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Mass Effect Review

publisher: Microsoft
developer: Bioware
genre: RPG

ESRB rating: M

release date: Nov 20, 07
» All About Mass Effect on ActionTrip

As I write this review, the holiday season deluge of titles is finally starting to show signs of fatigue. In my mind anyway the holiday is more or less rounded off with a game I have been eagerly expecting to play, BioWare's single-player RPG, Mass Effect.

For this one the Canadian developers decided to craft their own universe, rather than license an existing one. This is an unusual move for BioWare, and yet it's one that goes in line with what they announced as a new company strategy. Or rather, that WAS their company strategy. With the recent acquisition by EA and with rumors floating about that their next project will be a Star Wars MMORPG it looks like this string of proprietary intellectual properties (Dragon Age, Mass Effect) will be very short-lived.

Getting back to the title at hand, I don't think I will be very wrong if I say that as far as "world-crafting" goes, Mass Effect is more or less a pale copy of Star Wars.

Wait. Hear me out here first.

There is a difference between telling a story and creating a setting, the characters and the unique abilities that people will identify them by.

As far as the design of the world itself, BioWare showed very little in the way of imagination. The game puts you in the role of a human commander tasked with saving the galaxy from an ancient threat. There is the Galactic Council and the issue of various humanoid and less humanoid alien species interacting in social, political and other ways with humans. You play as a Spectre, an elite galactic unit acting under the orders of the Council (Jedi Council anyone?), yet autonomous enough to decide the means of going about achieving your goals. Should you choose to play, say, a Vanguard class (like I did), a number of Biotic abilities will become available to you, some of which (like the Throw and Lift) will function strikingly similar to Force powers.

All this, minus the light sabers, more distinct and imaginative characters and locales, which is what made Star Wars such an incredible hit over the decades.

On the other hand, the story itself is classic BioWare work and in a very good sense too. The very ideas behind the events in the game, the way that the characters interact and the more mature moral choices than we've ever seen in Knights of the Old Republic, make Mass Effect a true delight to play. The lack of more originality in the design of the world is definitely more than compensated by an intriguing storyline which even presents some very interesting philosophical issues. I'd discuss those with you here, but I'm inclined not to spoil the surprise for you.

In delivering a compelling single-player experience, the technology played a key part in bringing the characters to life. Right from the outset, players will be able to customize their character's appearance down to the very last detail. Trust me; this is a BIG thing in the game. The quality of the facial animation, just the way that all facets of eye movement were done, in addition to every other facial muscle, truly and I mean TRULY brings the characters to life. (No, they don't slap you in the face when you pinch their cheeks, smartass.) Maybe for the first time in a video game I could identify certain emotions I only thought could be delivered by "live" actors. It goes without saying that any sort of plot is dramatically deepened by having this sort of technology in place. I was simply amazed.

My character ended up looking a little bit like some preconceived notion of a terrorist with a very low brow (giving him that bad ass stare) and he ended up being labeled as a Renegade. The "morality" bars in the game are labeled as "Paragon" and "Renegade," and neither of the choices is straightforward. The "Renegade" would be someone who is less likely to "go by the book" and more likely to sacrifice a few to save many, or to allow acceptable losses in order to get the job done.

The engaging plot and a more mature approach to player choices add substance and credibility to the universe. The story and the technology that powers it are one of the prime reasons for the game's compelling atmosphere. Even if in many other ways Mass Effect lacks the flamboyance of worlds from which it borrows its ideas.

Still, as The Witcher ( has recently shown, in order for RPGs to be truly successful the action part has to evolve from a simple click-fest; it has to be more than just a prop to support the story. Thankfully, BioWare has learned their lesson since Jade Empire.

The mechanics of combat are very new for the company; they've done nothing like this in the past and yet they retain all of the aspects that I liked in games like Knights of the Old Republic.

This time around (and especially in the initial stages of the game) firefights will play a huge role in tackling the enemy threat. Firefights are mostly carried out in real-time and the squad-based system functions in a familiar way - you point your squad to a location and they go to that location while seeking any available cover. You can set your squad to either only use defensive abilities or use the full range of their abilities. Without getting too ahead of myself, let's just say that you might initially want them to use all of their abilities but as the game progresses you'll want to take more and more control.

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9.1   Excellent

Unbelievable emotional depth given to the appearance of characters, story, combat system, interesting moral dilemmas which finally transcend the most obvious choices between our notions of good and evil;

Side quests and their locales too generic, some bad voice acting, occasional bugs, Bioware's proprietary world doesn't appear imaginative and compelling enough, needed more cool "spells" later in the game.


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