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Mass Effect


Dedicated to one, special K Mart employee
Biowareís popularity among Xbox fans began with the release of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, or KOTOR, and continued with the release of Jade Empire a couple years later. Now in the age of the Xbox 360, Biowareís first release for the console is Mass Effect, a completely original space-based, action RPG thatís roughly based 200 years into Earthís future. Biowareís talent at creating amazing cinematic presentations certainly shines though in Mass Effect, but has it been worth the wait?

At the outset of the narrative, a human colony known as Eden Prime sends a distress call to the Alliance military and itís intercepted by the SSV Normandy, an Alliance stealth ship using experimental drive technology. As the main character, you are sent down to the planet to investigate the invasion of a synthetic alien race called the Geth. When itís determined that a Turian named Saren is behind the attack as well as attempting to unlock the universeís oldest and most dangerous secret, you are launched into a heroic saga and epic battle to save humanity from extinction. And thatís just the opening! The rest of the review will be story-spoiler free.

Gameplay

The character creation menu is the very first screen that appears when starting a new campaign. Bioware cleverly masked it as accessing classified files on an Alliance database. John Shepard has been pre-created for you if you wanted to start off with a straight soldier. Those who are more familiar with the character presets should head into the custom mode to create their own. You can alter the first name, but not the last as characters will call you Shepard constantly. After choosing a male or female, facial options can be altered to give the character a unique look. I found the facial customization to be on par with other titles like Oblivion, but unfortunately without options to adjust the shape of the body.

There are six types of classes in the game, three of which are hybrid combinations. Soldiers are excellent at gunplay and get to wear heavy armor. Engineers are more about directing combat and de-buffing enemies. Adepts are biotic experts; which allows them to alter and cause damage with the environment. The last three classes are combinations of the main three classes, each with specialized benefits. The easiest hybrid class seems to be Vanguard as you get the raw power of Adept mixed with the hardened qualities of the Soldier.

The main character and six crewmates can be outfitted with a variety of weaponry and armor. Each character carries a pistol, shotgun, assault rifle and sniper rifle, but they arenít necessarily trained in the weapon. The main character also gets to carry grenades, but they are a bit unwieldy to use and slightly underpowered. Armor ranges between light, medium and heavy as well as custom builds for specific alien species. Additionally, weapons / armor can be custom fit with modifiers. For instance, you can alter the type of ammo to increase damage on organic life forms or increase the fire rate at expense of the accuracy. You can custom fit nearly every piece of equipment in the game with these modifiers.

Biotic and tech talent powers offer more entertaining styles of combat. Biotic abilities allow you to lift unsuspecting enemies high in the air or create a massive field that rips apart the evildoers. You also have an ability to provide an extra layer of protection or create stasis fields to trap enemies. Tech powers can disable enemy weapons, overload shields and hack into robotic enemies for some unlikely assistance. They are also the backbone of breaking into various encrypted devices like storage lockers and errant laptops. As long as you have someone in your squad with these abilities, you donít need to invest skill points on your main character. Also, any one biotic / tech power can be mapped to the right bumper for quick access.

As the character levels up, adding skill points in the correct places can boost damage, improve defense, add talents and open up new armor / weapon options. Skill points are awarded after gaining enough experience to level up. Itís very easy to understand and Bioware included the auto-level function that was found in KOTOR. I used it frequently for managing the development of teammates. The Skill screen does an excellent job explaining the abilities and the benefits for upgrading each step of the way. Experience points and total health are also viewable here.

Opposite from the turn-based combat in KOTOR, Mass Effect is in real time and uses a variety of squad commands to direct teammates. The squad commands are very basic and are certainly nowhere near Rainbow Six: Vegas caliber. Commands consist of move, rally, target and take cover on the directional pad. The first three work well enough, but take cover seemed to be redundant if you used move correctly. The cover system works fairly well for the main character. You basically just push up against any object to hide and peek out occasionally to pop off a few shots. The sprint function is also an interesting inclusion, but becomes shorter with heavier levels of armor. Itís also a bit difficult to use on a regular basis.

