Version tested: Xbox 360
When cuddly old Bob Hoskins said that it was 'good to talk', he was trying, in his loveable Cockney kind of way, to get us to rack up enormous phone bills. He wasn't advocating that using endless exposition was the best way to get you into space fairing action RPG epic. He'd probably politely tell them to 'shut iiiiit'.
My goodness, does Mass Effect love to talk - or at least it certainly does in the first few hours, as BioWare cranks up the cinematic dial up to 11 and sets a course for the heart of sci-fi-rama. A word of warning before we get underway: if you're not someone with Babylon 5 or even Firefly box sets displayed proudly on your shelves, early encounters with this earnest 'save the galaxy' quest might feel like hard work.
But even if the thought of another galaxy saving plot has your eyes rolling, it's a credit to the talents of BioWare that, eventually, not only will you start to tolerate it, but actually start to really enjoy this blend of narrative-heavy adventuring. Whether you've got the patience to spend the time chatting between the action segments is another matter. It's certainly not a game that promises instant thrills, that's for sure. You'll need to approach the game with the relaxed mentality of someone who enjoys a good story as much as they appreciate blowing things up. If you're the sort of person who twitches every time a cut-scene comes up in a game, this definitely isn't for you.
Hairy on the inside
The game kicks off with an opportunity to shape the kind of experience you want. You can either plump for the default elite human soldier, John Shepard, or spend a few minutes fiddling with the character creation system, and this can have a distinct bearing on the style of combat you'll be capable of.
First of all, you can choose from a three main classes, each with their own speciality. So there's Soldier (Combat), Engineer (Tech) and Adept (Biotic). Needless to say, the default soldier class makes it a whole lot easier to go in all guns blazing, with better health, the ability to wear better armour and access to the full range of weapons. Engineers, meanwhile, have a more hands-off approach, with the ability to heal the party and disable enemy's weapons and shields. And finally the Adept have a more Jedi-esque way of dealing with matters in hand, with the ability to lift enemies high into the air, or temporarily paralyse them.
But if you fancy choosing characters which lie somewhere between two classes, you also have the choice of Infiltrator (Combat/Tech), Vanguard (Biotic/Tech) and Sentinel (Biotic/Tech) - but, as handy as it is to have a character with multiple capabilities, you'll have to wrestle with the fact that they aren't quite as good at the true specialists. To add a personal touch, you can also customise the character's facial appearance by messing around with a familiar slider-based system with predictably hilarious results. Here, you can tweak their jawline, lips, nose, hair, and so on, to create the ugliest, scar-faced pinhead the galaxy has ever seen. Or, if you're in a rush to save the galaxy from traitorous sods, you could just dive straight into proceedings with the chiselled boy band escapee John Shepard and be done with it. Your call.
From there, the game follows your galactic adventures aboard the SSV Normandy on the trail of the up-to-no-good Saren, and try and put a stop to his plans to utilise an ancient threat. Following a get-to-know-you wander around the confines of your swanky ship, your first taste of the action side of the game kicks off on Eden Prime to check out some curious shenanigans. Feeling not too dissimilar to grizzled old squad-based action adventure Brute Force, there's an initial sense of mild disappointment as you and your two comrades run around lush environments, unloading your assault rifle into the clueless Geth AI forces. Visually, it's well up to scratch, but at the cost of a pretty poor frame rate, rather unsatisfying combat, and an enemy which doesn't really put up much of a concerted fight. The first impressions certainly don't suggest Mass Effect should be talked about as a must-have game, but we pushed on in the hope that it could develop in to something a bit more meaty.
So, with standard two-stick, third-person controls, it's all pretty easy to get to grips with from the off, but with a couple of tweaks here and there to differentiate it from the standard run-and-gun action fodder. One thing you'll immediately note in among all this gun-toting is that all of your weapons have unlimited ammo, but with the trade-off of having to keep a close eye on the weapon's heat dissipation. With the lower-level weapons, in particular, you can't just wander around spraying bullets and expect to get away with it, so combat turns into a game of fire and retreat, as you learn to adapt to firing in steady, careful bursts. If you don't, your weapon becomes completely unusable for ten seconds or so - often with dire consequences if an enemy is charging at you.
Another noteworthy design decision is the fact that you can carry your entire arsenal at once, but can only quick-select two. If, say, you decide you want to switch to a shotgun, then you have to hold down the left bumper, and this pauses the action, brings up a weapon selection ring and enables you to make an instant call on not only your own currently selected weapon, but your two squad-mates as well. More significant, though, are each character's special abilities, which you can select in the same way from the game's 'Power Wheel', which is accessible from the right bumper. Shepard, for instance, can make himself invincible for a few seconds, or revive downed team mates with his Unity ability. Every time you select an ability, it recharges over time, so you have to pick and choose the right time to pick one. Alternatively, the game lets you get by just fine without it, and your squaddies can be left to decide for themselves which ability to use and when. Again, your call - there's no real penalty to not micro-managing every combat situation, but it's there as an option if you want it.
Likewise, the game's experience system offers a great deal of choice over whether to distribute talent points whenever you level up, or leave the game to do it for you. For those of you that demand full control over each and every character's abilities, that's an option, or if you just want the computer to handle the AI but leave you to look after Shepard's development, that's possible too. Either way, the game rewards every kill and significant deed with XP, and, in time, your abilities across multiple disciplines will rise - both in combat terms and how successfully you're able to interact with the game's many NPCs.
