That's "One Mighty Fun Game," for those of you paying attention. Since I finally got around to purchasing an Xbox 360, I've been playing video games again. A lot. Like, way more than is healthy for one to do. And since I'm one of those opinionated bastards who has to talk about what I think of everything from the Presidential race to precisely what cosmetic products give my hair the most desirable texture, I figured I might start a series in which I will tell you all about what I think of the video games I'm playing. That way, on those occasions when you find yourself pondering, "I wonder what video games Danny's been playing, and I wonder what he thinks of them," you can just head on over to http://newsvine.com/omfg and find out. I'm sure you're all dying to know. Without further ado, here's what I think about Mass Effect.
Have you ever played an action RPG?
You know what, I'm just going to go ahead and stop you there. There are two correct answers to that question. "Yes, I have played Mass Effect," or, "No." If you have not played Mass Effect, you do not even know the proper definition of the term "action RPG," let alone have you ever experienced one.
Sure, you might have played BioWare's previous game which was billed as an "action RPG," Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. It was a fantastically deep, huge, long, epic and beautiful RPG. But the "action" element? You clicked on an enemy and watched the two figures politely take turns hitting each other while dice rolls and skill modifiers determined how much damage would be done to either character each turn. If that's action, then Dungeons & Dragons is a sporting event of olympic proportions.
Or maybe you've played one of those games with lots and lots of ball-busting action while—as a sort of afterthought—your character gained levels. If that's role-playing, then petting puppies is a good idea for a video game.
These types of games are action RPGs like...you know what? Enough with the analogies. They're just not.
Mass Effect, on the other hand, is an Action RPG. With a capital "A." (And, incidentally, a capital "R," "P," and "G," as well, but that's nothing out of the ordinary, as it's an acronym and acronyms are generally capitalized. But I digress.)
You become Commander Shepard. You are a distinguished member of the Alliance military. You are captain of the advanced spacecraft Normandy. You go wherever the hell you want in the Milky Way. You do whatever the hell you want. You can have unique personal and professional relationships with every important member of your crew. Or you can pretty much ignore them. You can be a hardass. You can be compassionate and selfless. You will make decisions which drastically alter the outcome, right up to the last few moments of the game. You can go on sidequests or you can stick to the primary campaign. You can be a soldier, a biotic (think "mage," but in a sci-fi setting), or a tech, or various combinations of the three. But these are things which you probably already know about if you've read any other reviews of Mass Effect. What you may not have heard a whole lot about is the combat.
Whenever you find it necessary, you can tap a button to pull your weapon, and the game seamlessly transforms itself into a really fun—and often intense—tactical third-person-shooter. You'll need to use cover and issue commands to your teammates (from general ones such as "Form up on me," "Go there," or "Hold here" to specific ones such as "Use attack x on enemy a") in order to stay alive. You have a number of weapons to choose from, such as pistols, assault rifles, shotguns and sniper rifles, all of which have damage and accuracy ratings which, along with how you've allotted your skill points, determine how effective they will be against your enemies. Adding even more depth is an elaborate equipment upgrades system in which you can use acquired items to, for example, improve the accuracy of your weapon or load up specialized rounds which are more effective against organic or synthetic targets. You also have a number of abilities which you can use, which vary depending on your class specialization. You can temporarily enhance your standard combat functions (like beefing up your shield system or allowing yourself to hold down the trigger on your assault rifle for a longer period of time before the weapon overheats), use telekinesis-like abilities to make your enemies levitate, hurl them across the environment, or stand frozen and unable to move, or you can use "tech" abilities to cause machines and robots to malfunction, harm themselves or turn on one another.
Most importantly, however, the combat engine is not wasted on boring or uninvolving firefights. In each leg of the main story campaign you'll have to use smart tactics married with raw skill to fight through scores of challenging enemies in well-designed environments. There are rarely clear distinctions between "grunts" and "bosses," but certain sequences will definitely be a lot more difficult than others, and you'll often find yourself having to load saved games and approach a combat situation from several different angles before you find the right strategy to prevail. These individual combat missions can sometimes rival the depth, intensity and length of the entire single-player campaigns of some other action games.
