BioWare is no stranger to success. They have successfully tackled Star Wars, one of the biggest franchises in existence, and turned it into an overnight sensation with their Knights Of The Old Republic series. After a string of hits, it was time to depart into new territory. The result is Mass Effect, a groundbreaking new adventure series.
BioWare missteps many pitfalls with Mass Effect, aiming it squarely at a mature audience with a taste for open ended storytelling and sprawling adventure. The game is vast in scale, encompassing a galaxy filled with multiple star systems and many exotic locales. The game's tale centers around Commander Shepard, an elite soldier with an impressive track record who is groomed from the start to become a SPECTRE, essentially the galaxy's version of a Black Operative. The player assumes the role of Shepard and immediately encounters a principle villain in the game: Saren, who has amassed a deadly army of cybernetic creatures called the Geth to attack the galaxy's seat of government. But there is a sinister force behind Saren's actions which has awoken from untold millennium to rake a path of destruction against all life in the galaxy. As Shepard, the player must take command of an elite Alliance ship called the Normandy, and track down a short list of individuals with special skills to combat the threat.
On PC, Mass Effect is obviously gorgeous, easily outshining its X-Box counterpart thanks to higher resolutions. The art style is very distinct and always manages to avoid the trap of mimicking past pop culture designs. Locales are brilliantly thought out and very detailed, but not all are perfect. Planetary missions can be quite redundant, relying on the same basic prefab structure for the mission, and there's not too much difference or interactivity on planet surfaces to warrant any real exploration. There are side quests involved in scouring the planets for resources and loot, but never once does any said mission truly impact the progression of the game. The PC version also suffers from some texture problems, most notably Garrus' face texture which is blurred as of the latest patch release. There is an unofficial fix on the internet however, but if you don't know where to look, it becomes frustrating.
ME's sound is terrific. There's nothing to complain about. Sound effects are vibrant, fresh, unique, and blast through with crystal clear clarity. The musical score is beautifully composed, mixing classic space opera symphony with 1980's electronic synthesizer elements that create a slight feeling of nostalgia. Almost every line of dialogue in the game is voice acted, and BioWare pulled out the stops by giving us some truly excellent voice actors. Fred Tatasciore is particularly scene-stealing as the villain Saren, and veteran voice actors such as Jennifer Hale, Keith David, Marinia Sirtis, and Seth Green round out the cast wonderfully. However, with any voice acted videogame, there's bound to be a little bit of cheese thrown in for good measure, and ME is no exception.
The game has been overhauled drastically from the console port and adapted specifically to PC controls for a smooth play experience. This includes redesigned menus and screens for a direct play experience. Control is excellent, and the ability to assign hotkeys to weapons makes swapping a breeze. Unfortunately, the game falls flat during the MAKO driving sequences. Driving up the sides of mountains in such a severely oversteering vehicle can be incredibly taxing. It's one of the few low points of the game.
The strength of Mass Effect lies in its story. It's engrossing from the word "Go," and never lets up. The general plot involves stopping Saren and his Geth army from locating the whereabouts of a fearsome and long-since dormant race of incredibly powerful machines, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Commander Shepard can interact with over a hundred distinct characters throughout the course of the game, and, in typical BioWare fashion, accept side missions that involve sticking his/her nose where it doesn't normally belong. Patient and thorough players will uncover subplots that carry into future Mass Effect games, and truly flesh out the full experience of the story. Relationships play a vital role in ME. Regular conversations with your squad mates will unearth their personal histories, traumas, regrets, and strengths. There's even a fully fledged romantic subplot that can be pursued with one of two squad mates depending on the gender that the player selects at the start of the game. Some decisions in the game, romantic included, will greatly affect the way the player experiences Mass Effect 2 (if the player imports their ME1 character into ME2). When one stops to consider the sheer amount of work necessary for the BioWare team to tie up every loose end, dot every I, and cross every T, it's simply staggering.
Mass Effect shouldn't be missed. Even if sci-fi isn't quite your thing, there's still so much character depth, exploration and pure emotion in the game to make it a stunning experience on both heart and soul. The game's ability to completely customize Commander Shepard's gender and appearance means that both males and females can appreciate and enjoy the story on their terms. There's no excuse. Indeed, games like this don't come around too often! You truly are a fool to pass up this one.