Latest BioWare game carefully crafts a universe for role playing

Justin Hoeger
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)


3 ½ stars

PUBLISHER: Microsoft

SYSTEM: Xbox 360

PRICE: $59.99 ($69.99 for Limited Collector's Edition)


Expectations for the science-fiction role-playing game "Mass Effect" have been formidable.

BioWare Corp., the company that made "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic" and "Jade Empire," among many other highly regarded titles, is behind "Mass Effect."

Happily, the game more than lives up to its pedigree.

The universe that has been created for "Mass Effect" is incredibly rich and textured. There are few, if any, science-fiction realities in video games that feel this tangible.

The time is 2183, a few decades after humanity uncovered ancient technology on Mars and within Pluto that allowed interstellar travel - and with it the discovery (first through a brief war of misunderstanding, then through diplomacy) of extraterrestrial intelligent life.

The bigwigs on this galactic stage are the three races on the Citadel Council. The Citadel itself is an enormous space station apparently created by the long-extinct Protheans, the same ancient race that constructed the relics used by humanity to travel to the stars.

Three races comprise the Council. There are the crafty, short-lived salarians; the wise, long-lived and technically genderless (but visually female) asari; and the fierce and noble turians, against whom humans waged that first, short war. These three species exert a strong influence over the other civilizations of the galaxy, acting as a moderating force.

The political climate is complex. The other major races of the galaxy don't quite trust the fast-expanding homo sapiens but can't deny the power and tenacity we Earthlings apparently possess in 179 years or so. Most are relatively friendly or tolerant of humanity, but some individuals harbor a burning hatred for Terran types.

And so we come to the beginning of "Mass Effect." Players take on the role of Commander Shepard (the character's look, gender, history and skills are all customizable), a member of the human Systems Alliance Military who is stationed on the Normandy, the most advanced spacecraft of our species.

At the start of the game, players choose a class for Shepard. There are three disciplines: combat, tech and biotics. The first two are fairly obvious; the third is this game's version of magic, in the form of psychic abilities.

Each character class emphasizes one of these traits or blends two of them, which affects the abilities and proficiencies Shepard can learn throughout the game. For example, only a Soldier can master the use of all weapon types while a Vanguard can wield pistols and shotguns, as well as some biotic abilities, but is lacking in tech skill.

"Mass Effect's" combat system involves real-time firefights mixed with squad action, though this is no run-and-gun shooter. Shepard and his/her band of allies have access to the same four weapon types - pistol, assault rifle, sniper rifle and shotgun - though their proficiencies and special abilities are dependent on their own classes and training. Players take cover, aim and shoot at foes, and can give simple commands to allies or freeze the action to select special abilities.

Action aside, "Mass Effect" is still a BioWare game at heart. Much time is spent talking to a vast array of characters, either to advance the main story line, learn supplemental information, take on side missions or just engage in small talk. And, of course, there's a morality system at work: Shepard can take actions that mark him as a ruthless, results-getting renegade or a silver-tongued, responsible paragon.

As in other BioWare games, the player takes an active role in each conversation. Shepard is not simply talked at; instead, the commander carries on complex interactions with the people and things he encounters.

This early part of the game does a great job of immersing a player in the game world and teaching the ropes, as Shepard searches for the evidence he needs to persuade the council to pursue Saren, a human-hating turian who seems to be commanding a dangerous race of robotic organisms called the geth.

Soon enough, Shepard is made a Spectre, a type of Citadel Council operative given carte blanche to track down and stop Saren's plan, and the game begins in earnest with Shepard's team of alien and human allies gallivanting across the galaxy in the Normandy.

There are some minor quibbles to be had with the game. High-resolution textures sometimes take a while to load into memory, leaving the mostly excellent graphics unsightly and flat for short times. The inventory system is poorly designed and organized, and can be frustrating to use, and the four types of guns make for a paltry primary weapon selection. Load times can be long and are often masked by slow elevator rides.

But "Mass Effect" is so deeply layered and carefully crafted that these problems are never more than minor distractions. The game is the first part of a planned trilogy; it's off to a great start.






Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.


A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.