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Mass Effect (Xbox 360) artwork

Mass Effect (Xbox 360) review

"Not a perfect beginning, but one that definitely served to get me enthralled."

While it took me a little while to truly get into Mass Effect, when I did, it was really easy for me to discover this game's appeal and why the trilogy which it begins is so highly regarded. Simply put, it's nice to play a role-playing game where I actually feel like I'm playing a role, one where my decisions have more impact than simply making a party member's opinion of my character change a bit or progressing the plot in a pre-determined direction.

The average RPG is fond of giving you a blank slate -- young characters on their first level of experience, with no experience outside the small towns they call home. Mass Effect does fall prey to the "level one" syndrome, but in all other aspects allows you to feel as though you're stepping into the boots of a prominent figure in its universe. As Commander Shepard, you're a well-regarded Earthling who is posed to aid his planet in gaining more respect and recognition from the other races composing the Galactic Council. In starting the game, you answer two brief questions which set you on the stage to determining Shepard's identity.

Along with things like picking a gender and tinkering with Shepard's appearance, you'll also choose your character's origin. Was Shepard a troubled youth who joined the armed forces to get away from a mundane life of petty crime, the child of military personnel who decided to stay in the family profession or, maybe, a person whose life was torn asunder by slavers until being rescued? Next up: Shepard's reputation. Your character might be widely regarded as a beloved and respected hero. Or a complete jerk who's respected due to getting results by any means necessary. Or the sole survivor of a mission that went horribly wrong -- ie: a person with the ability and instincts to fight out of the most dire situations.

This is an awesome touch. I made my Shepard a troubled youth who joined the military and then got sent to the planet Akuze, where he had to endure the deaths of all his comrades after they got blindsided by vicious and deadly Thrasher Maws. In my mind, Shepard's experiences made him a bit of a jerk who possesses a healthy distrust of authority, but who would be utterly loyal to the crew on his ship because they're his people. And then I found myself using that analysis of my character as the foundation for virtually every decision I made. Shepard's immediate boss, Captain Anderson? He was cool because I went back a ways with him. Other high-ranking people like Ambassador Udina or the three galactic Council members? They were lucky if I was reasonably polite while being dismissive of their opinions because if they weren't going through what Shepard was, what right did they have to tell him how to do his business?

So, what was Shepard's business? To start with, he and a pair of squad members set foot on a planet, along with a Turian (one of several alien races that play prominent roles in the Mass Effect trilogy) member of the elite Spectre unit in order to investigate reports that a beacon from an advanced, but extinct alien race had been found. Since those things tend to contain the sort of technological information that can potentially be a real game-changer, the Council wants to be the first to get their hands on it and your job is to make that happen.

Of course, it wouldn't be much of a game if you immediately met with success, so one of your two teammates immediately get fried by members of the hostile robotic race known as the Geth and your Turian ally gets smoked by Saren, another Turian Spectre whom he trusted. At least Shepard gets a series of really confusing visions from the beacon that serve to convince him that the entire galaxy might be in grave danger from forces he could barely comprehend!

Now, this might come as a surprise, but the Council, which already thinks that, as the new kids on the galactic block, humans are getting too big for their britches, is NOT willing to take action because one random military guy thought he saw something scary that he's unable to truly describe. However, after doing a bit of investigating around the game's "hub" location and finding some new allies, you're at least able to convince them that Saren went rogue, leading to Shepard becoming the first-ever human Spectre with the mission to bring Saren to justice. As a Spectre, you don't have to answer to virtually anyone, essentially becoming an "above the law" secret agent -- the perfect job for a guy who's not only trying to take down an immensely skilled and resourceful adversary, but also attempting to make sense of those visions in order to prevent disaster.

