Sliding block puzzles. With hindsight, that should have been the first clue that something was up with Mass Effect. It certainly does a good job of pretending to be an RPG, with all the stats-based character development, combat and inventory management you'd expect, and it goes out of its way to convince you that it is actually, thank you very much, an RPG. It makes perfect business sense when you consider that the developers, BioWare, have a platinum-clad reputation as purveyors of the world's best RPGs. No marketing department worth their weight in BMWs is going to put out a BioWare title without stamping 'RPG' all over it.
Sliding block puzzles, though. They're cunningly designed as nuclear reactors, computer security systems and electronic gate openers, but if you're moving that over there, which puts this out of position until that bit is put there - it's a sliding block puzzle. And if sliding block puzzles scream one thing, it's adventure game. We spent a good few hours with Mass Effect wondering why it all felt so... wrong. The character development was rudimentary, the combat rough and unfinished, inventory management bafflingly unwieldy and it all felt slightly bent out of shape. It was only when we realised that the RPG elements were almost irrelevant to the story - the adventure - taking place, that everything clicked and we were spirited away on one of the most accomplished and professional slabs of storytelling we've yet encountered on any gaming platform.
Before we get to the good stuff, let's scrape those RPG barnacles off the prow of the good ship Mass Effect. Inventory management goes out of its way to stop you doing what you want to - which, in an RPG, is to kit out your character with an optimum arrangement of battle-pants, boomsticks and delightful hats. Mass Effect unhelpfully squirrels all your stuff away into individual compartments, and puts those compartments several clicks deep. It's tiresomely difficult to get a clear overview of what your party is carrying and whether or not that widget buried at the bottom of your backpack is better than the one currently dangling around your neck. Here's the thing to keep in mind, though: it doesn't matter.
Similarly, the combat initially comes across as the kind of underwhelming third-person shooter that any number of D-grade developers pump out twice a week. It's no overstatement to say that our reaction after the first few battles was something like "Really?" It's a long way from being actively bad but it's certainly nothing that will thrill anyone who's played anything vaguely shooty since the original Half-Life was released. It does become much more interesting as the game develops and the increased difficulty of the enemies means you can start to make real use of the tactical HUD that pops up if you hold down the space bar. It even rubs itself attractively up against the notion of being flat-out exciting in the game's final climactic moments. Overall, though, Mass Effect's combat doesn't often rise above being routinely average. The driving segments of the game, involving the Mako and its wildly over-enthusiastic suspension, are a similarly okay-ish distraction.
Character development is a little more successful. You get to choose a gender, design your own face with an impressively flexible character designer, choose a character class and then gradually level that character up in the time-honoured tradition of killing stuff, getting XP and spending points on various character traits. It works exactly as expected but does feel a little removed from proceedings. As in, the game felt designed to make sure we were at a particular level at a particular time and we never felt like there was the remotest possibility of making a bad decision when dishing out the points. It's not quite 'on rails' character development, but we can't say that our particular space hero felt like someone only we could make, or was any more an expression of our inner selves than, for example, Lara Croft.
All this negativity stems entirely from the fact that Mass Effect has been bundled out the door with an ill-fitting RPG cloak pulled halfway over its head. It only really begins to make sense when considered as an adventure game with RPG trappings. So let's do that.
It's brilliant. Possibly the best illustration we have of Mass Effect's power to pull you in and keep you glued to the screen is that on finishing our first play through, we thought we'd better go back and roll up a new character to get some idea of how other character classes play. We tried a female character this time - they get to use makeup! - and headed back into the game. Five hours later we were still playing, having a grand old time revisiting favourite bits of the story and even enjoying it more a second time around, having finally figured out that all the annoyances and irritations of the RPG game mechanics could largely be ignored in favour of just enjoying the story.
In the interests of presenting a pristine and spoiler-free review, we're not going to provide any detail about what happens, who you are or why you're involved, but suffice to say that getting to the end of Mass Effect feels like having been involved in the entire first season of an excellent sci-fi TV show. It's stolen liberally from all the major players in the genre, owing a particularly large debt to Babylon Five, but it's just about original enough to stand on its merits. It's very much a TV level of storytelling, with all the pluses and minuses that come from spooling a story out over many hours. It took us a smidge over fifteen hours to play through the main story, pretty much ignoring all side quests along the way, and that felt like just about the right length. Any longer would have felt bloated, any shorter would have restricted the epic arc of the story. We get the feeling that completing every side quest will at least double the play time.
Visually, Mass Effect varies between being eye-burningly gorgeous and unexpectedly drab. The vast majority of the game is spent somewhere between these two extremes, in what might be called the high end of functional. There are quite a few moments when it all kicks up a gear and provides some genuinely spectacular set pieces, but expect a graphical forecast something like "fine with scattered periods of really lovely."
The voice acting is excellent, and it has to be considering all the dialogue in the game is spoken. There are no dialogue trees as such, though the shiny new 'dialogue wheel' that lets you choose the general direction you want the conversation go in is essentially an almost text-less version of the same old thing. Still, it works beautifully and lets conversations flow in an almost natural fashion. The music in the game is also fantastic, taking a few cues from Bladerunner but then heading off in its own heroically bombastic direction.
Free downloadable content has been promised to PC owners. At the time of writing the first download, "Bring Down The Sky", is still being worked on and its availability will be announced through the game launcher. It's also worth mentioning that the game now uses a toned-down version of the copy protection scheme that caused such a kerfuffle when it was first announced. You will need a live internet connection the first time you play the game so that it can verify your CD key, but it's a one time only event. We found the whole process painless, invisible and appreciated the fact that we didn't need to keep the DVD in the drive to play the game.
It's interesting to wonder how Mass Effect would have been received if its RPG aspects has been trimmed down, or even removed completely. BioWare have always known how to put together a good story, convey it in an interactive fashion, and support it with some seriously crunchy role-playing rules. If we had to boil Mass Effect's problems down to their most basic, it's that its rules don't mesh sufficiently with the story, producing an almost audible grinding of gears as the game flips from story to role-playing and back again. The miracle is that even though someone burst in and fired a shotgun full of RPG flaws point blank at Mass Effect, they didn't hit any major organs or arteries. As an exercise in interactive storytelling, Mass Effect is a resounding success and an experience that you'd be mad to miss.