Those poor old elevators. In case you haven't heard, one of Mass Effect's weirdest features has been officially shelved in favour of more load screens. Yes, the lifts were incredibly slow. For example, Mass Effect is a science-fiction RPG where male characters can fall in love with one of two female crewmates, and I chose Liara because the alternative, Ashley, hangs out in the Mako garage, and thanks to the lift sequence separating the garage from the rest of your spaceship this constituted an unworkable long-distance relationship. That slow. But at least they weren't load screens.
Mass Effect has enough of those already. So many, in fact, that an uncharitable observer might argue that the huge scale of BioWare's intergalactic civilisation is largely supported by the volume and duration of loading delays that punctuate every journey. After all, it's far easier to suspend your disbelief - even while you're locked in dense social and political discussions with blue-headed bisexual alien mystics and giant voles - when even nipping to the shops involves putting yourself into cryogenic stasis outside the game as well as within.
That uncharitable observer would be wrong, however, because if you ask me the vastness of the foundations of this particular galaxy isn't a byproduct of Mass Effect's load screens, and to go around thinking as much would be as daft as a car with a jump button. Ha ha. But seriously, the settings also function because of decisions made by the Citadel Council and, aptly, the gravity they manage to convey.
Like all BioWare games, Mass Effect isn't so much steeped in lore as waterboarded. Humans are one of a number of races who have colonised space and hold a presence on the Citadel, an alien space station that is, for all intents and purposes, the centre of the galaxy, and along with its alien "mass relays" allows for wide-scale exploration of deep space. Everyone seems pretty happy with the fact they lucked into all this alien technology, which used to belong to the now-extinct Protheans, rather than inventing it, but then it has been a unifying force for advanced civilisations from across the 'verse, so that's alright then. Probably.
The Citadel is presided over by the aforementioned Council, which has representatives of the reptilian Turians, blue-headed science boffins the Asari, and the weirdo espionage-loving Salarians. But not humans. Which is where you come in: you, Commander Shepard, are humanity's great inroad, because you're being considered for Spectre status. Spectres are like special galactic police who go around doing whatever the hell they like, and it would be a huge honour if they made you one, so another Spectre, a Turian called Nihlus, is working alongside you on the Normandy as you travel to the human colony of Eden Prime to retrieve a Prothean artefact - a beacon. You're on best behaviour.
So of course it all goes horribly wrong. Nihlus is killed, the beacon is destroyed, and Shepard is exposed to some sort of incomprehensible Prothean home video that may or may not be the key to the history of the universe. And it's at this point I got stuck in the game's gravitational pull, because despite going before the Council and explaining that naughty Spectre agent Saren is responsible, and presenting an eyewitness account of him murdering Nihlus, the Council says this is circumstantial. You don't just need a smoking gun when it comes to decisions that affect trillions of lives, you need a burning rainforest sticking out of a Death Star.
A game with a lot of information to impart better be good at it, and Mass Effect is, for the most part, thanks to a good conversation system where you use the analogue stick to point to possible responses. You don't always get six options, but there are six possible positions for the options to appear in, and each is a particular flavour of reply; charming and intimidating comments, for example, are always top-left and bottom-left respectively when they're available.
Because you already know the tone of the option you're pointing at, BioWare can also be economical with what you're actually clicking on, so each option is represented by a few words. While you may click on "Let's go", Shepard may say "We should get this f***ing show on the road mof***ers." This was an awesome move, because unlike many of its RPG predecessors you don't feel like you've already answered by the time you hit the button; you direct exchanges rather than waiting for your character to mouth the sentiment you've just expressed with the A button. (Incidentally, in order to avoid even the slightest story spoiler, I have invented dialogue for the above examples. Mof***ers.)
The line between narrative cause and explosive effect is nonexistent, too, which also enhances the game's storytelling. The shooter-influenced combat was originally criticised in some quarters (these quarters, for example), and there was a backlash against this criticism in the pointy-hat community, but there are a couple of problems with their position. Not least of these is that it's a bit silly to moan at critics approaching the game from shooter backgrounds who don't rate it as a shooter, given that BioWare would be the first to admit Mass Effect is built around projectile weapon combat as much to court that crowd as anything. And also, however much you love the game - and I love Mass Effect - you have to admit that the cover mechanics were a bit 2006. It was 2007!
