Mass Effect is a science fiction RPG set in the year 2183, with an epic scale to match its futuristic aspirations. You start off with the illusion of choice – you can be a male or female character with a variety of looks – but whatever you choose, you’re the gender-neutral ‘Commander Shepard’ throughout the game.
You’re also humanity’s last hope against a massive galactic conspiracy involving forces from before the birth of humanity – but isn’t that always the way? If you’re not on your toes, then an army of civilisation-destroying robots will atomise everything in their path, which strikes us as pretty good motivation to get blasting.
Epic space combat is something of speciality of developers Bioware, and it’s impossible not to compare Mass Effect to Bioware’s earlier Star-Wars-centric Knights Of The Old Republic.
If you’ve played that game (and ignored the rather tepid sequel), you’ll find a lot of familiar ground – the same kinds of character upgrades, and even the same mystical powers, although in deference to the cost of lining George Lucas’ money bin, they’re ‘biotics’ rather than ‘The Force’. In addition, rather than the static, turn-based combat used by KOTOR, Mass Effect uses a real time, third person action shooter mechanic for all of its battles.
The game offers an appealing mix of either weapons or biotic powers for your combat choices, although typically you’ll have to employ both, as most of the game’s biotic powers, while offensively-based, take time to recharge.
Fortunately, it’s generally just enough time to unload a shotgun into an alien’s face while they’re struggling with the effects of the miniature black hole you’ve created in their pancreas. Granted, it doesn’t have the level of combat you’d find in a full scale FPS, but there’s enough action to break up the storyline.
In-between the game’s action sequences, you’re marched through some lengthy narrative sections. As with most RPGs, you have the choice of what your character’s going to say. Well, sort of – you’re still railroaded as the plot demands, but Mass Effect uses an interesting dialogue wheel that sees you select the gist of your responses, while your character gives a more full response.
It’s a fluid mechanic that mimics real speech well, as you don’t have to sit through your character saying exactly what you’ve just selected and read. Your choices in dialogue, unlike those of avatar creation, affect your status as a paragon or renegade-style character and influence which of the game’s endings you’ll see.
Mass Effect does start off with one minor strike against it, in that it’s a console port of an Xbox 360 game that came out in 2007. Thankfully, the usual run of dodgy console considerations has been ironed out nicely. Mouse commands work better than their controller equivalents, textures have been upgraded, and there’s a more tactical approach to ordering your team-mates around. The one factor that still screams console game is the inclusion of some mandatory vehicle sections that play like a tank game built on top of a space hopper – more Moon Patrol than anything else, in fact.
Mass Effect’s main quest will take you anywhere between around 12-24 hours to complete, depending on your skills and the difficulty level you pick, but even at the short end, they’re 12 fun and engrossing hours. Fans of science fiction in general – at the risk of showing our age, we couldn’t help but think it reminiscent of Babylon 5 – will particularly enjoy Mass Effect, and for once, the wait for the PC version over console has been well worth it, rather than being a watered down kludge.