Mass Effect - Staff Review  

A Success of Epic Proportions
by Sean Kepper

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XBox 360
15-30 hours
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   Mass Effect is the first RPG of the current generation to get a large amount of attention from the media and players. It is a typical BioWare game: there is a large emphasis on story and a larger emphasis on allowing the player to mold the story as they see fit. A prequel novel, Revelations, is available to those that want to experience the events that lead up to the first game in this series.

   Humanity is new to the intergalactic community. After discovering ancient Prothean technology, mankind accelerated their technological prowess by hundreds of years. With their newfound capabilities, they soon discovered a disabled Mass Relay, an ancient machine that allows for instantaneous transport between different star systems which led humanity to populate any nearby habitable planets. Contact with other races soon occurred and the rest is history.

   The player takes the role of Commander Shepard, a character that they themselves create. Shepard can be either a man or a woman and has a customizable personality. Shepard can be one of three base classes and three hybrids that combine the capabilities of the base classes. The specialties include combat (the ability to wear heavy armor and use the bigger guns), technology (hacking enemy robots, first aid, etc), and biotics (psychic powers similar to magic). These classes can be further enhanced by completing certain side quests.

   Commander Shepard is given control of an investigation into the activities of Saren, a Spectre. Spectres are elite agents that are given almost unlimited rights to do what they need to do during their investigations. By following Saren, Shepard learns of a larger plot that threatens the galaxy as a whole.

   The story in Mass Effect is very well done. The player feels that there is something big occurring and that they are smack dab in the middle of it. Through the addition of a branching storyline and the ability to choose how the story plays out, the game offers an array of stories that is sure to please any who choose to play it. The player is free to choose how to overcome any obstacle: threats and open violence are as common a mean of achieving an end as peaceful negotiation. Because of this Paragon/Renegade system, players are offered at least two trips through the game to see what happens on both sides of every encounter. Should the need be felt, players can also choose to walk a middle ground and decide on actions as they see fit. The player is also free to pursue members of the opposite sex (or of the same sex, if Shepard is a woman) in typical BioWare fashion.

I wonder if Xzibit would pimp this ride? I wonder if Xzibit would pimp this ride?

   Mass Effect plays out in two ways: primary and secondary quests. Primary quests are the meat of the game and are really interesting, well designed, and a lot of fun. The secondary quests mostly take place on scattered planets where Shepard must pilot the Mako, a rover-like vehicle, over the surface to find valuable resources, scattered debris, and enemy bases. These bases come mostly in three flavors: mines, bunker one, and bunker two. Sure, the cover layout is different in each, but they just feel the same. Completionists will have no problem finishing all the side quests, but the majority of players will simply skip them in favor of the more exciting primary missions. Since the game scales the difficulty of individual missions to Shepard's level, the player doesn't need to grind experience anyways.

   The gameplay in Mass Effect is what makes the game unique. It is both an RPG and an FPS, but it doesn't really feel like an FPS. Instead, just aiming close to the target is enough to score a hit--the auto-adjusting weaponry handles the rest. This element is what makes the game so accessible to players that don't enjoy or aren't good at FPS games. The game plays really well and players needn't worry about any problems in this area.

   Commander Shepard leads a group of six comrades, one of each class. On any given mission, Shepard is allowed to take two of them along for the ride. This choice can be crucial, as it is often necessary to balance out the strengths of the different characters that come with. Often, biotics can be left out in favor of stronger frontline characters.

   Each class has a skill tree. At every level, characters receive points to spend on their different skills. Skills can be specialization in the different types of weaponry, in armor training, in different biotic abilities, hacking skills, as well as various passive skills. By spending points in the different areas, new abilities are unlocked. These abilities are either used automatically when interacting with objects, or can be used by holding the shoulder buttons and choosing them from a list. Shortcuts can be assigned for favored abilities, but using the rest of them can be rather cumbersome.

   The visuals, while relatively attractive, just aren't as good as what other games on the Xbox 360 have shown. The pre-rendered movies are extremely well done, as expected in a sci-fi themed game. The best visual feature has to be the power of the character modeling tool that is used. Any character that is featured in close-ups is undoubtedly very well designed and defined--they look almost real. The illusion is furthered by the characters moving and acting like real humans would. The icing on the cake is that Shepard can be fully customized visually, a feat not available in many games in any genre, including most MMORPGs.

Welcome to Bunker Two version three! Welcome to Bunker Two version three!

   While the majority of the game is voiced by a cast of very talented voice actors, the game does feel a little bit empty in this category. Sure, the sound effects are decent, but there is nothing really that stands out here or with the background music. It just gets to the point where it doesn't really matter if the volume is on or not.

   Mass Effect is not a very challenging game. In fact, it is very possible to have close to no skill and still be able to get out of most scrapes without serious damage. The player's deficiencies are pretty well covered by the AI controlling the rest of the party. Shepherd's companions use cover during battle, fire when necessary, and show proper judgment when it comes to using their abilities. Sometimes, well-armed companions can attack distant opponents without the player even knowing that they are there. That being said, the game is not always easy--several enemies are too difficult to take on directly and result in a quick death, if not properly prepared. There are different difficulty modes that can be unlocked to increase the challenge.

   The game is not very long--a simple trek through the main content could take as little as fifteen hours. Even completing all the side content only increases it to twenty-five to thirty hours. With the second play through, along with the unlocked difficulty modes, there is plenty to do beyond what is done the first time.

   Regardless of its length or difficulty, Mass Effect is a very fun game. Its story and excellent character customization really drive the player to continue on. The question the player always needs to ask is not "what will happen next?", but rather "what will happen, if I choose this path?" It is very refreshing to play such an open game where choices actually matter. This is a definite buy for anyone wanting to try something new that has an enthralling storyline that they themselves decide. With the impending release of the Windows version, it has never been a better time to get into the phenomenon that is Mass Effect!

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