Mass Effect
Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft Games Studios
Developer: BioWare
Genre: RPG
Format: DVD-ROM
Release: US Spring/Summer '07
Japan TBD

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I wouldn't want to mess with this guy.
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RPG? Shooter? Who cares, it's BioWare!
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Can I buy you a drink, young spacesuited lady?
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"Psst, he kinda smells. Let's dump him on the next stop."
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Neal Chandran
First Look Preview
Neal Chandran

Bioware's Mass Effect for the Xbox 360 is not even close to being out yet, but it has already amassed a heap of awards. It took home high honors at E3 2006, and many media outlets are already anticipating that it will take home even more high honors. Bioware has already won over gamers with the likes of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), Jade Empire, and Baldur's Gate to name just a few, and Mass Effect looks to take what made KOTOR, and Star Wars-esque intergalactic sagas in general, great and create something even greater.

The reaches of space are vast with many different kinds of planets, such as the mining planet in the video footage, more technologically advanced planets, and everything in between. In addition, there are a whole slew of different alien races, such as the Quarians - a race of galactic nomads who wear full cybernetic suits with breathing masks or visors that cover their faces. They were responsible for creating the Geth - humanoid AIs initially created for manual labor. The Geth eventually learned to assimilate and overthrew the Quarians forcing them into exile, surviving on salvaged ships and a meager existence. This is but a mere fraction of the kinds of drama, action, and adventure the vast reaches of space can hold.

The first thing to jump out at gamers is the visuals. Even a small video clip on the game's official site showing some in-game footage shows realtime visuals that rival, if not surpass, the level of detail found in the prerendered CG cutscenes of RPGs past. Bioware mentions in the video that the character models in Mass Effect are among the most realistic that they have ever created. The facial rendering is spectacular and even subtle facial expressions can be detected. Not only do the human characters look terrific, but so do the alien characters. The space station environments look stunning and even the desolate mining planet in the video looks almost real. One cannot help but be reminded somewhat of Star Wars when looking at the people and places in Mass Effect. If the visuals look this good in movie clip format, it should be expected that on a full screen TV, especially a high definition one, the visuals will be exquisite. The sound effects and voice acting are solid too and will likely be incredible through surround sound, or at least some good stereo speakers connected to your TV.

Your avatar in the game is Commander Shepard of the SS Normandy and your mission is to keep the galaxies safe for all civilized beings. An ancient race of beings only seen every 50,000 years and relegated to myth and legend is on the cusp of returning and eradicating any trace of civilized existence. Shepard knows all too well how real this threat is and it is up to him to stop it. Although the main objective of the game is clear, how Shepard will reach it is mostly up to you, the player. There is a final destination, but the fun lies in the myriad paths one takes in order to reach that final destination.

Of course, Shepard will not be alone on his journey. He will select squad members to accompany him on various missions that span the many planets in Mass Effect's universe. Interaction with the squad members is key in the game. During conversations, Shepard will be given dialogue choices and not only the responses themselves but the timing of the responses are likely to affect his relationships with squad members and subsequently the paths his journey will take. Shepard can give a response and "butt in" before another character has even finished saying his or her line. Bioware aims to offer an immersive feel that really puts the player into the action as a participant rather than a passive viewer. The game promises a branching storyline with multiple dilemmas (moral and otherwise) and that the decisions you make throughout the game will influence Shepard's role in this saga.

Combat is handled in realtime with you taking direct control of Shepard and sophisticated AI governing your squad members' actions, though it is possible to stop the action and issue tactical instructions to your party members. The gameplay footage video on the official site shows a mini boss battle where the player stops the action, issues a tactical command moving the other characters like chess pieces elsewhere on the field to take cover, having Shepard act as a decoy to lure the monster, instructing the biotics-specialist party member to disable the monster's shields, then using Shepard to deliver the finishing blow. As expected in a game of this nature, there is a lock-on targeting system so your shots fire true.

There are many weapons to be had in this game, and there is the promise of weapon customization as hinted in the gameplay video clip. There is also footage of a six-wheeled rover type vehicle called a MAKO that you can customize as well to best get you around hostile alien environments. In addition to interactive dialogue and weapon enhancement influencing gameplay, Shepard himself can follow the paths of one of three classes: soldier, tech-specialist, or biotics-specialist, which appear to be akin to the classic warrior, ranger, mage paradigm. And as with any good RPG, you can upgrade Shepard's armaments, skill set, biotics-implants and more. Not only can you determine Shepard's path, skill set, dialogue choices, and all that, but the official site promises that you can create your own version of Shepard before starting the game, or just use the pre-created Shepard character if you want to jump into the game right away.

Mass Effect is a mighty ambitious project that really looks to push the envelope of next-generation role-playing. Given its track record, if there is any company who can pull it off, it's Bioware. A specific release date has yet to be determined, but Bioware plans for a release this year.


© 2007 Microsoft Games Studios, BioWare. All Rights Reserved.

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