Review By: Nick Arvites
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I have a love/hate relationship with RPG titles. I love playing them, as I enjoy being submersed into a good story. Deep plots in games are really a good changeup from the standard fare I usually find myself playing (action titles), and sometimes I just like a melodramatic game. However, I’ve found myself just not enjoying most of the RPG offerings from Japan (read: Square Enix) because they’ve become — at least in my opinion — contrived gaming (and animé) clichés. I’ve played through most of the Final Fantasy games that have been released, and I just have been less and less impressed with each installment (with the exception of Final Fantasy XII) over the years. Compare Square Enix’s offerings of late to those of BioWare Corp., one of the big players in the North American RPG world. They were behind the critically acclaimed Baldur’s Gate series on the PC, the critically acclaimed and better than George Lucas’ prequels Knights of the Old Republic, and the critically acclaimed martial arts epic Jade Empire.
Due to that track record, BioWare immediately grabbed my attention when they announced that they were making a sci-fi RPG set in their own universe. This game, Mass Effect, was obviously a huge effort by the team. Prior to Jade Empire, BioWare had mainly handled licensed properties in their RPGs. The Baldur’s Gate series and Neverwinter Nights were both set in an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and used the rules from that franchise. Knights of the Old Republic was, of course, part of sci-fi industry giant Star Wars’ vast universe. As a result, Mass Effect presented a daunting task, as original sci-fi universes are hard to create. The top two examples, Star Wars and Star Trek, took decades to establish a firm universe. BioWare has managed to do exactly that with Mass Effect however, creating a compelling and deep science fiction universe.
The universe in Mass Effect feels familiar, yet alien in the same sense. The human characters still act like humans should, complete with that ever—present literary theme of the human spirit. In Mass Effect, we enter into the story 30 years after First Contact (and the ensuing wars). Humanity is striving to become a bigger player on the galactic stage, which is centered around the Galactic Counsel stationed on a space station known as The Citadel. The Citadel, and much of the technology allowing interstellar travel, is actually an ancient relic from a long-vanished civilization known as the Protheans. Mass Effect’s genius is immediately apparent, as the alien races encountered actually look good, and with one exception (the Geth), the races don’t feel like they’ve been essentially ripped out of other universes. The creature design ranges from “normal” aliens to downright strange and decisively not-human ones. The Geth, as previously mentioned, are the worst offenders in borrowing elements from other universes. They have a bit of Borg (Star Trek) mixed with some Cylon (classic Battlestar Galactica), and they serve as the primary antagonist army. Outside of that one example though, the rest of the races look great and fit in with the universe without winding up looking like a cheap clone of an existing series.
The shining example as to how deep BioWare made this universe though is the Codex. The Codex is an encyclopedia to the Mass Effect universe, and it is filled out as you discover things through your journey. This option isn’t required, but it does show the dedication taken to craft a well thought out, deep, and expansive universe.
Mass Effect follows the story of Commander Shepard, a human Marine, who is sent spiraling into a series of events that culminate with the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance. Before starting the game, players are given the option of creating their own personalized Commander Shepard or of using the stock character as shown in the trailers. The stock Shepard is a Soldier class who left his street gang on Earth to enlist and was the sole survivor of a mission gone wrong. If that’s not appealing, you can change aspects of his background. You can originate from space, colonies, or Earth and you can choose from a list of classes with differing abilities. The background, unlike many games, actually matters. Different backgrounds get different dialog options, and characters will treat you slightly different depending on your background (or sex).
Classes are an interesting mix, mainly because you have no basis for what the differing abilities actually do. Soldier classes are easy enough. They specialize in combat and not much else. Biotics are essentially telepaths. They can lift, throw or manipulate gravitational fields to damage/trap enemies. Technological experts act as engineers. They can overload enemy weapons and shields as well as control AIs. As you play, classes are either focused entirely into one path, or created as a hybrid. Mainly, you’ll see hybrids allowing biotic/tech users to use more weapons or up to medium armor. Soldiers are the only class that can access heavy armor. As far as which class is “the best,” that’s entirely a player determination. If you want to be a support character and let your NPC team handle most of the firefights, consider going with a biotic focus. However, there are characters available to your party that can supplement whatever you choose.
Posted: 2007-11-19 18:43:14 PST