Throughout all of this, as with the more standard role-playing segments of the game, you'll be paging through dialogue screens and making decisions critical to the overall strategy and outcome of the missions. While it might seem that these occasional breaks in the action could get tedious, phenomenal character models, animations and voice acting keep you riveted and totally immersed in the experience. You'll hardly notice that you just went from shooting the shit out of some robots to having a discussion with a game character. In fact, even being the diehard action fan that I am, I actually found myself looking forward to these character interactions rather than just trying to get them over with to continue with the shooting. These segments keep you locked into the storyline and make the action gameplay relevant. You never feel like you're just killing stuff for the hell of it. Every action has a purpose, and this purpose, the goal toward which you are striving, is always in the back of your mind as you're mowing down foes.
Most of your time spent inbetween these missions takes place on the Normandy, where you'll discuss the outcome of the last mission and decide on a strategy for the forthcoming campaign with your crew. You can give regular status reports to your bosses, the Council, and seek their guidance, or you can tell them to go fuck off and continue to do things your way. You'll also occasionally receive comm transmissions imploring you and your crew to help in tasks which range from carrying out search and rescue operations on uncivilized planets to shutting down a rogue Virtual Intelligence system on the earth's moon. You can take these sidequests as you will, or you can ignore them and focus on the main storyline.
At this point—since it's as good as any other point, I suppose—I should probably tell you about how big the galaxy is. So I'll tell you. It's big. Really big. Your means of navigating on the Normandy is by walking up to the Galaxy Map—a holographic, 3-D representation of the Milky Way—choosing from a dozen or so sectors (sometimes a nebula, sometimes a star cluster), choosing from a handful of solar systems within that sector, and then choosing a planet within that system. If that sounds overwhelming, it's because it is. And the first time you bring up the Galaxy Map and find yourself staring at the Milky Way in all its glory, on a backdrop of thousands of other distant galaxies, complete with navigation points, you may find yourself drooling stupidly for just a little bit. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), it is made a little bit more manageable by the fact that there are only a dozen or so planets in the galaxy on which you can actually land, and even then, you can only usually land on them when there's a mission or sidequest active which actually calls for you to do so. Still, the illusion that you can go anywhere and do anything in your mighty ship is a powerful one, illusion though it may be.
The story which compels you through the galaxy on all these crazy, intense, action-packed, brain-wracking missions, is good. No, actually, it is not good. To say that the story is "good" is to say that the U.S. development of the atomic bomb was a "minor inconvenience" to the citizens of Hiroshima, Japan. The story is amazing. If this game was a sexual escapade, the dialogue and role-playing elements would be the foreplay, the action sequences would be the pelvic thrusting, and the story would be the orgasm. A really, really long, intense orgasm. The extent to which you can have a real, tangible effect on this storyline through your actions, inactions and decision-making is equally amazing. This along with the top-notch presentation makes Mass Effect a more immersive experience than any other work of fiction I've ever beheld; video game, film, book, or otherwise. I won't give away any of the actual plot points, but I will say that everything you've heard about it is right. There is drama. There are politics. There is romance. On occasion I found myself so emotionally invested in the story that I wound up inadvertently earning myself a handful of "renegade" points, despite my greatest efforts to stick to the straight and narrow, because some of these polygonal characters angered me to the point that I was sick of being mister Good Cop and just felt like kicking some cold, hard ass.
In short, this game is phenomenal. If I was forced to find something to nitpick about, I'd tell you that the vehicle controls can occasionally be a bit unwieldy, though this isn't as big a deal as some reviews have made it seem. In addition, you may find yourself so immersed in the gameplay that you find yourself forgetting to save your game, and this coupled with the relative lack of autosaves means that you may occasionally lose a decent chunk of progress when you die and need to reload. Fortunately this is never a huge issue, and more often it's merely a matter of time consumption, not having to struggle through a really difficult section all over again.
Mario be damned. Mario be damned and returned from the fiery pits of Sheol just so he can be damned all over again. Mass Effect is the game of the year, and it's a real shame that it had to be released in the same timeframe in which our familiar stereotypical Italian friend recovered from the disaster that was Sunshine, because I fear this means it will be largely overlooked by many gaming media outlets at the end of the year, and possibly by many gamers as well. If you haven't played this game, go buy it. If you don't have an Xbox 360, buy one of those, too. Whatever you do, don't allow yourself to miss out on this experience.
Score: 5 out of 5