Review by Tearfang

"Who needs Final Fantasy when they have this?"

Salutations, and welcome to my review of Bioware's first installment of the sci-fi epic, Mass Effect. I began following news of this game when it first became available, and as a fan of KOTOR and Jade Empire, I knew that I had to get myself a copy of this next work of brilliance from their studio.

Allow me to begin by saying something related to a magazine I receive monthly, which is Game Informer. Halo 3 received the expected 10/10 rating in their latest issue, yet Mass Effect came just shy of the mark with a 9.75. This, I believe, was a gross error on their part. This game should have gotten the ten, not the Master Chief's latest exploits (which are good, but not perfection).

On to the actual review.

Graphics: 10/10- This is the sort of game that almost demands you have an HDTV in order to play. With a lower resolution set (like mine), there's a small amount of draw-in hesitation. Every emotional facial expression one might expect on real human beings (and aliens) is perfectly conveyed in this game, even with Tali, the Quarian. Though it is difficult to tell her exact emotions since her face is shielded by the helmet she constantly wears, her body language is perfectly articulated to let you know how she feels, combined with her tone of voice. No other game I've played in recent memory had the narrative power and visual finesse to accomplish such a thing. The enemies in this game, be they organic or synthetic (husks, geth), are marvelously rendered, and absolutely compelling in their sci-fi authenticity. Explosions are given their proper due with balls of flames and roiling smoke that drifts into the sky, and even the weapons and strange inhabitants of some of the undiscovered worlds are rendered powerfully (I'm referring to the monkeys, mostly). The only point of distraction, however, is the odd habit the game has of sometimes allowing enemies to clip themselves into walls, making easy prey, but detracting somewhat from the glory of it all.

Sound: 9/10- The voice acting in this game is some of the best, and that's due in no small part to the high caliber of script writing that went into forming this 30 hour beast. What's more, for me at least, I felt that the pitch and tone of the aliens' voices matched nearly perfectly, with a handful of exceptions. I think it's great that the Elcor make qualifying statements before speaking (Statement, Query, Entusiastic Reply), and that's largely because this references to one of Bioware's greatest characters in my book, HK-47, from the KOTOR games. The odd sounds that the Geth emit when they engage you in combat are suitably freaky to send a small chill up your spine, and this is especially true when you have a handful of their Juggernauts pelting in your direction, guns a-blazing. Add to this the fact that the main character actually speaks in this game, and two very big inclusions to the cast (Seth Green as Joker and Lance Henrickson as the Fifth Fleet Commander), and you have near perfection in the sound department. Another good resource Bioware used was getting the voice actor who portrayed Carth Onassi in the Kotor games to do the voice of Kaiden Alienko. I would have liked the commentary your characters give during elevator transitions to be a little louder, but that's a small complaint.

Gameplay: 9/10- Where to begin here. I'm not a shooter game kind of guy. I bought this game on the premise of it being an RPG, but I knew going in that there were shooter elements and run-and-gun control. However, this game is (on Normal, at least) accessible even to someone like me, whose standard fare is stuff like Blue Dragon or, for twitch games, Ninety-Nine Nights. Issuing simple commands to your squad is handled on the d-pad, and is uncomplicated. However, the AI of your teammates sometimes doesn't keep up. They'll get caught on something, or, more often, fire blindly into whatever cover I've placed them behind (aim at spot and up on the d-pad) because they aren't targeting a specific enemy (right on the d-pad).

Every component of your arsenal can be upgraded, and this is just awesome. The upgrades all have their ups and downs, and that's another great thing. You have to choose where each squad member is going to excel, and stick with it if you want to have a prayer later in the game. For instance, using phasic rounds in your gun for an ammo upgrade helps bypass shields, but it reduces the actual damage being done. You could go with anti-armor rounds, but this only helps against synthetics like Geth and Husks. What about the crazed biotics in their compound, organic opponents? Balancing out your strategy ahead of time is key.

One small gripe, and it keeps this section from being perfect, and it has to do with just that; balance. At the middle levels, I started just adding shield bypass ability to my ammo, pumping up my detection with a high end combat radar, and using my Marksman ability to increase my damage and accuracy. This combination led to my sweeping through waves of Geth without much trouble, even on foot in sections intended for the Mako (a combat tank you get to explore the uncharted worlds with). As a Vanguard (mix of combat and biotic abilities) with a top-end lift ability, I was able to take almost any foe, render them defenseless in the sky, and target them for my squad mates to frag to hell and breakfast while I swept the rest of the goons without prejudice.

Story: 10/10- I won't ruin anything for those of you who haven't played this masterpiece yet, but suffice it to say, this game does a perfect job of sucking you into this world. Some hard choices are forced on you in the later portions of the game, and these might do something to you that no other game has before- ellicit a genuine emotional reaction. The Grand and Final decision (those of you who have played the game through will know what I'm talking about) at the facility on Vermire made me want to scream out, leap into the game, and strangle Sarren with my own two hands. As a male character trying to follow the romantic sub-plot, I didn't want to base this decision on that alone. However, any time I'd taken the male Final decision candidate on a mission, he just got the crap kicked out of him. However, he possessed the higher rank, and logically, should have been the one to save. You see, I actually had to sit back and think for about five minutes before I came to a decision, and remembered this was a video game I was playing, not a real life-and-death decision.

There isn't as much clear cut good and evil in this game as there was in KOTOR. In that, you could pretty much tell who was 'good' and who was 'evil'. Mass Effect introduces a hell of a lot of shades of gray. You might want to do the noble and right thing in any of these situations, but later on it might just bite you in the ass, especially when you consider that the further installments in this series will allow you to load your save file from the previous game to alter events taking place in each installment. Your decision in one crucial moment, which might seem trivial at the time, could have wide-ranging consequences later on. You can't always be the good guy. Rather, you can, but sometimes it'll get you into even more trouble than taking the hard line once in a while. Remember, you're a Marine.

And this doesn't even cover all of the information available to introduce the various species of the galaxy and their backgrounds, histories and cultures. The Codex is a wonderful thing, and I spent at least three of my game hours absorbing every bit of info, taking in every conversation, that would give me more information.

Replay value: Extremely high. Think about it, especially if you're already playing this game. Not only can you change your gender, your class, and your alignment (paragon versus renegade), but you can make a small handful of different choices that might alter the future fate of the traverse forever (meaning future installments and how they'll play out). Example: If you finish the game with a save file where you destroy the Rachni Queen, and later find out that they might have become your allies, wouldn't you want the chance to see how they'd help if given the chance? Or in the instance of the Final Decision on Vermire, wouldn't you like to know how either choice will perform in the next installment of the story? The combinations are baffling.

Conclusion: I will finish by saying a few things that might shock and appall some of you. Firstly, after having played this game, I no longer care about Final Fantasy and what new directions the series takes. I don't care. I don't mind if no more Shadow Hearts games are made (and they're some of my favorites!). As long as I get more of the story of Commander Shepherd and his/her exploits, and find out more about the traverse, I think I'll be quite happy for some time to come. More than Oblivion, more than Halo 3, and more than GTAIV, this is the reason to own an Xbox 360.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 12/03/07

Game Release: Mass Effect (US, 11/20/07)

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