But BioWare was right to go shooter, even if it fell a tiny bit short, because it also serves an important narrative function. In a vast, ponderous galaxy where the smallest units of time and distance are years or tens of thousands of kilometres, the immediacy of gun combat reinforces that scale: engagements are over in a matter of seconds, even if you insist on the optional granularity of constant micromanagement; mere specks of space and time in a universe with bigger problems. As Douglas Adams pointed out, space is big. Mass Effect respects that.
Besides, you don't have to go shooting all the time. There are six character classes, allowing for varying play styles, and even within the shooter-heavy Soldier class there's scope for specialisation thanks to team orders, and separate experience paths for different core weapons. Each of the other classes involves a bit of shooting, but with two crewmembers at your side on any given mission you can pick a style that you like - using an Adept to levitate enemies for Soldiers, or an Engineer to debuff enemies, or any of lots of other possibilities.
Plus, your aiming, scope stability and other combat abilities are also bound tightly to your equipment selection and choices on the level-up screen. Inventory and ability management is confusing to begin with (which is a shame given how much time you spend doing it), but along with exploring and arguing, and running and gunning, alphabetising your rifles and making sure your colleagues' grenade modifiers are appropriate to the local fauna is a silent third pillar of fun. And just as the line between the conversation system and "aggressive negotiations" is nonexistent, so is that between your toolbox and the rest.
Then there's Mass Effect 2. While it's not out until the end of January, and I've not played it yet, I can already tell you how it began, because Mass Effect told me - and you, assuming you ever bothered going to Edolus. Like a lot of the side-quest planets, Edolus begins innocuously enough - just you and the Mako Mountain Climbing Team out for a drive, homing in on a distress signal. You come out onto a plain and spot the husk of a tatty old Alliance vehicle surrounded by scattered bodies. There's a beacon. It's so blatantly a trap.
It's a trap. A Thresher Maw bursts out of the throbbing ground, mouth parting like a children's handheld windmill of doom, and spits green death in your direction. This is going to be a tough one - you may need to drive backwards and forwards holding the "shoot" button for several minutes.
Maw down, you investigate, and realise these men are the ones Admiral Kahoku was telling you about last time you visited the Citadel. When you report back to him later he promises to investigate, and it puts him on the trail of Cerberus, a human supremacist organisation. The Nick Griffins of space, they give humanity a bad name (other than "Cerberus", which is kind of cool), and yet it's them to whom you'll be going in Mass Effect 2 as you try to work out why human colonies are disappearing.
The Cerberus assignment doesn't just seed the organisation though - it implies that BioWare's promising claims about the trilogy's underlying knitting may be more 'operatic tapestry' than 'Christmas sweater'. Because you don't just hear about the Cerberus organisation in the first game - you can also go looking for them.
Mass Effect is appealing enough in the short term, but this sort of thing may well end up being the key to its long-term success as a series, if not its greatest triumph. Games in the same series have spoken to one another for ages, but generally it's just been basic stuff - a few bonus experience points if you happen to buy the latest Tiger Woods and it finds a previous save-file on your hard disk, for example. Nothing to drive over a neighbour's fire hydrant about. But an RPG where individual instalments change dramatically based on your decisions in previous ones would be something else: the theory goes that a grumpy man-soldier who shoots through the first game asking questions later and adhering to the "Renegade" path might struggle to recognise the game that a sensible, thorough, "Paragon" Adept woman is playing by the end of the third instalment.
That's why people might end up thinking the series is amazing though. For now it's just an attractive theoretical quality of the first game. Which still leaves us with the question of why people like the first game. And if you play to the end of the Cerberus missions, and write down everything that happens, for all the things I love about the game you might still be left at a loss.
