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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


Mass Effect (Xbox 360)

BioWare's epic space adventure Mass Effect brings players into a brilliantly realized and evocative universe populated with dozens of interesting characters, an elaborate and engaging plot and a truly great mix of action, strategy and role playing elements. The game's real-time combat interface allows you to travel to distant planets, battle an array of creatures while maintaining complete control over your team's actions and abilities. An elaborate conversation system adds to the game's drama, though it does become a bit slow at points. It more than makes up for these flaws thanks to its incredible depth of gameplay, fantastic visual design and brilliant blend of role-playing and shooting elements. Look inside and discover why Mass Effect's near flawless production values combine to form one of the most satisfying RPG titles yet.

Based on the sterling reputation built on RPG's like Knights of the Old Republic, Texas-based developer Bioware set players' expectations very high when they announced Mass Effect, a completely original game set in a fantastically realized science fiction universe. While the game's characters and plotline might be new, many elements of the developer's previous titles are very much in evidence. Mass Effect is set several hundred years in the future and follows the adventures of a soldier named Commander Shepard, who's encountered some strange goings after a colony of humans is attacked without warning by a mysterious alien force. Returning to a central command ship known as the Citadel which serves as the headquarters of the Galaxy's ruling body. After investigating what's been going on, Shepard discovers that an alien soldier, an elite Spartan class named Sarin has gone rogue and is working with a deadly alien race known as the Reapers. Upon further inspection, it turns out that these evil beings are a biomechanical cult who appeared once before and destroyed all living beings in the galaxy. With this apparent threat, the Council grants Sherpard Spartan class and he's given control of a space cruiser the Normandy, that he uses to traverse the cosmos and try and track down Sarin before his plans can unfold. During the game, players will encounter numerous characters and can talk to them via the dialogue wheel, where you can choose your responses to each action. How you decide to communicate with the other characters plays a key role in whether they'll help you down the line, which means you can go in either hostile or friendly. This also changes your reputation and how other characters respond to you and makes things either more difficult or easier. Once you've gotten command of your ship, you can travel to other planets and explore them for clues to the rogue agent's whereabouts and plans. Each planet in the galaxy is a huge place to explore, which makes things time consuming and engrossing. Once your ship has landed, you can enter your vehicle, the Mako which has highly tuned sensors that show you to location of hostile forces. Exiting the Mako gives you more direct command with the characters and allows you to face combat on these strange worlds.

The gameplay is stays fairly faithful to the KOTOR tradition, and mixes elements of role-playing with first person action to create a fairly immersive and engrossing experience. Each area of the game offers plenty of room for exploration and most players should find plenty to do. The game has seemingly endless branching paths, and while it might seem a little bit tedious to some to fully go through everything in the game, these back stories and side quests help to flesh out the elaborate storyline, which is smartly dribbled out in small enough doses to keep you playing throughout. While you most likely won't be able to see everything the game offers in one sitting, there are many worlds and planets to explore, with numerous side quests and missions that give Mass Effect plenty of replay value. Your basic controls and functions are fairly easy to learn, and you can pull up the HUD at almost any point in the game to view your progress, check mission objectives and look on the map. When you are in the massive Citadel ship itself, going from place to place takes a lot of time, but you can mitigate this by using the mass transit system which warps you from place to place much quicker. The game's scale is enormous, though the planet missions are generally confined to a single fairly linear space, and you might need the map to understand where you are at many points. Mass Effect unfolds at a fairly steady pace once you get on the ship, with the dozen or so missions needed to complete the game offering players the opportunity to see some incredible alien worlds and meet many interesting characters on their journey. You won't spend most of your time talking and walking, since there's plenty of combat and Bioware has done an excellent job in implementing the game's extensive combat system.

Most of the action in Mass Effect takes place from a behind-the-shoulder perspective which makes for a fairly consistent interface that allows you to see where you are while providing an excellent viewpoint for combat. When you have certain weapons equipped, you can zoom in and focus your action for a more accurate shot. Switching between weapons is a fairly easy task that is accomplished almost instantly using the HUD interface. You can change any character's equipped weapon though there are moments where you are blocked from doing this, usually during the height of combat. This approach also brings up one of the more interesting aspects of Mass Effect is its three-character combat system. Instead of going at your missions alone, Mass Effect requires you to use and rely on your team-mates to get through each battle, which gives the game a solidly executed role-playing element. Most battles take place in real time which makes things much more exciting, though there is still plenty of strategy in evidence. During each battle, you can check up on your team's status instantly by calling up the HUD where all their stats are displayed in a quick view format. Its fairly easy to navigate and use, and similar in approach to many other games, so most players won't have to much trouble getting in and out. The action pauses during these sequences which allows you to manage them by using any objects in your inventory, such as med-packs and upgrades.