Due the various types of enemies, the A.I. took on different actions based on the race of the attacker. Geth attackers would use cover and attempt to fire from far away while the Krogan warriors prefer to charge directly at you. There are also a variety of zombies in the game that just kamikaze themselves toward you to explode or spew acid. Unfortunately, the enemy A.I. is vastly smarter than the friendly A.I. If you donít give squad commands immediately as well as choose talent powers for teammates to use, they will be picked off very quickly on the advanced levels of difficulty.

After killing a batch of enemies, Mass Effect uses an automatic looting system. The main problem with this setup is the menu screen for item acceptance. You only have two options, accept everything or convert 1 item at a time to omni-gel (omni-gel is used to open objects and repair the Mako). Thereís no option to just leave stuff behind or batch convert items to omni-gel. After accepting all looted items in too many instances, you will hit the 150 item inventory cap and be forced to spend time making room in the inventory. While itís nice to reap the moolah from the sale of inventory items, you will be receiving so many credits in the later stages of the game that itís just not worth the effort.

When you arenít shooting down Geth, you will be in constant conversations with people in the Mass Effect universe. Conversations require a great deal of attention and choosing a response is never a hasty affair. You usually have the option of asking further questions and altering the tone of the ongoing discussion. Additionally, charm and intimidation options eventually open up as blue and red responses respectively. Often they will lead to the same goal, but the tactic is severely different. While there is an amazing amount of dialogue options, I found conversations to be somewhat lacking in the amount of humor that made KOTOR so entertaining. Still, listening to the dreary Elcor announce their emotions before speaking a sentence is utterly hilarious.

Mass Effect is very much structured like KOTOR in terms of decision making as you get points for good and bad deeds. They are referred to as Paragon & Renegade and can been seen on the character skillís page. They also open up options for further charm and intimidation conversation choices as you progress in either category. Itís very easy to tell which actions / words will award the points. I was a bit disappointed with the lack of the payoff. I obtained 100% of my paragon points, but didnít receive anything for being such a goody-two-shoes. KOTOR had the luxury of offering Force benefits for 100% achievement, but thereís nothing like that in Mass Effect.

Within the pause menu, you will find two excellent resources of information; the journal and the codex. The journal keeps track of the current and finished missions. Each mission description is easily accessible at any time and often helps guide the way. The codex is a shockingly vast collection of information on nearly every subject within Mass Effect. Everything you learn about alien races will be input into the codex for further review. With the multitude of planet descriptions and the data in the codex, I canít imagine the amount of time it took Biowareís writing staff to create and compile all that information. Itís beyond impressive! The pause menu also contains the save function which Iím happy to report is specific to location. You never have to restart at a checkpoint.

Space Travel

Similar to KOTOR, the Normandy serves as a place to modify equipment and move the character subplots along. Teammates are spread all over the ship and require some investigative legwork to find them all. The Normandy also has an area to sell and purchase new supplies, Alliance military issue anyway. While the Normandyís layout is suited to science fictionís take on spaceship design, I really didnít care for riding the slowest elevator in the galaxy down to reach the loading bay. Bioware should have included a simple set of stairs. In the loading bay, you can modify your teamís equipment via a locker system off to the left of the elevator. Thatís one of two areas of the ship that can be interacted with, the other being the map system.

When accessing the three dimensional space charts in the upper deck of the Normandy, you will be amazed how far Bioware has come from the KOTOR navigational map. You have the ability to zoom out from planet, system, cluster and eventually end up looking at the entire known galaxy. When selecting a system, the Normandy will shoot off to the new area. You can then travel to each planet, but are limited to surveying most of them. There are typically only one or two planets that can be landed upon in any given system. Additionally, the map can locate spaceships and asteroids to identify and possibly interact with.