You'll get a handful of planets that have story objectives that often can be handled in multiple ways that could have both major and minor effects on your experiences in the second and third games, but there's a huge galaxy to explore. The game features a good number of solar systems, each with multiple planets. While many serve no purpose other than to flesh out the scope of the game, a respectable number host their own side quests, most of which can be obtained by either talking to the right person or simply entering their proximity. As far as I know, about the only ones I didn't complete were a couple that can only be given if you are either really nice or consistently a jerk. As you interact with people, you get options to use "nice" or "mean" dialogue options, which add to your Paragon and Renegade meters. By filling either of the two to near-completion, you get those final quests, but my oh-so-sunny disposition prevented me from being enough of a Renegade to satisfy the requirements.

I felt no regret about this. If Mass Effect has a clear and definite weakness, it revolves around those side quests. This is a pretty notable weakness, too, as there are only a handful of planets involving the main story. Without the side quests, I'd think a reasonably skilled person could get to the end in roughly 10 or so hours, but a thorough player could easily double or triple that time.

There are two big issues with side quests. First, every single planet you visit has a bland, procedurally-generated feel to it. Regardless of what the game says about a planet in regards to it's appearance, habitation and so on, you'll be dropped into a barren landscape littered with mountain ranges that often are tough to ascend with your tank-like beast of a transport vehicle. Generally any notable locations on any planet, whether they be your quest destination or various items you can salvage, are located around those mountains, so you'll be forced to endure sessions of "So, how exactly do I get there?" with regularity. Occasionally a planet will also play host to one of those Thrasher Maws, which are gigantic worms that announce their presence by erupting from the ground to provide battles which can either be insanely tense, due to their love of one-hit kills, or amazingly tedious, as it's possible to get them to do nothing but spit easily dodged acid while your ship's guns whittle down their life.

Second, when you eventually make it to your destination, you'll find yourself going through either a base or mine, of which there are startlingly few different designs, leading to you going through identical-looking buildings or caverns, regardless of whether you're fighting space pirates, Geth or shadowy mercenary organizations. Then again, it doesn't really matter which of those groups you're fighting, as so many of these battles turn out the same. You'll enter a large room full of various obstacles that can be used for cover and a bunch of adversaries will come out of the woodwork, leading you into a big gunfight. Depending on which of several classes you gave Shepard when you began the game, you also might have a few special powers allowing you to do fun things like lift obstacles to throw them at foes or erect a barrier to essentially increase your armor's shielding effect.

While the side-quests themselves are repetitive enough to become dull, the fighting was pretty fun -- at least after a while. In the early stages of the game, when I was just starting out, it took a me little while to get into the game's system. At times, it' third-person shooter perspective combined with a cover system worked for me and, other times, I'd be trying to get a bead on enemies who were aimlessly scrambling around, completely ignoring conventional wisdom. However, as the game progressed and I got better weaponry, a few more experience levels and powered up various abilities and passive skills, I found myself having more and more fun taking on aliens, robots and other foes. Still, I don't know that I can give combat in this game much more praise than simply saying it was "fun". When I started Mass Effect 2, it took me a little while to get used to its stripped-down, simpler take on combat, but when I did, I found it to be superior. Regardless, the "action" and "RPG" elements flow together more seamlessly here than in older action-RPGs such as Parasite Eve or Vagrant Story, so I wasn't complaining too much.

At times, I get the idea that Mass Effect gets considered "the black sheep" of the trilogy. When I started the second game, I noticed BioWare had added an quick recap of the first game, where you could make all the major choices without actually playing through it, in order to essentially start from Mass Effect 2. After playing through the first, I just couldn't find it in me to get behind that choice. The side-quests might have gotten tedious and I might have found combat, especially in the early parts of the game, to be a mixed bag, but, man, the experience is simply worth it. After a couple decades of taking control of blank slates and following a set-in-stone path through one medieval fantasy world or another, I found this game intoxicating. Everything wasn't realized to the level I might have wanted, but enough was that, when it all started clicking for me, I eagerly rushed through the rest and immediately started the second game. After creating my version of Shepard, I have to see where his quest winds up taking him.

overdrive's avatar
Community review by overdrive (February 17, 2017)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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