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Mass Effect (Xbox 360) artwork

Mass Effect (Xbox 360) review

"I completed Mass Effect in little more than twenty hours, which may seem like a travesty when compared with many other successful RPGs. But Mass Effect’s amazingly involving methods of storytelling are truly unmatched, and with rarely a moment that isn’t spectacular, BioWare has (regardless of length) skillfully crafted one of the most compelling RPGs ever made."

In the year 2148, the human Alliance unearths a cache of ancient alien technology on Mars. These findings are so advanced that they boost humanity’s own technological prowess forward at least two hundred years. Possibilities expand, especially as far as space travel is concerned, and a year later a research team is sent to the farthest reaches of the solar system. There they make another vital discovery: That Charon, a small satellite moon orbiting Pluto, isn’t actually a moon at all. It is another piece of dormant alien technology, a kind of portal – a mass relay – that is encased in a shell of ice and frozen debris. Upon reactivation of this massive device, the Alliance handpicks a group of brave astronauts and scientists to put the ancient gateway to the test. They enter the mass relay and exit thousands of light-years away.

What the Alliance finds on the other end is more than simply a network of mass relays that enable the humans to explore the galaxy at their own leisure. That portal opens the door to a new world. A world where humans can communicate and interact with the other intelligent species that already litter the universe. A world where humans can expand and settle beyond the confines of their own native planet. A world where possibilities are endless, where every decision you make could forever change the course of the future. A world called Mass Effect.

Jump ahead a quarter of a century. Humanity has been welcomed into Citadel space, where every other alien species has – like the humans – advanced their technological efforts by finding artifacts left behind by the ancient Protheans, a long-extinct race. Humanity has spread across the galaxy so quickly that other races are already viewing them as a threat. But an opportunity for the Alliance to prove its worth soon arises. The geth, a group of synthetic lifeforms who were created to serve but rebelled against their masters, have advanced beyond the Verge and begun attacking colonies in what may be just the start of a galaxy-wide struggle for power between the biological and the artificial.

Mass Effect is such a wonderfully realized videogame world that you’ll need to skim over numerous Codex entries, engage in countless conversations with NPCs, and possibly even read the game’s prequel book just to fully understand how much history and detail BioWare has ploughed into every inch of the universe they’ve created. In what is undoubtedly the best RPG in years – and one of the greatest sci-fi stories ever told – BioWare has emulated space travel like no developer before. The first time you step onto your ship and open up the galaxy map, you’ll smile as you gaze upon the dozens and dozens of clusters, solar systems, and planets that lay before you, because you know you’re free to explore the farthest reaches of this Milky Way.

At the center of your adventure is Commander Shepard, the first human member of the Citadel Council’s elite Spectre unit and the closest virtual representation of you that you’ll likely ever encounter in a game thanks to the slew of choices and moral dilemmas that BioWare has become famous for. When it is time for Shepard to speak, you’re the one who chooses what comes out of his mouth. Conversations occur and decisions are made, and ultimately Shepard is one of the deepest characters in the history of the RPG, simply because he has no boundaries. He is what you make of him.

Mass Effect can be approached from two angles: That of the merciful good guy, and that of the slimy bastard. Choose the way of Paragon, and the satisfaction of your adventure will be derived from winning the trust and affection of others, and knowing that your good deeds have benefited those around you – a feat accomplished by Drew Karpyshyn’s genuinely powerful and wholly effective script. Go Renegade, and see just how far you can go with your Spectre status, in which you are above the law and must stop at nothing to reach your objective… with the only cost being the notion that maybe, just maybe the brainwashed colonists you just slew could have been saved had the proper initiative been taken. Mass Effect will be a different game for everyone who plays it, as the outcome of your adventure is only the result of the decisions you’ve made.

Mass Effect’s depth of choices follows into combat, which some may view as a disappointment at first. It plays like any standard third-person shooter would, with four rather basic weapon types, a Gears of War-like cover system, and some limited squad commands for your two not-especially-intelligent comrades. It’s familiar enough that most will treat it like a generic third-person shooter, simply because they won’t know better.

Well, silly me, that’s exactly what I did, and I was initially left with an empty feeling. But a second play-through – which Mass Effect richly rewards – demonstrated to me just how flexible my options in battle were. After raising the difficulty, my relentless foes forced me to take tactical action and utilize my many biotic and tech abilities, every one of which could be upgraded and improved with a little experience farming. No longer were battles simple run-of-the-mill shooter fare. I took pleasure in using my Force-like biotic powers to push enemies over the edges of cliffs. I lifted my foes helplessly into the air and made easy targets of them. I hacked into the circuits of the synthetic geth troops and forced them to fire on each other instead of me. And I was having a blast.

Perhaps the only area where Mass Effect fails to live up to its potential is when the player takes a break from the central mission to delve deeper into the Milky Way. In browsing through your ship’s galaxy map, you’ll find that many uncharted planets can be touched down on and explored. But no thanks to the generally barren environments of these worlds – coupled with the uncooperative controls of your rover, the Mako – these side quests often feel like afterthoughts when compared to the game’s stellar story-based segments. You’ll likely find yourself only completing these missions for experience, and to extend the amount of time you spend in this beautifully realized universe.

And that brings us to length. I completed Mass Effect in little more than twenty hours, which may seem like a travesty when compared with many other successful RPGs. But Mass Effect’s amazingly involving methods of storytelling are truly unmatched, and with rarely a moment that isn’t spectacular, BioWare has (regardless of length) skillfully crafted one of the most compelling RPGs ever made. They’ve created a world where every problem can be overcome with a different solution, a world where an impossible predicament can be resolved not through the strength of your firearms but through the power of your words, a world where the fate of an entire race can lay at your fingertips. That is the world of Mass Effect.

Suskie's avatar
Staff review by Mike Suskie (March 21, 2008)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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