Mass Effect Xbox 360
Published by: Microsoft Game Studios
Developed by: BioWare
Release Date: Out Now
BioWare have been responsible for some of the truly great RPGs over the last few years. Games such as Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic have been particularly memorable efforts. Naturally then there was always going to be huge interest in anything else BioWare were working on. Mass Effect has been eagerly awaited ever since it was announced. Given what BioWare did with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic for the Xbox, many RPG fans have really been looking forward to seeing what BioWare have been able to achieve with the extra power of the Xbox 360. In short, the game is another memorable RPG but there are some performance issues that take the gloss off the game.
In Mass Effect you'll play as Commander Shepard. You can choose the first name, whether to be male or female, customize the appearance and pick your character's service history, psychological profile, military specialization and class but whatever modifications you make; you'll still be Commander Shepard. The choices you make during the character creation process do have a bearing on the game-play and it's interesting to see how certain NPCs either take a liking or disliking to you throughout the course of the game because of options you've made during the character creation process.
BioWare clearly enjoyed working on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and the idea of having a storyline that spanned the galaxy. Mass Effect does share some similarities with Knights of the Old Republic although it does prove to be a very different experience. You'll have a party of up to six members although you'll only have three in action at one time. Once again your actions will shape your character. Here you'll earn Paragon and Renegade points for your positive and negative actions respectively. In Mass Effect you'll have meters for both Paragon and Renegade points so you're not just swinging your character's personality from one extreme to another. The combat plays out in real time, although you do have the option to pause the action and make tactical adjustments (by holding down the RB button) and weapon changes (by holding down the LB button). Initially you won't need to pause the action but eventually you'll find it's absolutely crucial to make tactical adjustments during a battle or you're going to be seeing the game over screen a lot. Fortunately you can alter the difficulty level for the battles if you find them too difficult (or too easy of course).
The game takes place in the late twenty-second century. Mankind can now travel throughout the galaxy at will and naturally they have encountered a variety of alien species. Mankind, being mankind, doesn't get on too well with certain alien species and there is a certain level of mistrust towards the humans (the humans also naturally untrusting of course). When the game begins the humans don't have any say in the Citadel Council. The storyline in this first of three games essentially revolves around a rogue Turian Spectre named Saren (Spectres being agents from the Office of Special Tactics and Reconnaissance and they essentially have a free hand to do as they wish in order to get the job done). Saren has been abusing his power to extract information from alien artefacts and to order the Geth (an aggressive humanoid race) to attack planets. As Commander Shepard, it's your job to stop Saren. It's a storyline that has its share of twists and surprises.
There can be no denying that Mass Effect definitely has that wow factor that you'd expect from an RPG that's been designed for the Xbox 360. It's not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination however. To begin with there are quite a few performance issues which we'll go into detail about in the next paragraph. I wasn't happy with the tutorial information in the game. It didn't explain the combat system well enough and there were several details I felt were not explained clearly enough. Whilst the game is pretty good in respects to how your decisions influence the game's progress, at times it felt like your dialogue choices made no difference at all. I played the game using two very different characters and there were times when those differences had a bearing on the events and there were others when it didn't appear to make any difference at all. The storyline just isn't as engaging as it was in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Don't get me wrong, it's an interesting storyline and it's difficult to comment on the quality when you are only looking at the first of three parts, but I never had the feeling that I wanted to continue playing to see how things progressed. The sections of the game when you control the Mako (an infantry fighting vehicle) are tedious and the game would have been better for having these sections removed. You can't always save where you want to. I realise that you shouldn't be able to save during a battle but at times (mainly when driving the Mako), it just won't let you save for no apparent reason. On several occasions I've had to exit the Mako before being able to save and have then had to get back in the Mako, which is a rather odd state of affairs.
Mass Effect does have performance issues and you do get the feeling that the game could have done with more development time to sort these out. The frame rate isn't as good as it could have been and at times is rather unstable. There are lots of load times to endure and these really break up the flow of the game. The game also suffers from texture pop-in. An area will load up and initially it will look bland and over the next few seconds you'll see the textures appear on the various objects. This was something we noticed on Halo 2 for the Xbox and it looked ugly there. In Mass Effect texture pop-in looks just as ugly and you have to wonder why the game was allowed to be shipped without ironing out the problem.
The performance issues are unfortunate because in places the game is visually stunning. The character models have to be some of the best we've seen in any game. Some of the dialogue scenes, where you get to see the facial animations up close, are very impressive. Credit has to be given for the alien character models as they look outstanding and are probably the most imaginative I've seen since the original Star Wars trilogy.
Mass Effect does offer subtitles but they aren't enabled by default. Even with the subtitles enabled however, the computerized female voice that assists you during the character setup process isn't subtitled and you'll be completely unaware of what's being said. Once the game begins however, you won't have any real problems as all of the important dialogue is subtitled. The subtitles have the speaker's names placed before them so you'll always know who is saying what. There are some peripheral comments that aren't subtitled but they are of little to no importance. The game allows you to recall details on any missions or assignments by accessing your journal. The Codex can be accessed for text information on the various alien races, governments and planets etc. You are notified in text when XP and items have been gained and the health of your party is displayed on the bottom left of the HUD so you will always be aware of their condition. All of the game's tutorial messages are in text.
There can be no doubt that Mass Effect is an excellent game and a very promising start to what should be an excellent trilogy. The game isn't perfect however and the performance problems do tend to give the impression that more development time was needed. Problems aside however, Mass Effect can still be regarded as a great RPG and one that you will want to play again. The characters you'll eventually have in your party are all very different from each other and remain interesting throughout. The game is also a good length clocking in at around forty hours if you do most things the game has to offer. I just hope that the sequel manages to iron out the performance and technical issues that plague Mass Effect because for all of its impressive qualities, you definitely get the feeling that Mass Effect could have done with a few more months to iron out the wrinkles.