"...and one of the best games to come out in '07."
Recently I did two things; I played through Mass Effect and watched the Zero Punctuation review of Mass Effect. If you want a succinct summary of my take on the game, go check it out there, as it's almost spot on with how I feel about the title.
For the rest of you still reading, I'm assuming you want the detail behind my opinions and maybe even the parts that differ from Yahtze's, so without further ado (and with more periods, commas, and the like) here it goes.
Mass Effect is the story of humanity in the future, a future in which we have recently made contact with other intelligent races, acquired the ability to travel faster than light, and have started colonizing other planets. You play the role of a space marine in the human alliance who has been sent to the planet of Eden Prime in order to investigate an archeological find. The artifact is a relic of the ancient civilization that created the giant space station the galactic government calls home, as well as the mass relays that allow interstellar flight. Unsurprisingly, the colony is attacked and you reach the beacon just as the bad guy is getting away. The artifact then transmits images into your mind and explodes, leaving you with the key to unravel the puzzle of the dark forces looming at the edges of the galaxy.
At this point, you are asked to join the Specters, an organization of sentient species that act as a sort of super special forces problem solvers. As the first human member, you have the dual responsibilities of finding the bad guy and representing humanity, the latter being a task that, if successful, could result in a spot on the galactic council. But hey, no pressure.
While the story is engaging, it's far from novel. There are no seriously major plot twists, and while there is character development for the important NPCs, it's very predictable. Of course, anyone who has ever played a BioWare game knows that the real meat is in the character interactions and dialogue choices. You see, while the basic missions available to you are the same no matter how you develop your character, your skills and how you talk to people determine how they react to you and how you resolve those situations. For example, you could answer nicely and diffuse the hostage crisis, or you could say 'screw it' and go in guns blazing. Sometimes there's even a third option, which is refreshing when most games that give you such choices opt for the strict "persuade or kill" policy. And while the characters aren't particularly original, I really liked Kaiden's character, as he was the only one who didn't seem like a predictable cliché.
There is also a huge encyclopedia of world information that you build up by looking at various terminals/artifacts/windows, and it fleshes out the story, characters, and races nicely. Oh, and on a final note, please don't buy into the hype about the sex; there's barely anything there, and the game really could have done without the romantic relationship thing... except for Kaiden. I would have totally sexed him up if I had played a female character.
Honestly, I've never found gameplay to be the selling point for me when BioWare games are concerned. Jade Empire's was overall atrocious, and KoTOR had way too much micromanaging for my tastes. Fortunately, Mass Effect avoided the former and managed to tone down the latter. After the initial missions, the game becomes a lot more open ended, allowing you to discover various sidequests and extra goodies that net you experience. In fact, darn near everything you do gets you some experience, which is something I've always appreciated in both Black Isles and BioWare games. Of course, there are tons of enemies to fight, so don't think you have to be all about the talky.
Speaking of Mass Effect's combat, it's done much better than either in Jade Empire or KoTOR. As you walk through the world, you can pull out your weapons at any time and go to town on anything in the environment. You have four weapons to choose from: a pistol, a shotgun, a sniper rifle, and an assault rifle. Each weapon is upgradeable to scores of other models and able to be outfitted with various modifications. The same goes for your armor, grenades, and any biotics (magic powers) and omnitools (hacker gear) you might have access to. In addition, based on your level in various skills, you unlock special abilities and powers that improve you and the things you can do with your items and armor. While it tended to feel a bit micromanagey at times, my biggest decision after a certain point was whether to use bullets that work better on synthetic organisms or fleshy ones. Major props to BioWare for avoiding the make-or-break micromanaging system from KoTOR.
With you as you shoot stuff up are two teammates that you can pick when you land on the planet. Each teammate has different skill sets, powers, etc. That they will bring to bare during a fight. Of course, there is no way to control them or adjust their AI, so you're pretty much stuck with their prowess or incompetence. I really didn't find them to be too idiotic most of the time, although they do tend to get right in the way of my line of fire, which can be a real burden in a firefight. The disappointing thing was that I really only needed two of the party members the entire game through, and I had every situation covered. Some people might enjoy not being forced to use every character, but I would have liked a reason to include them more often.
The one thing that did annoy me at first, and only became slightly irritating later on was the driving segments. Most of the time, when you land on a planet, you will be required to pilot an armored rover, called the Mako. The Mako handles pretty poorly, and is often times impossible to get over certain mountains. While I suppose the driving physics are attempting to achieve realism, I could have done without. Still, it was fun to fire a cannon into an enemy from a klick away and see the little experience notice come up, telling me I got them.
Wow. That's really all I can say about the graphics in Mass Effect, but for the sake of accuracy, I'll try to be more specific. Mass Effect does an amazing job rendering the characters, so much so that they really do look like actual people. There was no detail that was left unattended, and I really felt they were putting the 360 to the test with this one. Lighting could be a little strange at times, but overall it wasn't a big deal. Some of the locations, such as the Citadel and the Normandy were designed well, but the downside to all these fancy graphics is that not much else was. The major plot locations were given a lot of detail, but the sidequest locations were often reused and dull. Same goes for the planets which, while each one was rendered with a different topography, still wound up being mountains and hills with different textures and altitudes. But, hey, I'll live.
I didn't find Mass Effect's music to be all that memorable or interesting. Most of it was generic background ambiance or brass & drum heavy battle themes. Some tunes felt a little spacey, with cosmic synths and such, but overall the soundtrack was just there.
Where the game really shines is in its voice acting. Despite every VA, save three, speaking in an American accent, they all did an excellent job, something I've come to expect from BioWare at this point. It doesn't hurt that they had some big name talent to provide life to the characters, either. The great job in this department brought the sound/music score up from average, and that's saying something.
While control is the weakest link in Mass Effect, it's certainly by no means awful. The main character handles well, aside from sudden turns, and menu navigation is a bit counterintuitive, but nothing egregious. The only serious flaw is the driving sections, but that's due more to the annoying physics than anything else. And, while I can't compare the 360's controls to that of a PC, seeing as how BioWare seems to target the home console first, I'd say that they do a pretty good job.
As my editor's choice award shows, I found Mass Effect to be an excellent title, and one of the best games to come out in '07. It's not for everyone, though, and those who can't stand dialogue-heavy games should avoid it like the plague. If you pick up this title, you'll get a face full of space opera, with decent combat and lots of character interaction, and if that's your thing, snatch up this game pronto!