and the combat segments did not bring down the experience enough to where I considered it a major problem, thus the high score. There are definite problems (inventory, some technical matters) but these didn’t damage the game as a whole too badly for me. As for ME2, I’ve got a second opinion brewing that will more full explain my thoughts, but for now I’ll just say I enjoyed it as well… Read more »
Matthew K
Richard, you wrote: “The non-dialogue portions of the game are solid, if unspectacular.” I think you hit the nail on the head as to why I think ME1 and 2 are both unspectacular games, and why Bioware seems content to rehash Knights of the Old Republic over and over again. When a game relies on dialogue and characterization, no matter how clever, for the brunt of interesting interaction in an ACTION ROLE PLAYING GAME, isn’t that a problem? Not that I fault you or the great majority of publications for doing this, but look, you just gave a 9.0 to… Read more »
Wow,a decent review. I thought that you were just like Brad,and you were going to pan every positive aspect of the game as negative ones. At least someone agrees with me. ME2 is a fascinating game because of the way that it presents each character that follow Shepard. They make you feel more immersed on the universe of Mass Effect. And the most important thing,you start to realise that each choice you make with your character will determine the future of all people that surround you. Thanks for the great review,Richard. At least you didn’t make me give up from… Read more »
I’ve played through this twice, (twice as much as most RPGs!) and will play it again at least one more time before the sequel. It’s the best mess of a game I’ve ever played. The gameplay is fun, but glitchy as heck (dumb squadmates, annoying glitches, some terrible framerate problems) but so much fun it hardly matters. I enjoyed the sidequests more on my second playthrough on hardcore, where the “sameyness” of the sidequests was overshadowed by the increased challenge – at least at first. One issue is that the game gets progressively EASIER as it goes on. What’s most… Read more »
Well i got 40 hours out of the game and i did 3/4 of the side quests, i also played through as a completely different class and person which gave me another 40 hours completing this game as fully as i could (i completed the main quest twice with him, so another 20 hours maybe) and i am now 15 hours into my third character, but have done lots of side quests. Also the dialogue and story are very fun and the combat varying enough, with some good bosses to make this game a 9.5 for me. Reviewing is entirely… Read more »
Well written review, but I am baffled by how you managed to get 60 hours out of this game, especially with side-content that verges boredom to the point of suicide. Even completing all quests (including the very poor planet scouring quests with the Mako vehicle), I didn’t muster up more than 40 hours gameplay, which is extremely poor in comparison to Bio-Ware’s better games. For example, KotOR could last a good 60+ hours without the content becoming boring, unimaginative and repetitive. Furthermore, the ridiculously poor AI of enemies and team-mates, along with over-use of Mako, poor inventory management and graphical… Read more »