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Written by  :  Kit Simmons (264)
Written on  :  Aug 26, 2009
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars3.57 Stars

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Neither fish nor fowl - but nourishing nonetheless

The Good

Until the mid-80s role-playing games were the domain of personal computers. The classics of the genre were deep and immersive, but also cumbersome and dry. During the 8-bit and 16-bit age, a new breed of RPGs conquered the market. Console role-playing games, or CRPGs, were predominantly of Asian production and instead of endless ASCII dungeons, statistics and complicated character management they featured simple game mechanics enriched by memorably cinematic plots and characters. While overlooked by the Western market at first, by now CRPGs have overtaken a seizable niche which during the late 80s until well into the mid-90s ousted classic PC RPGs.

Enter BioWare, formerly Black Isle Studios. Their 1998 masterpiece Baldur's Gate bridged the gap between CRPGs and classic PC RPGs. This development reached its pinnacle with Knights of the Old Republic, a game featuring the well-tested and flexible D&D rules and the prestigious Star Wars franchise to tell an epic tale.

Taking the best of two worlds, certain concessions to the CRPG formula were made - instead of an explorable, open game world more linear areas began to take foot even in Western RPGs. In BioWare's case this culminated in Jade Empire, a game featuring a severely reduced character system, action-based combat and an even smaller and more linear world than KotOR before it.

With Mass Effect BioWare seems to have found back to some of the classic genre's old strengths. While the character system is completely skill-based rather than relying on stats describing the player in-game, it still allows for variance, further aided by an elaborate dialogue system and the customisation of the main characters' outward appearances. Plot decisions, mostly determined through dialogue options, alter the story slightly at key points. Rather than forcing players to listen to their characters repeat their dialogue choices, Mass Effect instead allows them to pick from a condensed list of paraphrases at any time during conversations to determine their characters' reactions. The result is a natural flow of conversation which makes players want to listen to everything said - no small feat for such a talk-heavy game.

Combat in Mass Effect is still action-based but thanks to customisable team members, tactical game pauses and a cover system the game is less of a button-masher than Jade Empire was. Since it plays in the far future melee plays a very minor role in the confrontations. All characters' gear can be upgraded through an increasing amount of upgrade slots. Further seasoning battles are biotic skills, comparable to magic spells, which in Mass Effect take the form of telekinetic powers. Thanks to the character classes it is, however, possible to take an approach more geared towards brute physical force or the sly manipulation of the ever-present technology.

The story puts players in the space boots of a human keeper of the peace in a multi-cultural alien society which hasn't acknowledged humanity's full social rights too long ago and still fights with prejudices against it. The opportunities for conflict in the uneasy congregation of civilizations living off the technological ruins of an ancient race called Protheans are diverse. To delve deeper into the Mass Effect universe's rich background, an in-game encyclopaedia with spoken entries reveals much of the encountered alien races and their common history. Commander Shepard, the player character's unchangeable last name by which he or she is constantly addressed, takes up the mantle of Spectre, a high governmental agent operating outside the legal system to enforce the will of the Council. Such authority is soon needed as a renegade Spectre called Saren appears to have forged an alliance with the Geth, ruthless machine beings bent on destroying biological life using the same eerie threat that wiped out the mysterious Protheans aeons ago.

Like KotOR, Mass Effect assigns players their own spaceship and crew with which they can explore a variety of worlds, either discovering their own little missions or carrying out the orders of the Council and other government officials. The game universe is significantly larger than in KotOR but consists mostly of barren planets with little to find on them. The game's main plot evolves over a series of main missions, each leading players closer to Saren and the forces he's intending to unleash. The game makes good use of its detailed character models and cinematic dialogues and cut scenes to tell a mature science fiction story about prejudice, life's purpose in the universe and a person's impact on it.

The Bad

Mass Effect does a lot of things right and a whole lot of things better than its predecessor Jade Empire. Although also a good game, Jade Empire's simple game mechanics and linearity took away from its role-playing experience. Mass Effect enhances many areas which fell short in Jade Empire but still maintains some of its problems.

The main plot is comparably short for an RPG and can be solved in well under thirty hours, making it even shorter than 40+ hours epics like KotOR. Side missions enhance the game experience only slightly as the assignments tend to be rather generic missions taking place at even more generic locations. While a good deal of systems and their planets can be visited, few are truly worth the players' time. Basically a nice gimmick, the Mako vehicle which players can drive on planet surfaces controls like a bumpy iron lump to which gravity seems to be only a suggestion, not a law. The DLCs aren't too satisfying, either. While the first, Bringing Down The Sky, added a new in-game alien race and was free for PC users to download, the recently released Pinnacle Station DLC requires them to pay five dollars for a mere two to three hours of additional content falling way short of the original program's depth.

Overall the game still feels limited when it comes to character development and exploration. Almost all skills players can learn never affect the game world outside of combat. Although many equipment items and upgrades can be discovered, the game can't hide that there are only a handful of item categories and most differences between items are only gradual.

The main story is linear in spite of several choices players can make along the way and quickly leads up to the finale. Although Mass Effect's story is original and full of its own flavour, some elements feel slightly clichéd, such as the order of the Spectre's with their biotic talents under the control of a world-spanning council and the sinister villain and his horde of faceless henchmen. Even though the game doesn't come with a clear-cut good/evil system to evaluate players' deeds, BioWare hasn't fully emancipated itself yet from some Star Wars-inspired genre conventions - ironically introduced by themselves.

The Bottom Line

Mass Effect innovates while retracing its genre's roots. Its serious and mature plot full of dry, realistic but not uninteresting characters and colourful universe appeals to science fiction lovers both of the Star Wars and Star Trek persuasion. While being somewhat limited in scope and freedom, its plot entertains on a high level. All in all, the game isn't a perfect balance between depth and accessibility yet. Old school RPG lovers will criticise its lack of scope in terms of game time and mechanics while CRPG players may find it too dry and tactical. However, as part one of a sci-fi trilogy set in a rich universe, this first in the Mass Effect franchise holds a lot of promise.