Once you land on a planet for the first time, the Normandy enters a low trajectory drop and allows the Mako infantry vehicle, or rover, to drop onto the planetís surface. Planets all look pretty much the same in terms of structure, but offer different types of terrain like grass, lava and snow. A quick peek at the map will highlight out points of interest in the nearby area as well as any mission objectives. You have the ability to leave the rover for mining, looting damaged spacecrafts and entering structures. Occasionally, the planet will put a limit on the amount of time spent outside the rover due to poor weather conditions.

Unfortunately, visiting planets is easily the most boring aspect of the game. Perhaps itís due to the lack of visible life on the worlds, but driving around looking for rocks to mine just isnít much fun. Occasionally Geth enemies or a sandworm creature will pop out when you near an anomaly, but itís not enough to keep planet travel exciting. Itís like being stuck inside Val Kilmerís Red Planet, but less entertaining and more aimless wandering. While I can appreciate the quick influx of cash / XP for mining and plundering broken equipment, Iíd much rather head to the sub-story objective on the map and skip everything else. But I would like to send Bioware a giant fruit basket for putting a ďReturn to NormandyĒ option in the map screen.

The shielded, 6-wheeled Mako is outfitted with a machine gun / cannon as well as jump jets to pop out of a tough incline. The jump jets also come in handy when the roverís undercarriage gets stuck on a rock or seems to be dragging Geth bodies. The Mako handles moderately well, but becomes a little shaky at high speeds. Also, the camera angles are difficult to get a hang of when attempting to back up. My poor Mako suffered so many rocket blasts and plasma bursts because it didnít kick into reverse very easily and the camera angle didnít want to work with me.

Achievements

Due to the obvious absence of multiplayer, the achievement set is designed for increasing the number of times you play though the story. Total kills are added up over a series of run-throughs and some achievements are awarded for finishing on specific difficulty levels. There are also a couple quirky achievements like completing a romance subplot or finish a run-though with more shield damage than health damage. On my first complete run through the campaign, I racked up about 300 to 400 gamerscore points. All in all, itís a solid, challenging set of tasks to complete and somewhat adds to the replay value of the title.

Graphics

At first glance, Mass Effect is an absolutely stunning example of the raw graphical power of the Xbox 360. Similar to Gears of War, the sheer level of detail will impress anyone within visual range of the high definition television itís being displayed upon. The facial appearance, especially on the aliens, is top notch and brings each character vividly to life. The lighting effects for the biotic powers are brilliant and illuminate the area with gorgeous purple plasma power. The character animations are absolutely fluid and react appropriately with rag doll physics to changes in the environment.

There is a downside to pushing the 360 to these limits though. The frame rate can slow to a chug during the large scale battles, especially with lots of talent powers flying around. Itís enough to affect the gameplay and become annoying during a fight. It also can happen when you turn your character around too fast. The game pauses for a few seconds to load before you can continue. When you move too fast though an area or conversation, textures wonít load quickly enough and you may be staring at a blur until it finishes. I also had problems with the rover land vehicle on planets and the last few levels. Specifically when taken off a steep jump, the front hull of the rover would become embedded in the ground and I couldnít move or exit the vehicle. I canít imagine itís designed to force reloading an old save, so it must be a problem with the hit detection system.

Interestingly, Bioware gives you the option to turn off the film grain and the motion blur effect. On a high definition display, the film grain really makes the image pop with realism. I found turning off the film grain brings out the flaws in the facial visuals, namely sections around the mouth and eyes that become spotty. Turning off the motion blur wasnít as big of a difference, but it will make the visuals appear more like a video game rather than a 23-hour science fiction movie. It does help the troubled framerate though.

