With the prospect of exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new civilisations and boldly going where no man has gone before, it’s a fair bet Bioware’s latest was designed with Trekkies in mind. Throw in the chance of one-on-one shenanigans with a sexy blue alien, and you just know Kirk is lurking around somewhere.
Set in a similar mould to the award-winning Star Wars epic KOTOR, Mass Effect is another RPG that successfully ditches the anorak to appeal to a wider audience. There are menus for micro-managing your team, stats to increase and weapons to upgrade, but you can also pick up the joypad and start shooting straight away. Action is viewed from a third-person perspective and, thanks to a neat duck and cover system, comparisons with Gears of War are inevitable, if a little misplaced.
The main event sees you on a mission to track down Saren, a special agent gone rogue and mixing with the wrong crowd of robots, known as the Geth. Once you catch up with him, however, things start to open up with intriguing side quests, allies to recruit and situations to explore. That said, there’s no urgent need to constantly follow the plot. If you fancy nipping off to rescue someone’s brother, scaring civilians, slapping the odd reporter or smuggling weapons, feel free.
As with KOTOR, character class and style affect how things play out. We started out as an angelic male engineer and later switched a sassy soldier with an attitude. The latter proved far more fun, gave us completely different scenes and actually opened major development options we hadn’t seen on our first play through. While the set missions and final showdown always turn out the same, how you work around them is pretty much up to you.
Graphically, Mass Effect is decidedly next-gen. Cut scenes are delivered with full cinematic quality using the in-game 3D engine, while animation and texture detail is impressive. Characters are imaginative but we’d have liked more choices for armour and civilian outfits; a good option for downloadable content along with new missions. The audio department is also well stocked. If we had to nit-pick we’d point out a bit of texture pop-in, normally after loading, but there’s nothing that encroaches on the gameplay.
And that’s where Bioware is at its best. The detailed storyline and superb voice acting really do help create an atmosphere that few recent titles can match, save perhaps BioShock. You can choose to ignore the backstory altogether, but you’ll really be missing out on something special.
Controls quickly become second nature and those familiar with Bioware’s other titles will instantly feel at home. That said, the weapon upgrade system could be a little clearer; it would be nice to see the effect of a given upgrade clearly displayed in the overall weapon stats, for example.