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