BioWare is well-known for -- among others -- their prestigious Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and the Knights of the Old Republic series, all RPG titles widely praised for their successful emphasis on player immersion and storytelling that has, by now, become one of the main hallmarks of this Texas-based developer's work. The question, then, is obvious: Does BioWare's newest installment manage to carry the torch, live up to the expectations formed as a result of the previous titles, perhaps even boldly going where no string of 0 and 1's have gone before? The answer, to be literal, is "Yes and no.", but I feel that this would be misleading. Because Mass Effect is a masterwork of a game that is at least as great as the titles before it -- one of those titles that instills a sense of wonder in the player, thanks to a feeling of discovery that permeates the game in most every moment.
Before going into the gameplay and the technical aspects, some mention must be made of -- what I feel to be -- the strongest aspect of this game, that is, the backdrop, the canvas on which this evocative tableau has been painted. BioWare has brilliantly conceived a future where humanity has resolved one of the more haunting questions with regards to its existence -- "Are we alone in the universe?" -- not to mention bringing to a close other issues such as the potential of long distance spaceflight. What about the Earth? The stunning thing -- something the player will be quick to realize -- that these matters have been resolved in a most prosaic, matter of fact way. Yes, there are other species, they are as civilized as we are, and yep, they've been there probably asking the same questions as we have done. And they've all been here longer than us humans.
In fact, the innovation of Mass Effect's story is that humanity on the whole is the new kid on the block, a newcomer to the neighbourhood of different, cooperating, and accomplished alien species. Examples include the Asari, a monogendered race of humanoids expert in -- among other things -- mediation and diplomacy, the Turians with their disciplined army and administration techniques, and the Volus, a race you may or may not believe that has played an integral role in shaping galactic economics, and a lot more. And the game holds your hand if you wish to learn more -- a wealth of information regarding this crafted universe is located in the Codex within the game, a readily accesible database with tons of juicy entries for the story enthusiast, where BioWare's attention to detail becomes apparent. This isn't to say that you're presented with all this information from the get-go -- it's a gradual process, thus contributing to the feeling of discovery mentioned earlier.
You play as Commander Shepard, a distinguished Human Systems Alliance officer in this potpourri of galactic interaction. What appears to be a simple pickup run quickly develops into something with relatively more far-reaching effects, and before you know it, you're in the thick of the action. To keep it concise, Mass Effect's storyline is an involved affair with enough minor and major twists to glue you to your chair. This, of course comes off as no surprise given the solidity of the gameworld. The only complaint is one of part vanity, part comparison -- it's really rather short compared to the previous BioWare titles. The story does conclude satisfactorily, and it also fleshes out well, but you're also left wanting more, or rather, thinking it could have been more -- and that's the vain part.
Of course, you are accompanied by quite a few characters along the way. Examples include Tali, a quarian (another alien species) machinist on a pilgrimage to find something of value to bring back home, Kaidan, a human biotic (more on that later) officer serving alongside you, among others. Over time, you'll learn about their past, their motivations, and their ideologies. They will comment on situations and will inform you about how things are going. And while some of them figure in some fairly important decisions, and their personalities and superb voice acting bring them all to life, there is no real innovation here. This doesn't detract from the enjoyment, but veteran players will be quick to spot various emerging patterns and other resemblances to previous BioWare titles.
There are also a good number of side quests to get into. These quests are usually entertaining, twenty to thirty minutes affairs, generally have interesting premises, and some reward you in quite unique ways, helping you to better craft your character in the process. Yet perhaps Mass Effect's most salient shortcoming lies within these: Where the main plotline is brimming with activity, interesting characters, and alive environments, the structure of most side quests are all bones and very little flesh. There exist many planets in this world that you can land in, walk and (using a charming wheeler called the Mako) drive, for instance -- but none of them have any colonies akin to those you'll be visiting during the main quest. They are, in effect, dead worlds, and there is no reason to revisit them once the side quest is complete. Worse yet, most of the places you visit during these side quests look the same, with very minor variations. This isn't to say that the quests aren't entertaining or rewarding -- they are. But in a game that generally drives the player delirious with well-applied polish, the parts are noticably more bland, and I consistently got the feeling of a rushed production -- again in stark contrast to the general state of the game.
Yet let's drive the point home: No matter how bland it can get at times, Mass Effect is a fun game. This is due to in no small part the excellent character playstyle and customization options, and the visceral, action packed combat. There are three archetypes: The Soldier, which is a pure combat class specializing in all four kinds of weaponry (them being the pistol, the shotgun, the assault rifle, and the sniper rifle); The Engineer, which excels in weakening and temporarily disabling enemies, taking control of some others, providing support for the team and the useful out of combat skills of Decryption and Elecronics which enable more gameplay options; and the Adept, which uses biotic powers to manipulate the environment not unlike the Force powers of a Jedi or Sith, allowing players some creative rein to control and harm enemies. There are also three other classes which are combinations based on these three -- somewhat akin to a multiclass. To the game's credit, all six classes play quite distinctly from each other, and because of the customization potential with the talent points you gain with every level up, there's a great deal of inherent replay value here.
Combat itself is more third person shooter than the statistic crunchfest normally associated with RPGs -- and it works great. There is no such thing as ammo, although overheating exists as a limiter. The damage you cause is mostly based on the weapon you're equipped with, as well as your skills, and it's easy to compare weapons and equip the best one whenever it shows up. This means that combat is streamlined, but not really dumbed down, as there are still things to manage like cooldowns. It's action packed and highly tactical, with an efficient cover system in place. At the higher difficulty settings, it's also sufficiently punishing to the point that players who prefer careful, planned approaches will emerge not only victorious but extremely satisfied. At any time the combat may be paused to use skills, switch weapons, direct (two) party members, or just to reassess the situation. Party AI is mostly ok, though in the higher difficulty settings where