Audio

I canít rave enough about the ensemble of voice actors that have been put together to bring the characters to life. Most of you have recognized Keith Davidís (Saints Row, Halo 3) voice as the captain from the trailers, but you will also find celebrities and KOTOR nods in the mix as well. Star Trek: TNG actress Marina Sirtis does an excellent job portraying Sarenís second in command and Raphael Sbarge, who many of you will recognize at the voice of Carth in KOTOR, does a solid job for the voice of Kaiden; a crew member on the Normandy. One aspect of the voice cast thatís highly under-utilized in the game would be Seth Green (the Normandyís pilot). His comical jabs would have been perfect beyond the ship and the number of his recorded lines is far and few between. Iím not much of a Seth Green fan, but his character portrayal of Joker is dead on. Overall, the sheer amount of recorded audio is enough to make your head spin and Bioware deserved major kudos for pulling together such a fantastic cast.

The musical score is tremendously expansive and accurately matches the broad nature of the narrative. There are moments that crescendo to an absolute frenzied pace, much of which is due to the moving orchestral tracks during the major plot points in the game. The epic quality of the score reminded me very much of the music in Wrath of Khan or, to a lesser extent, Serenity. The melodies invoke real emotion from the cinematic portions and it translates incredibly well via the video game medium. The sound effects all match the space theme and seem to portray their designated actions correctly. This is a title begging for a directional sound system if you donít already have one.

Conclusion

I was surprised to find such a high level of commentary on bigotry and racism within the game. Many times, the main character is asked their opinion concerning the relationship of humanity to all the alien races in the world. There is even a political party rally towards the end of the game that wants Shepard to endorse their ďpro humanity, anti-alienĒ candidate. Donít get me wrong, itís never preachy, overbearing or attempting to establish a correlation with current times. Itís just an ongoing debate on the direction humanity should take. I found it to be a refreshing, highly intelligent aspect of the story thatís rarely, if ever, seen in a video game.

I completed the single player game on a combination of Normal and Hard difficulty at character level 42 in a little over 23 hours. Iíd imagine folks could possibly blow through the single player story in 12 to 15 hours if they avoided all the side missions, but they would miss out an enormous amount of entertaining material. For those who are wondering about the possible trilogy aspect, be assured that you will receive a clear, decisive ending to this portion of the tale. Itís extremely satisfying and still does a great job of setting up a sequel.

With a mass of achievements still waiting for me, Iíve already started working on my ďevilĒ character, which is much more of a Biotic talent junkie. I am saddened to find out most of the character responses are exactly the same on the opposite end of the conversation spectrum, but it has opened up a couple new side-story options. Also, Iím very intrigued to change the main storyline choices that I made to discover the various, different endings.

Mass Effect certainly has flaws, but itís easily the most enthralling space adventure thatís ever been created for a video game platform. It honestly makes the Halo narrative look like amateur hour. Much of the credit goes to a writing staff that incredibly created this world with nothing more than pure imagination. While Mass Effect isnít a revolutionary step for Bioware, itís certainly evolutionary. Combining the elements that made KOTOR so entertaining with a combat system thatís much more accessible to the teeming masses of shooter fans will make for a highly successful combination on the Xbox 360. I canít imagine anyone being without a copy of Mass Effect this holiday season.

 

Second Opinion
I'm going to come right out and say it: Mass Effect is the best current science fiction piece on the market. Seriously folks, Bioware's new franchise has risen to the cream of the crop in no time and the story here nearly stands on the same platform with Star Wars and Star Trek. It's so rare when a title comes along that shatters your perception about what a video game can present. Mass Effect's plot is epic, well-executed, and engaging the entire way through.

In the year 2148 humans discovered some alien technology on Mars that instantly catapulted them forward in the technology department. Using a network of something called Mu Relays humans joined other races such as the Asari, Turians, and Krogans who have all discovered Prothean technology. The Protheans were an ancient race that ruled the galaxy but for some reason they vanished from the solar system. You play as Shepard, an up and coming Commander for the human military alliance. Mass Effect thrusts you into the thick of things posthaste and before you know it you're hot on the trail of a rogue Turian Spectre named Saren.

