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Xbox 360












M (Mature)



November 2007



- Excellent dialogue system

- Cool story

- Interesting mixture of shooter and RPG mechanics

- Tons of stuff to see and do



- The shooting segments pale next to pure action games

- Technical issues like pop-in and an iffy frame rate

- Main quest is pretty short

- Vehicle controls are awful



Review: Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles (360)

Review: Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic (XB)

Review: Gears of War (360)



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Mass Effect

Score: 9.0 / 10


Mass Effect might be one of the most interesting games this year. Not because of the vast, galaxy spanning story, although that is pretty good. And not because of the compelling dialogue system, although that's pretty entrancing, too. Rather, Mass Effect is an role-playing game for the Xbox 360 generation – it looks, sounds and feels like a typical bald space marine action shooter, but beneath it lies deep customization mechanics, fantastic world depth, and a multitude of tiny little decisions that alter the way you play.


mass effect          mass effect


In Mass Effect, you control a military officer named Shepard (you pick the first name, gender, character class, and even their origin.) Various civilizations from across the universe have come together thanks to discarded technology from a long lost race, but humanity is regarded as a bunch of losers in the grand scheme of things. After a trusted warrior goes rogue, you're promoted to the rank of a Spectre – a serious distinction and the one of the first humans to obtain this title – to head after him, and stop the chaos he's attempting to unleash on all living things. Like the previous BioWare games, there are two paths you can go down: 




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Paragon and Renegade. They're not exactly "good guy" and "bad guy", because no matter how you play the game, you're still a hero saving the universe. Rather, it's the difference between "nice guy" and total jerk". Being the first human Spectre means that you're setting an example for your race, so your choices will


reflect on all of humanity, so you should pick you actions wisely. Still, as with most of these kind of games, playing as a renegade leads for a ton of humorous moments, especially when you get to punch obnoxious reporters in the face for badgering you.


The storyline is technically on the level of just about any mass market sci-fi book at your local Barnes & Noble (there's even a tie-in prequel novel currently on shelves) but like with most video games, it's the way it's told that makes it so intriguing. Especially compelling is the dialogue system – Mass Effect has some of the most realistic lip synching and facial expressions ever seen in a video game. Unlike Knights of the Old Republic or Jade Empire (both by BioWare), you don't pick your exact words, but rather the nature of your responses and inquiries. It also allows you to pick your options before the other person has finished talking, which makes for a much smoother conversation flow. You can even skip through quickly if you're in a hurry. It's surprising how movie like the whole thing is. The quality of the character models is a bit inconsistent though – all of the aliens look completely and utterly stunning, but a lot of the humans, especially the female ones, tend to look pretty bad. Chalk it up to the ever-present uncanny valley. There are still some problems with the shadowing, but otherwise it's pretty fantastic.


If there's any problem with the storytelling, it's that there's just not enough of it. In addition to Shephard, there are six supporting characters that join along, all of different races and persuasions. They all have a lot of backstory and cool personalities, but it's rare that they shine through very often. Perhaps this scaling back was due to complaints from Knights of the Old Republic , where characters like Carth would talk your ears off if you let them, but perhaps they went too far. Some of them can, and will, die, and of course there's the much publicized love scenes, but it really dulls these more emotional moments if you don't have any connection with your teammates.


mass effect          mass effect


The main storyline is also extremely short for an RPG. If you go through without messing with any of the many subquests, you could probably beat the game in less than fifteen hours. That short length almost works in its favor – there's so much to see and do by exploring or trying out the different plot trees that it's much more replayable than your average RPG. At any time, you can drop the main plot and begin exploring for uncharted worlds, dropping down to their surface to look for loot, which is incredibly cool. A lot of this is reminiscent of the PC classic Star Control 2. Unfortunately, it's not nearly as expansive; there are dozens of planets to visit, but most just give you a bit of scientific background and nothing to actually explore. When BioWare initially announced Mass Effect, they planned to expand its universe by releasing downloadable content consistently, which could potentially flesh out this aspect even further. Who knows if they're going to follow through with this though.


Despite all of the RPG elements found in Mass Effect, the game glazes over most of it at the beginning and very quickly drops you into the fray of things. All of the battles are played out in real time and it's obvious that they were going for a Gears of War feeling – there's even a similar roadie-run style maneuver. At any time, you can pause combat, issue orders to your squadmates a lΰ Rainbow Six, change weapons, or use any of your team special abilities. At first, it might feel cool but, let's face it, BioWare is fantastic at role-playing games, but maybe not so fantastic at shooters. The mechanics aren't bad or anything, it just feels a bit sloppy next to tighter games like, of course, Gears of War. That really isn’t so bad though, it's the technical issues that are really irksome. Pretty much anytime you enter a fight with more than one bad guy, the frame rate tends to chug a lot. Granted, since the game is technically more focused on RPG elements, it doesn't really break the game, but it does tend to frustrate.


There are other technical issues that crop up here and there (another unfortunate trademark of BioWare games). There are numerous texture pop-in as you switch to new screens. I've actually heard varying amounts from different people, some people have found it consistently. But my refurbished post-RROD 360 rarely ran into only problems, usually only popping up when loading a save game, or appearing for a split second in the equipment screen or dialogue screens. Some of the load times can be long too, although most of the areas where they occur are infrequent it's still a huge step up from previous BioWare games.


Other areas could've used some polish too. The inventory system is confusing and generally grows to be a pain, especially when you hit the 150 item limit. More annoying, however, are the vehicles controls. The Mako – Mass Effect's take on the Halo’s Warthog – makes several appearances as you explore the surfaces of various planets, but the controls are way too touchy. It's nearly impossible to drive in a straight line, and it doesn't feel like it has any weight as it bounces all over the place. Its weapons are hard to use too – to the point where it's sometimes more effective to just jump out of it and attack enemies on foot, which is pretty silly.


In spite of its issues, Mass Effect is still a completely entrancing blend of two completely different genres, the likes of which we really haven't seen on the consoles since Deus Ex. Mass Effect doesn't quite pull it off cohesively, but it's still a fantastic experience. It's almost definitely going to be turned into a franchise at this point. Here's hoping for a quality sequel.


- Kurt Kalata

(December 14, 2007)


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