Adding to the sense of immersion is the fact that during each mission, you can use the d-pad to quickly and effectively command the other characters to take cover, go in with guns blazing or return to your position in order to cover you. In addition to controlling the main character Commander Shepard directly, you can also use the special abilities of your two companions in battle by calling up the HUD and selecting which weapons they'll use as well as their unique tactics. These are referred to as "Talents" and are divided into three main areas: combat, biotic and tech. Combat Talents cover areas such as shot accuracy using the various weapons, physical fitness and your shields' resistance to damage. Higher levels also allow you to purchase stronger armor and heavier weapons. If your character happens to be a Spectre, your stats in these departments rise as well. Biotic Talents give you the ability to throw and lift objects, create force fields and cause objects to fly into each other or create stasis fields where the object is disabled and unable to do damage to your characters. Tech Talents allow you to hack into computers, create mines and use damping techniques to reduce the effectiveness of your opponents' talents. Having one character of each talent is ideal and helps to balance your squad's strengths and weaknesses. As you enter combat, you're character's talent and abilities will change depending on the amount of damage they take. For example, when you're fatigued, your character will run slower and take less damage while their shot accuracy will decline. You can change and upgrade these as you play through the game, and using them to counter-balance and enemy's strength requires that you figure out their weak spot, which isn't as easy as it seems. Mass Effect's combat system does an excellent job of balancing both the real-time battles, thanks to its cool weaponry and special attacks while also adding in some strategic role-playing as well which gives the gameplay added depth. The game also lets you purchase an array of weapons and other upgrades at the various stores located throughout the planets and on the Citidel ship itself.

While the solid detailed storyline, innovative communications system and sterling gameplay mechanics are excellent, one of the major appeals of Mass Effect lies in its graphics and visual presentation. Each character, especially the main ones, features extensive facial animation which makes them look and feel almost photo-realistic. You can see the lines in their faces, look at their reactions and movements and if you squint a little, you'd think that actual living actors are playing the roles. Of course, these impressive character models wouldn't look nearly as good if you put them into bland environments. Mass Effect's look and feel is remarkably consistent, and while you can see the influence of films like Star Wars and Blade Runner in its massively scaled, yet cleanly scientific architecture, the game's overall aesthetic isn't strictly retro, as there are modern touches such as holographic touch screens and brutal sniper rifles to keep things up to date. The game's soundtrack is likewise impressive, with a rich, synthesized electronic feel that adds to its futuristic and evocative approach. Extensive attention to detail is evident throughout, from small touches like the sliding doors to the incredible scale of the planetary bases and the main ship itself, Mass Effects brings its science fiction universe to life vividly in ways that effectively showcase the game's brilliant graphics engine. You're bound to be impressed by the game's design which is as coherent and believable as any seen on any console to date, making it one of the more impressive achievements we've seen in any title to date.

Despite the fact that there are certain points where the story seems to drag along, Mass Effect is still one of the most immersive real-time role playing titles released this year. Its extensive cast of characters all bring a small piece of the larger puzzle into play, while the underlying storyline picks up momentum as you go deeper into the galaxy looking for the answers to your questions. You have some choice in how your character is perceived as the communication system plays a large role in your interaction, without feeling as stilted or phony as it could have. The game's extensive combat system is somewhat difficult to get the hang of thanks to its complexity, but most players should find that it offers a flexible and balanced approach that allows your squad to enter combat sequences with a varied arsenal at their disposal. There are some minor problems with the game that seem to rear their head from time to time, with the occasional graphical glitch or hang-up in certain sections, but from a technical standpoint, BioWare has done an admirable job in creating one of the most engrossing and engaging role playing games to appear on the Xbox 360 to date. Mass Effect allows players to experience a solidly immersive and evocative science fiction adventure that should satisfy players looking for an interesting story, tactical combat action and excellent role-playing elements. 

- Michael Palisano

Grade: A

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