|Mass Effect (2007)
Available for: Xbox 360
Any true fan of sci-fi/fantasy RPGs knows that when it comes to great storytelling, there’s no one more dependable than the guys at BioWare. The creators of PC classics like “Baldur’s Gate,” “Neverwinter Nights” and “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic” (not to mention the Xbox-exclusive title “Jade Empire”) have been MIA for quite some time now. But with the release of their new sci-fi action title, “Mass Effect,” they’ve finally resurfaced, bringing with them a brand new story ripe for future installments. The new game also features their trademark choose-your-own-adventure style of play, and a deep space setting that could very well have ties to the “Star Wars” universe. Of course, if the whole setup plays exactly like an unofficial sequel to “Knights of the Old Republic,” it begs to ask the question: why didn’t they just make a new “Star Wars” game?
The year is 2183, and mankind’s recent mastering of light-speed space travel has put them in direct contact with a host of alien races and a galactic government known as The Council. Eager to find its place in the space community, the Systems Alliance Military nominates one of their own – Commander Shepard – for consideration into the Spectres, an elite group of special forces agents designed to resolve all political disputes or military scrapes by any means necessary. When Shepard’s evaluating officer is double-crossed and killed by a fellow Spectre named Saren, however, the human soldier is fast-tracked to Spectre status and put in charge of tracking down the rogue agent before it’s too late.
As you probably could have guessed, you play as the aforementioned Shepard, and while the game does allow you to customize your character to your liking, the choices aren’t quite as deep as you’d expect. In the end, no amount of customization can change the fact that you look like a tool (except for maybe the addition of a scar). Still, you are given the chance to choose one of three background stories (all of which have some kind of effect later on), as well as one of six different classes: Soldier, Engineer, Adept (wizard), Infiltrator (soldier-engineer), Vanguard (soldier-wizard) and Sentinel (engineer-wizard).
The gameplay itself is very much like “Knights of the Old Republic” in that you’ll spend the majority of your time running around the main spaceport, talking to various characters, solving their problems, and even running into a few of your own. But the combat system differs enough to keep things interesting. Throughout the course of the story, you’ll accumulate a total of six different teammates (all from various alien races), but only two can join you at any given time. Controlling your squad may sound easy (the D-Pad operates commands like Move, Cover, Rally and Attack Target), but that’s far from it. The squad AI isn’t just bad, it’s prehistoric, and along with losing squad members who can’t seem to navigate around corners, you’ll also find yourself incredibly lonely during battle when teammates you’ve ordered to take cover walk directly into enemy fire instead.
The problems don’t stop there, however. Load times are horrendously long (and even creep up on you in the middle of exploration), entire cutscenes must be viewed every time you’re forced to start over, and The Mako (the land rover used in navigating planets) is one of the clunkiest vehicles ever to appear in a next-gen title. Oh yeah, and for a game that requires you to travel up and down various levels just to complete a single assignment (I counted eight times in one side mission), you’d think they would have sped up the process a little. Experiencing the real-time displeasure of riding in an elevator every 10 minutes isn’t what most gamers are looking for in an already slow-paced RPG.Still, there is plenty to love about “Mass Effect.” The combat system is near flawless, the voice cast is excellent (namely Seth Green as the Normandy’s smartass pilot, Joker), and the open-ended gameplay allows for even the most hardcore completists to spend hours on side missions before even beginning the main story. Of course, it can be a bit unnerving when you complete one mission, only to get two more added to your list, but it’s not like you have to complete each one, and if you do want to, the main story is put on hold until you’re ready to jump back in. Speaking of which, BioWare has crafted yet another sci-fi thriller with plenty of twists, turns and alternate endings – all of which are based on the decisions that you make at each stop. That’s probably what’s most upsetting about the final product. “ Mass Effect” could have been a major contender for Game of the Year, but because of a series of silly glitches and a complete lack of some very basic features, it never quite reaches that highest echelon of greatness.