Led by a horde of Final Fantasy and Diablo clones, console role playing games have arguably been stuck in a creative rut for most of the last 15 years. Recently, however, a batch of interesting new titles have emerged that have helped lead RPGs away from the slow-paced, menu-driven “Boy and ragtag band of warriors grow up/fight evil wizard” or “hack and slash everything that moves” ghetto.
A lot of the credit for the rebirth of the RPG should go to BioWare, whose Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire games combined an old school emphasis on story and dialogue with action-packed lightsaber battles and kung-fu fighting respectively. BioWare’s next step in innovation is Mass Effect for the Xbox 360, a game that successfully fuses a third-person squad shooter with role playing elements in a completely original outer space science fiction setting.
While the game has a host of serious and annoying flaws that threaten to drag it into mediocrity, Mass Effect‘s utterly engrossing plotline, incredibly detailed high-definition visuals and engaging characters and dialogue make the game an unforgettable experience.
In Mass Effect you play the role of Commander Shepard, a mid-level military officer who must pursue a rogue Spectre—the intergalactic equivalent of a CIA operative. Mass Effect‘s story is full of well-tread sci-fi clichés, but it’s written well enough that you don’t care that it’s not completely original. Much of the universe is run by a massive interstellar United Nations-type organization called, you guessed it, the Alliance. But whereas humanity is the key race in many sci-fi tales, they are the proverbial “Canada” in Mass Effect, playing a small role in the grand scheme of galactic government.
Most of the first few hours of the game is spent talking to diplomats, bartenders and regular citizens of the Alliance capital, as a sort of tutorial into this world of peculiar politics and alien races. It doesn’t take long to find that one of the major themes of Mass Effect is xenophobia and the reasons that certain species hate or mistrust the others. The beauty of it is the complex way it’s handled by the game’s writers.
Where can I get a visor like that?
In theory, it seems better to support the effort of getting humanity into the alliance’s council (the equivalent of the UN’s Security Council) but the council itself acts with some suspicion toward humans and seems to have some sort of secret agenda. It’s a credit to Bioware that they make you think critically about issues that have some relevance to a real world that sees the United States making moral choices about being part of a greater world coalition or acting out of its own interests.
It’s your decision in the game as to how you want to decide the issue, and in fact, it’s largely up to you to decide who Commander Shepard is exactly. Unlike many games, where the choices made in the character creation screen are largely cosmetic, Mass Effect allows you to choose your backstory, origin, and even your sex, and each of these things has unique effects on the dialogue and story. For example, you can decide to be a hardy survivor of a tragic incident on another planet or a street-savvy orphan from Earth who became a shoot-first badass once joining the military. As in Fable, many NPCs around the world of Mass Effect know you and your reputation and will speak about it (“Hey, weren’t you the hero of so-and-so?!”).
Picking your sex is the most drastic choice because not only do you have a different voice actor speaking the dialogue, but it changes your options for romance (and yes, the rumors are true, you can choose the path of lesbian if you pick a female) and people will react to you differently. For example, when in a seedy bar you approach a drunk former police officer. If you’re male he merely acts belligerent towards you, but if you’re female he starts out by hitting on you and making crude sexual remarks.
Thanks to the game’s wonderful dialogue and renegade/paragon moral choice system, you usually have flexibility in the way that you want to respond to such situations. If you like playing the peacemaker, you can ignore threats, but if you’re the renegade, you can threaten them yourself with violence, or sometimes just shoot them down.
The dialogue is integral to the Mass Effect experience.
Even if Mass Effect sometimes “tricks” you into thinking you have more choices than you actually do, there’s certainly enough choice such that you could play the game through a second time and experience a lot of different material.
That’s the good of Mass Effect. Combat, on the other hand, is a mixed bag.
Mass Effect utilizes a third-person squad shooter combat system that feels more like Gears of War or Ghost Recon than Dungeons and Dragons. It’s fast-paced and fun at times, especially with the use of “biotic” powers to take the place of magic, but it’s frustrating when you can’t control your squad like you’d want to. Worse, get into a decent sized firefight and the framerate drops down to near slideshow-style performance.
The more you play Mass Effect, the more you’ll find nagging problems. The inventory system can be confounding, the side mission worlds are often barren and empty, and the giant worms can insta-kill you at any moment. There were also a few times I had to restart the game because I got stuck in various environments.
It seems like Mass Effect could have used a few more months in QA before being released, but I assume they rushed it out for the big holiday season, which is a shame. With a spit shine and a few fixes, Mass Effect might have been one of the greatest video games ever made, but as it is, it’s still one of the best titles of the year.
Comparatively, old-style RPGs like Blue Dragon feel absolutely antiquated. With apologies to another famous piece of science fiction, Mass Effect may well be the final frontier of console role playing games.