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.