From beginning to end the story in Mass Effect kept me on the edge of my seat. I wanted to know what was just around the corner for Shepard and how the fate of the galaxy was going to pan out. The experience is presented through both cut scene and extensive conversation but a big part of the immersion comes from simply exploring. You'll unlock information about the universe by gaining entries into your codec and if you're the type that finds this stuff fascinating you'll be drawn in right from the get-go.

Considering this is a second opinion I'll keep some of the details brief with regards to gameplay. Mike basically nailed everything I felt about this game by the time all was said and done. From exploring space to the nuances of combat and even the new dialogue tree system Bioware's vision of the future comes through gloriously. In every way Mass Effect is the successor to KOTOR and in most instances it makes the revered Star Wars title feel like a practice run.

While there may be many naysayers out there I found that the battle system was perfect for the 360. The system has bred a new generation of action junkies and with the success of Gears of War and the like at the forefront the combat in Mass Effect felt very natural. Role-playing elements that were infused into the shooting, such as pausing to us skills, may feel a little wonky at times but after a few hours of fighting you probably won't even notice.

Then again, experience isn't only gained from battle; you also get it from talking. Going through conversations with NPCs is a HUGE part of Mass Effect and quite frankly that's what will suck up most of your game time (unless you skip through). Depending on what you're looking for this aspect of the gameplay will likely draw you one of two ways. Either you'll absolutely love it or you'll think it's one of the most boring things in the world.

As you get out and start spreading your universal wings you'll start using the Normandy's navigation system and the Mako to explore planets. Again, Mike does a great job covering these topics and there is very little I could add to both. I will say that the game's lack of assistance will leave you second guessing yourself and will slightly impair your actions when you touch down on your first uncharted world. Like the story though, things only get better as familiarity grows.

Now, as great as Mass Effect is there are problems with the gameplay and stability of things in general. Frequent load screens really hinder the action and the framerate will become exceedingly choppy. Along these lines irritating elevators have been included to connect locations and you'll run into them everywhere; even your own ship. These moments will make your 360 chug along and sound like a plutonium reactor going into overload. I actually encountered some problems with my copy of Mass Effect where after hard and frequent loading my 360 would stop playing the disc, forcing me to remove it and wipe the surface.

Despite the loading nonsense and choppiness of things in general Mass Effect is also slow to display textures. It's not uncommon to enter a new environment and see the textures layer themselves atop each other. Now, don't misunderstand me; this game is gorgeous. The designs and execution are second to none and once it gets moving you'll be hard-pressed to find a better looking RPG on any console. My hang-ups with regards to the graphics stem entirely from the stability of the game. This pushes the 360's processor to its limits and it unfortunately shows in both the gameplay and graphical departments.

Fortunately the audio is absolutely spot on perfection and if you are rocking a 5.1 surround system then you're going to be in Mass Effect heaven. The sound effects and directionality is amazing and very immersive. You'll know where an enemy is shooting from simply by listening intently and it's flawlessly accurate almost every time. In addition to some fine rear speaker use the game also employs groundbreaking voiceovers and music. Every NPC will evoke emotion from you and you'll fully believe they are real. The same goes for the soundtrack which is the definition of epic, often rivaling John Williams' Star Wars scores.

In the end Mass Effect is an experience that is not to be missed by lovers of science fiction. It is ambitious, well-executed, and enthralling from a marvelous beginning to an exhausting climax. Depending how you approach it the game will take you anywhere between 10 and 30 hours though if you're an achievement hunter expect to be playing for a good long time. It's amazing how a title with flaws that would kill any other release could be this amazing. Mass Effect is without a doubt the pinnacle of Bioware's experience and in my opinion it's the next great sci-fi franchise. It's a slightly blemished gem but it's one that sparkles brilliantly all the same.

Now, if you're a collector you're most likely wondering if you should pony up for the Limited Edition release. While the experience on the game disc itself will remain unchanged there are some enticing extras that make the extra $10 well-worth it.

