Developer BioWare has always been at the forefront of progressive storytelling in games, so it's no surprise that Mass Effect's story is one of its best yet. It's got a unique take on the chase-the-bad-guy-across-the-universe plot, and just when you think you've got everything figured out, the game throws you yet another surprise. BioWare has created a politically charged universe with an exhaustive backstory and filled it with a bunch of interesting, multifaceted characters. Combined with an exciting and unique combat mechanic, it makes for a fun and absorbing experience that you'll want to see through to the end, just to see how everything turns out--even if the game isn't perfect by any means. In fact, it's surprising that so many small annoyances and glitches made their way into a game of such general high quality. Still, most players will be able to look past them and enjoy Mass Effect for what it is: A terrific role-playing game with great production values and fun, exciting action.
The story is one of BioWare's best.
As in most role-playing games of this nature, you begin by customizing an avatar. You play as Commander Shepard, potential savior of the galaxy, but there's plenty of room to mold him or her as you see fit. Physical customization isn't as deep as you'll find in something like last year's Oblivion, but the system is relatively robust, letting you choose from a variety of preset features, and even letting you round everything off with a scar. Shouldn't every badass commander have one? Of course, you'll also choose a class. In this case, you've got six to choose from, each with various strengths in combat, tech, and biotics (Mass Effect's sci-fi equivalent of magic). More impressively, you will select a few autobiographical tidbits--and these choices aren't just for show. Through the course of the game, characters will refer to your past, and your resulting dialogue options will allow you to react to their comments with various degrees of humility, wistfulness, and scorn.
The narrative is pure space opera, yet there's no denying that BioWare has created a tale of surprising depth and appeal. Surprise number one: Humanity is not the political center of the universe. We don't have a seat on the galactic council, or even a representative on the Spectre squad, an elite group of special forces whose members are given wide berth to solve political and military challenges as they see fit. In the meantime, a Spectre has gone rogue, ransacking ancient artifacts and unleashing the violent, robotic Geth race on an unsuspecting galaxy. As Shepard, you pursue him across the Milky Way, visiting one alien world after another and discovering the fallen Spectre's intentions along the way. He isn't the best villain ever created: He disappears for the bulk of the game, which makes finding him feel less urgent than it should. Still, the journey to the game's exciting end is one worth taking.
In true BioWare fashion, you'll be navigating through loads of dialogue trees throughout the game, and how you respond can have life-or-death consequences--though you shouldn't take that to mean that you need to brood over every decision. Oftentimes, multiple choices have the same result, a somewhat transparent trick that makes it seem as though you have a lot more impact on the conversation than you really do. At important junctures, however, your decisions can affect how missions play out. You can turn friend to foe, console (or devastate) a suicide-attack victim, or exploit evil corporate executives for fun and profit. And it all plays out amid an intricate melodrama of political intrigue and racial prejudice, and in a galaxy populated by fascinating, complex characters. There are pages ripped from the Star Wars and Star Trek playbooks, certainly, but quirks such as the interesting speech patterns of the overly-formal Hanar alien race, or the nomadic structure of the Quarian flotilla--a galactic government that's always on the move--make Mass Effect's version of the Milky Way a unique one.
When navigating dialogue, you'll also be earning paragon or renegade points, which is the usual light-versus-dark system we've come to expect from the developer. Unlike in Knights of the Old Republic, however, your decisions here will not affect any abilities you have. However, the intricate relationship between the story and the game proper means that these decisions still affect gameplay--though that effect is usually an indirect one. More interestingly, your paragon and renegade meters are separate, rather than being at opposite sides of a single spectrum. It's a subtle but effective choice that lends itself to Mass Effect's shades-of-gray fiction, where light and dark aren't mutually exclusive.
The main quest starts you on a huge space station called the Citadel, but takes you across a small series of planets before reaching the game's exciting final moments. Not that you're stuck with the main story, since you can pick up a good number of side quests along the way. Some of them are simple and relatively self-contained, while others will send you across the galaxy to uncivilized planets and derelict spaceships. This involves bringing up your galactic map, selecting a destination system, and going planetside to kick some alien butt. There are multiple regions to choose from, and often multiple solar systems within them, but while that sounds intimidating, it's not nearly as mind-bogglingly huge as you would expect. In any given system, you can usually only land on one planet--and on each of these planets, there are usually only a few things to do before you get to your destination. More surprisingly, once you've finished the mission, there's never a reason to return. Aside from the annoying thresher maws (more on these later), there aren't any hostile indigenous creatures, so once you've dispatched your foes and scavenged for loot, it's time to move on.
Thresher maw battles are exciting--and annoying.
When you first land on a planet, you drive around in a rover called the Mako. The thing's possibly the most resilient vehicle ever created in a game. You get dropped onto the surface from hundreds of feet in the air and drive up impossibly steep mountains without much difficulty. Too bad that the driving portions are undoubtedly the weakest of the game. The weird bouncy nature of the rover and the fact that gravity is the same on every world (even Earth's own moon) are both suspect issues, though they don't really affect gameplay.
The rocky planetary design and Mako combat mechanics can really be a downer when combined together. You can spray machine gun fire or launch shells at your foes, and it works fine, provided you are on the same level as your enemies. However, the Mako's turret, for whatever reason, can't move up or down. The result is that bullets don't necessarily land where your crosshair is, so if you're on higher terrain or your target is too close, those endless clips you're unloading are useless (though you can hit enemies above you without difficulty). It's sometimes maddening, since in many situations, the enemy base is nestled below you in a crevasse, and you're forced to either get in closer (often a death sentence in an area swarming with tough foes like the robotic Geth colossi), or get out and try to take on the toughest foes of the game on foot. Be careful if you get out of the Mako in areas like these though, since your adventuring party can slide into a deep valley and get stuck very easily, which forces you to either return to the Normandy (your ship) and return to the planet, or reload a saved game.
The other issue here is with the aforementioned thresher maws, which are sandworm-like beings that burst from the ground, spew deadly goo at you, submerge, and emerge elsewhere. These encounters can be really exciting, since the things are tough to take down and keep you on the move. The problem is that the game doesn't check on the Mako's position before respawning the thresher maw. Multiple times, we had the creature emerge from directly underneath us, which either resulted in an unavoidable insta-kill or getting stuck in the thresher's geometry while the camera jittered madly. That's just not fun, and you will find yourself avoiding flat expanses on planets just to avoid these problems.