BioWare are truly the benchmark when it comes to RPG games. Ten years ago a little known Canadian developer released Baldur's Gate and from there it was
nowhere but up for the team from Canada who were recently acquired by EA. A few Star Wars games later we have Mass Effect which while following the tried and
tested RPG formulas in many ways also takes the genre to the next level. Mass Effect may not explode the genre into a new direction and show RPG developers
how it's done, but it is a nice little exclusive for Microsoft to have and really a game that everyone must at least try, if not buy.
Mass Effect tells the story of a young commander named Shepard. Early in the game Shepard is accepted into the Spectre Legion - a force of young soldiers put
together to ensure peace and harmony in the galaxy. However as Shepard becomes more involved he realizes that one of the Spectres isnot as peaceful as they may seem so he must expose this reality
to the Galactic Council and this forms the majority of the story. In an interesting twist, humans are the peasants of the universe whose opinions are not
valued making your job all the more difficult.
If you're thinking this sounds a heck of a lot like George Lucas' epic Star Wars then you're on the same wavelength as us. Spectres are just one example
where it is quite clear that BioWare has taken inspiration from the Star Wars series of movies, however Mass Effect does not suffer for it. Building a space
opera is a huge undertaking, especially for an RPG story, so to use the best as inspiration really was a no-brainer.
As you would expect in an RPG, you form a squad of team mates and traverse the galaxy taking enemies on to find out more and more about the deceit which is
taking place. Early on in the game Shepard is by himself and under the lead of another commander but very quickly you get the opportunity to build your own
squad and explore the galaxy at will. There are many side quests to keep you distracted throughout the main storyline and allow you to build your characters
up, but there is also of course a main storyline which you can progress through in a linear fashion if you so desire. However the game really doesn't make it
easy to know where to go next and sometimes you will find yourself stumbling between areas trying to find exactly what to do to advance the story, although
there are a few things that doesn't make this as boring as it may sound.
Along with the main quests, BioWare also
implemented two paths to the storyline. As with Knights of the Old Republic, you can either choose to be a nice commander or a mean commander and characters
will react differently depending on the way you address them. The storyline also changes somewhat depending on which path you choose to take. You can
actually get to a point where characters will no longer speak to you as you have been too rude to them over the course of the game. There is also a few
optional side quests which you can undertake as part of the emotional relationship between characters including the possibility to develop romance between
the main character and other characters in the team if you choose to treat them right. This doesn't really add anything to the game other than a nice little
side quest to pursue.
The game is controlled from a third person perspective and there are two modes the characters can be in - combat and normal. If you're in combat mode, your
gun is drawn and you're ready to take on enemies, as well as give orders to other teammates. While the actual combat is very much like a typical third person
shooter, the way the engine determines hits and misses is not. The more accurate you are in an RPG sense with a gun, the easier it is to blast through
enemies. This is one of Mass Effect's downsides as while the combat model is extremely innovative and a nice change from the boring turn based style of Final
Fantasy style games, it is also very easy to forget you are playing an RPG and that it's not a matter of just being accurate, but a matter of being of a high
enough level to even have a chance of beating a main character.
Even though this is the first game of a trilogy, there is a huge universe to explore and there are many planets which are not necessarily quest related you
can visit just for fun. BioWare has really taken the space opera style of RPG to the next level and while you start out in a small space
station, very early on you're allowed to explore all that there is in the universe and, if you want to progress, you'll definitely want to do that. The scope
of the game is quite amazing and this leads us to the most impressive feature of Mass Effect.
The voice acting and graphics of this game truly are almost second to none, voice acting especially. If you want a game to suck you into the story presented
in a cinematic fashion, this is it. In fact this is by far the game's biggest selling point. The way the game zooms in on characters as they speak and the
mouths move in time with the sound is unbelievable and has to be seen to be believed. There is also about a billion (slight exaggeration) of lines recorded
into the game and it is possible to play through it multiple times and hear different things. The graphics take a hit when you're in the third person but not
by much, so overall it's one of the prettiest RPG games around.
Mass Effect really shows that BioWare knows their stuff when it comes to RPG's and while there are some issues, the positives outweigh the bad. While it is a
game that is still very much skewed towards the RPG market, it is also action based which will help to get more people into the game. Even if you just look
at the videos for five minutes, you truly must see the cinematic style to be believed and at least from that aspect it sets the benchmark for developers to
reach in years to come.