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Latest BioWare game carefully crafts a universe for role playing

Justin Hoeger
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

MASS EFFECT

3 ½ stars

PUBLISHER: Microsoft

SYSTEM: Xbox 360

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

AGE RATING: Mature

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.



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