As you'd expect from a BioWare title, character interaction is a massive part of the game, and helps give the game a far greater narrative depth than practically anything else on the 360. The new, refined dialogue system isn't quite the one that was described to the press during development, but nevertheless allows you to seamlessly and intuitively build up a conversation based on your overall attitude. For instance, the choices are usually based around being cooperative, middle of the road or hostile and intimidating, and the path you take during these chats can either work for or against you. There's often no right or wrong thing to do, ultimately, but your choices contribute towards your paragon or renegade ratings - with Achievements for being extreme in either direction.
Skip to the end...
While it's true that conversations can drag on a little bit when compared with your average videogame, the more you involve yourself in the events and actions in the game, the more you start to enjoy the characters in the game, and the less you resent having a little natter. A little investment of time in the Mass Effect world goes a long way, as it starts to erode the resistance you might have towards the cast, the storyline and the serious tone of the whole thing. Possibly the biggest mistake is that the game tries to throw you into that world too heavily too soon. For example, putting you in the confusing labyrinth of the Citadel early in the game doesn't help draw you in at all, with far too many non-plot-based missions offered to your before you've got a real handle of what the main game's all about.
You can literally spend hours just wandering around the central Citadel 'city' before it even dawns on you to get on with the main quest - and with so many characters to interact with, you may feasibly only have spent about 15 minutes of the first few hours of the game firing a gun in anger. With a bit more prodding from the game to move things along, it would have definitely helped draw more people into what it's really about, rather than just leaving you to your own devices, trudging around a space city chatting. As useful as the menu (and map) system becomes, at no stage does BioWare stop to explain this to the player. Players of lesser patience would surely give up, and that's a shame.
Once you really get to grips with what Mass Effect wants from you, it all slots into place brilliantly. You've essentially got the option to go off and do all these little non-essential sub-missions in various far-flung corners of the galaxy, or check out your journal and see where to head to next. Once you've set your course, you generally get dropped into the planet in your six-wheeled Mako vehicle, drive around for a bit and blast any Geth you come across.
Feeling like a Halo out-take, it's all a bit counter-intuitive to control (and liable to make the camera freak out if you go places it doesn't like), but with a built-in cannon and machine gun, it's often a whole lot easier and more effective to take out massive turrets and rocket-wielding Geth troopers than trying to do it on-foot. Quite often, though, you don't really have a choice, and you'll be forced to get out and take the fight to the Geth, bypassing security, opening gates or going into buildings.
As you might reasonably expect from a game with RPG leanings, the more you play it, the more fun it becomes. Your weapons get better, more accurate, less wobbly, more heat resistant, and enemies become correspondingly more challenging. From the rather rubbish initial encounters, the whole thing becomes far more involving, and the more you level up, the more you want to see how far you can go - even to the point of taking on the sub missions you'd previously overlooked.
In tandem with this is how much you start to care about the characters you take out with you. Without realising, you'll spend time tinkering with their loadout to make sure they've got the best equipment possible, ensuring that each has it own upgrades. And rather than just being mildly impressed at how pretty the game is, each new planet offers its own specific visual treats - some of the artwork must surely among the best we've been treated to. The facial detail is also, at times, absolutely wonderful, and adds no end to keeping you immersed during all the narrative segments. In terms of raw atmosphere, Mass Effect is a game that will really get under your skin - not just in the way that it creates a true sense of place to the locations, but in many other ways, notably the way the excellent soundtrack from Jack Wall adds greatly to the sense of drama as it unfolds. As with a lot of big-budget games of late, the efforts that have gone into making the whole thing as grand and cinematic as possible haven't gone to waste. Mark Meer as the male Shepard, Seth Green as Joker and Kimberly Brooks as Ashley are just a few of the voice-over highlights of a uniformly high quality effort from the cast.
That said, there's a feeling that BioWare was a little too ambitious for its own good at times. Some of the frame-rate issues, while not crippling, are certainly wince-worthy enough to make you wonder whether the game is truly ready. Halo 2/Gears of War-style texture pop-in is also rife throughout, and perhaps shows some the limitations of the 360 not having a hard disk as standard. Also, as has been pointed out elsewhere, just why are the lifts so sloooooow throughout this game? The loading times aren't exactly bad in general, but sometimes the way you have to wait for mundane things like that to happen are strange, to say the least - not to mention boring. Also, what happened to the AI? Most of the time it's just plain dim, just standing around waiting to be shot, or charging idiotically at you. There's never the same feeling of satisfaction when you find yourself cutting a swathe through the hordes with barely any effort.
Forced to stumble towards a conclusion, I'd say that despite the niggles, Mass Effect is most definitely a great game with an awful lot going for it - but one that doesn't quite deserve unquestioning praise. For what it achieves in delivering a compelling narrative and wonderful atmosphere, BioWare deserves a huge amount of credit, as there are few games that come anywhere near it in this regard. The dialogue system, and the impact it has on individual missions and the game as a whole is exceptional, adding greatly to the potential replay value. Where it doesn't quite hit the mark for me is in the action stakes. Although it underpins the game with all sorts of excellent ideas that ought to make it a deeper, more intelligent and immersive experience, the simple truth is that the minute-to-minute combat simply isn't as intense and involving as you'd expect from a game in 2007. Throw in some grumbles about the somewhat unoptimised state of the frame-rate, texture pop-in and v-syncing terrors, and it's a game that just falls short of our expectations. An eight, then, but a good one...
8 / 10