Events take you to Binthu, where you discover three research facilities marked on the map. Missions in Mass Effect typically involve driving the Mako around a bit before you go indoors and do some talking and shooting, although in this case the emphasis is on violence: rocking up to the first facility, you find it's guarded by a pair of heavy guns. The Mako can handle this sort of thing, as we saw with the Thresher Maw, but what I may have glossed over somewhat is that combat in the Mako is a bit like trying to do the washing up with your feet.
The driving controls make you wonder if BioWare had ever played a game with cars in it before. The left analogue stick is so sensitive to steering that only lunar gravity saves you from barrel-rolling with every twitch, and while you can use the camera to steer, it's another matter entirely when you're asked to drive and shoot. The guns in Mass Effect overheat if you hold the button down, and the rocket towers fire at you intermittently, so what you generally settle on is lining up a broadside and then driving forwards a bit, waiting to be fired at, reversing a bit, waiting to be fired at, driving forwards a bit, waiting to be fired at, and so on, all the while trying to avoid holding "fire" for too long.
Anyway, rocket towers down, you hop out of the Mako and proceed inside. You go through a door and into an empty square room with another door on the left side. You go over to that and the mini-map indicates enemies ahead, so you get ready. In you go, and there's a big blue forcefield in the centre of a square room, with crates abound and big square pillars in each corner. Disabling the forcefield exposes some alien critters in the centre, and they come at you, as do a bunch of Cerberus researchers and soldiers who were working nearby. Following a pitched battle, you decide Admiral Kahoku isn't here, so you go outside, jump into the Mako and go to the next facility.
Two big rocket towers await you. Washing up washing up. Indoors, big square room, door on left. Grrr. Oh look, a big blue forcefield. And some critters. And some men. No Kahoku! Next facility. Two big towers. Square room. Blue forcefield. Shooting. Kahoku! He's dead. That's it. Time to go home.
It's rather cool that the origins of Mass Effect 2 potentially lie strewn across the planets Edolus and Binthu - a shady organisation conducting illegal research on aliens, their plans disrupted by your noble/selfish endeavours. It makes you wonder what else you've seen in the first game that may matter in the second, or even third, not to mention what your actions in these side missions may yet determine. But they could at least have changed the room layouts a bit. And why is it always the third facility that has Kahoku in? Are they taking the piss? These are far from isolated problems, either. Those facilities? All the underground facilities in the game - in the galaxy - look much the same. And did I mention the lifts?
In equally traditional BioWare fashion, there's also so much back-story here that the devs can't help letting you gorge on it - to a fault. Conversations go on for ages as Shepard makes all sorts of background inquiries, segueing from an acid-tongued interrogation of a smuggler into asking directions or inquiring about the local harvesting arrangements in the same exchange. You're also encouraged to read up on everything you encounter in the Codex, with its Public Service Message narration. The fact that BioWare's universe is imaginative and interesting and not just blue horse blue horse is great, but it's also a bit of a hindrance and makes it difficult to maintain pace. Playing through it a second time, skipping all the extraneous fluff, it's sharp and aggressive; an intergalactic race against time to get to a fight against the odds. There's got to be a way to have both.
Perhaps Mass Effect 2 will discover it. It doesn't really matter if it doesn't though, because I will play it anyway. I want Wrex to continue commending me for shooting people. I want to teach Ash not to be a massive racist, even if she's just reacting to the stigma provoked by her grandfather's military "failings". I also hope Matriarch Benezia isn't really dead, even though she blatantly is, because she would have been a better villain than the ultimately slightly predictable Saren.
And in the meantime, I will play it again, because it really does make a difference what you do. A lot of games have different alignments, but most just tell all the people in the universe to respond to you according to a global stat. In Mass Effect, you can be a total dick on one planet and a saint on the next, and this does inform your character development, but it's also reflected in localised responses. There's much I look forward to seeing again in Mass Effect 2, but you can keep your sexy tattoo lady, because it's the ripples and waves cast by what I did in the first game that have me most excited.
But I will miss the lifts. Those load screens better be amazing.
Mass Effect is out now on PC and Xbox 360. The Xbox 360 version is on Games on Demand too. However, the PC one has a slightly better interface and your PC can probably run it, which the 360 barely can.