For starters two booklets are included aside from the instruction manual. The first is a 31 page Galactic Codex which catalogs some essential information regarding the universe of Mass Effect. The booklet is broken up into several sections with an index for easy navigating. It opens up with some welcoming words as a new human entering the Citadel and it goes on to lay the groundwork for the galaxy. From the alliance military structure and Specre class to noteworthy corporations and some detailed information about the sentient races you'll come across there's a lot of stuff here. Fortunately it mostly remains spoiler free and it only scratches the surface of the codex information you'll uncover while you scour every nook and cranny in the game. Sufficed to say "Galactic Codex: Essentials" isn't exactly the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy but I'm sure you get the gist of it.

Booklet number two is "Mass Effect: A Future Imagined" which is 34 pages of conceptual artwork that follows an introduction by Derek Watts. All along Bioware has talked at length about their love for the Mass Effect project and it's that passion which probably gave the game its soul. Seeing these artistic renditions of locations from the game and early character models made me want more. I'm certain this little booklet doesn't even touch the collection of artwork that must be out there and darn it all, I'd pay good money for that!

It's safe to say that the real meat of the Limited Edition comes in form of a bonus DVD that is included within the game's tin packaging. The disc is coded to work on the 360 so unfortunately you'll have to take the game out of your console.

After a brief introduction to the features available on the disc there are four fantastic documentaries to explore.

"The Vision of Mass Effect" (7:14) is the first documentary here and it's probably the most broad in terms of topic. In it several key people at Bioware talk about how Mass Effect was conceptualized and how it gestated through the early stages. They talk at length about their inspirations and what they wanted the game to be. Again it all falls back to the passion the people up top had for the title because that love brought the necessary bits and pieces together to make such an epic.

The second feature, "The Making of Mass Effect" (20:51), goes into some very extensive detail regarding the development of the game. Everything from the writing, artwork, audio, and development is discussed here. There was quite a lot of information though I found the art direction topic with Derek Watts talking about it to be the more interesting. I suppose that's because the conceptual art for this game was so stunning and contrasted well against the rest of popular sci-fi. Still, this making of featurette is comprehensive and probably the best of the four documentaries available here.

"Interactive Storytelling" (8:32) focused entirely on the presentation aspects of the game. In particular the dialogue system and the way characters interact with one another was the main attraction for this documentary. It's safe to say that Bioware took a big leap forward with technology in this particular field but seeing the amount of work that went into it certainly seemed daunting. And finally "Inside Bioware" (18:01) looks at the developer's history, how they got to where they are now, and what lies ahead. This was an interesting feature but I found that the Mass Effect content was better all around.

For lovers of the music you'll appreciate the small selection of tunes from the soundtrack available here. With 10 tracks in all there is certainly a lot of variety but not nearly enough to satisfy in the grand scheme of things. Along the same lines is a design artwork gallery with 614 sketches and masterpieces from the Mass Effect conceptual library. This is the stuff that appeared in the art booklet but each image on the DVD includes a commentary about the subject matter. The content varies depending what you choose but overall there is a wealth of information regarding the designs.

In addition to all of this material there are also 16 themes for your 360 as well as 18 profile images that you can add to your collection. Five various trailers for Mass Effect are available here and other trailers for Halo 3, Lost Odyssey, and Halo Wars make the cut. There's also a demo for Blue Dragon though I don't see the point in including it this late in the game.

Overall, picking up Mass Effect is a no-brainer. I wholeheartedly agree with Mike's rating of Collector's Series. This is one of the greatest science fiction games ever created and despite the flaws it simply begs to be adored.

The only real decision you'll wind up facing is whether or not you should look for the Limited Edition version or not. Collectors and lovers of the game will want to grab a copy if they can find it. The documentaries are insightful and detailed, the booklets are nice companion pieces, and the artwork design gallery is very in depth. The Limited Edition release is very comprehensive though I can't help but wish that Bioware included an additional character within the content like they did with Jade Empire.