Monday, November 19, 2007

Review: "Mass Effect" offers deep storyline, awesome graphics

This year, the Xbox 360 has had several killer titles, including "Halo 3," "Bioshock" and "Call of Duty 4," added to the fold. Prepare to meet its newest entry, "Mass Effect."

Bioware, who developed "Mass Effect," is arguably most famous for the RPG "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic." With big shoes to fill, Bioware stepped up and created a true work of art, worthy of its place next to "KOTOR."

The game starts with you assuming the role of Commander Shepard, an elite human Spectre agent. The Spectres are entrusted with keeping the law and order in the galaxy and are respected throughout alien worlds. I liken them to Jedis - not Yoda, Skywalker or Mace Windu, but still able to command respect. After some deep customization, you are able to choose one of six classes for Commander Shepard. The classes include:

1. Soldier - combat specialist
2. Engineer - tech specialist
3. Adept - biotic specialist
4. Infiltrator - combat/tech
5. Vanguard - biotic/combat
6. Sentinel - biotic/tech

Each class has advantages - for instance, the soldier can use all weapons and has improved health. The Sentinel is a combination of all of the classes, but can't use certain weapons. However, the choice is yours - I went with the Sentinel because of the wealthy of abilities.

You also are able to choose what kind of personality Commander Shepard has. As you progress in the game, you will take to humans (and aliens) who will remind you, good or bad, about your past exploits.

If you enjoyed the dialogue in "KOTOR," you'll fall for the smooth talking in "Mass Effect." It's a lot more uniform and depending on your experience, you can actually intimidate the human or alien you are interacting with. The only gripe I have with this is most Non Playable Characters (NPCs) you interact with have 3 to 4 canned lines. And they won't say things like "You asked me that a few minutes ago, remember?" or "Are you as dumb as you appear?" Regardless, the dialogue is superb - the voice acting is awesome.

Back to the dialogue: One thing to remember is - any conversation you have in the game can change the outcome of the game. Ask the wrong question and you won't have vital information for another level in the game. And some of your decisions will be morally challenging that will also impact the future of all races, not just your own. You will be respected or rejected based on your in-game decision.

"Mass Effect" is one of the deepest RPGs on the 360 so far this year. It gives players the opportunity to explore uncharted worlds, interact with some very unique (and trigger-happy) individuals and save the galaxy.

Forget Super Mario - it's Commander Shepard's galaxy ...

The gameplay is top-notch. It's an RPG at heart that combines third-person shooter with elements of a spy story for a really fresh and unique gaming experience. Not only will you end up with your own ship that you can explore (the Normandy), but you will be able to explore vast galaxies and answer to only the Council. You will also be able to do side quests, like helping a grieving husband retrieve his wife's body from a war zone OR accept or shun bribes. You will find yourself easily getting off-track from the main quest. That's cool - but be prepared to devote tons of time to this game, as it will suck you in with the game's very engaging storyline.

The galaxies are huge - an amazing feat for a DVD-based video game. There is one gripe - the load times. I got rather annoyed by walking around various planets and seeing the words "Loading" flashing in small fonts. Argh! At least in cities, you can take the rapid transport to get around faster (this hides loading times) or just walk. If you are on a mission, even if you return to a place you had been too, it will have to reload with extra souls you will interact with. It doesn't happen too often in the game, but it's still worth mentioning.

The graphics? Sweet! The environments look great, the worlds are lush (yes, even the snow-covered ones), but the game shines with the lifelike digital actors. The character animations really flow. With the killer dialogue and the facial movements, sometimes you may forget you're in a game and not watching a movie. There's some real Hollywood muscle in "Mass Effect" too. Voice actors such as Seth Green ("The Italian Job," "Without a Paddle") and Keith David ("Platoon," "Men at Work," "Pitch Black" and "Chronicles of Riddick") lend their talents to really enhance the game. All of the voice acting and engaging dialogue really add major depth to "Mass Effect."

As you progress through "Mass Effect," you can increase your statistics and upgrade your equipment to insane levels. Need to stop some pesky aliens? Add a chemical agent onto your rounds that boost their effectiveness by 40 percent. You don't have to worry about finding ammo either. Your weapons are charged - and they fire until they overheat. Your grenades, unfortunately, aren't unlimited - but they are hurled like Frisbees - and are detonated by you or after 10 seconds, they detonate on their own.

Need more energy? Melt your unwanted accessories for Omni-Gel. You'll have to play it to find out what that is.

You aren't "finishing the fight" alone. You have a squad you can take into fights and on missions. You will be able to use cover ("Gears" and "kill.switch" both take the cake for the "Effective Use of Cover Award"), though some cover is movable and even destructible. Your squad is good, but they aren't Spectres like you. You will also notice they can get shot, you leave them and they'll rejoin you in fights and battles within a couple minutes. If you get blasted, you die and have to restart from your last checkpoint.

Oh yeah ... checkpoints. You can pretty much save anywhere in the game, as long as enemies aren't close by. That's a definite welcome feature to most gamers who will spend several hours playing over all the galaxy and want to make sure they can save their progress.

The music and sounds are great. The soundtrack sounds well thought-out and the sound effects gripping. However, if you are going to buy this game or Gamefly it, you won't care about the sound because you'll be too busy surfing the galaxy.

The controls in "Mass Effect" are solid. When you command your squad to move to a certain area, they'll go. The camera angles can be a pain at times, but you can pan and get behind Commander Shepard.

There are a few minigames to play to get some objects working (think vending machine hacks in "Bioshock") or just pay to get them working. Regardless, you'll become a galatic packrat because of all the items you will pick up.

This is one RPG that breaks the mold of the genre. With the real-time combat system (not you fire - your enemy fires - and you fire back system), upgrades and smooth talking, as well as a slow pace at first, but fast action later on, this game will have a "Mass Effect" on video games, especially the Xbox 360 crowd.

If you are an RPG fan, suit up and get ready to blast into orbit with "Mass Effect."

Why should I care: "Mass Effect" is one of the final heavy-hitting video games for the 360 and this one knocks it out of the park. If you love "KOTOR," you should check this game out.

The good: Where do I start? Stellar gameplay, engaging dialogue, amazing storyline, killer graphics, unparalleled depth, save-anywhere capabilities, deep roleplaying and the list, literally, goes on and on ...

The bad: Annoying load times, wacky camera angles (at times) and just 3 to 4 canned lines for NPCs - it would be sick if they could really be snippy if you ask them the same questions again.

The ugly: Without a doubt, the way I crashed and burned as I tried to mack on Williams, a space Marine.

Overall: 9.75 (out of 10): The load times are the only real things that hold this game back. Otherwise, as innovative and fresh as this game is, it really provides a new spin or two on the RPG genre. Is it better than "KOTOR?" I'll put it like this - it borrows from big brothers and packages it very nicely. I'll let YOU be the judge. However, it's a really strong contender for game of the year, in my opinion.

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