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Mass Effect (Xbox 360)

Rated: 12.

Story: It's 180 years in the future and humanity has spread to the stars using ancient alien devices called mass relays which form a web of faster-than-light routes across the galaxy. Turns out, though, there are plenty of other races using the relays, too, and humankind must earn status and respect in the interstellar community.

You are Commander Shepard, a human military officer, who has been singled out to be humanity's first SPECTRE operative - a special agent working for the galactic government. You quickly find yourself zipping all over the place in an effort to thwart a plot which threatens all sentient life in the galaxy.

This being a role-playing game, you get to run menial errands for all sorts of people on the way...

Gameplay: You and a couple of computer-controlled companions wander round closely confined alien environments. Events are viewed from a third-person perspective. Combat plays more like a squad-based shooter than an RPG, taking place in real-time. You get to hide behind objects and actually aim your weapons but you can pause things to give orders to your friends.

Much of Mass Effect is spent exploring and talking to people. Conversations involve choosing replies from a limited set of responses but the set up for this is slicker than normal for this type of game. People ask you to find/kill/persuade something/someone for money/information. (Delete as applicable).

You also get to drive round rocky worlds in a tank quite a lot.

Save System: Auto-save on entering new areas. Manual save available when not in combat.

Comments: It would be easy to fill this review by listing the many faults of Mass Effect. Almost every aspect of it is broken. I will resist, however. The game should be admired for its ambition. It's a galaxy-spanning space opera involving an epic story and difficult moral choices. It is Babylon 5: The Game, at last.

Except, obviously, it's not set in the Babylon 5 universe. Also, all the characters are really generic and it takes itself far too seriously and the interface is clumsy and...

Nope. It's no good. I can't resist after all. The thing is knackered in just too many ways. Here's a selection of the problems:
  • Technical issues. Mass Effect looks quite nice in screenshots but in motion it's full of stuttering and pop-up.

  • Irritating inventory system. Comparing and equipping items is so clumsy that I began to dread finding new stuff. It nearly always turned out to be junk anyway.

  • Dull back-story. The developers have gone to a great deal of trouble to create a detailed history for the game and they're desperate to share every detail. It's not that interesting, however.

  • Unrewarding character advancement. Improving your character is normally one of the main draws of an RPG but there's little customisation here and going up a level often doesn't bring much reward.

  • Uninteresting characters. You really wouldn't be upset if half of your team fell out an airlock.

  • No sense of scale. Planets are big places. How come everything of note on each world you visit is in the same square mile?

  • Lazy level design. Many levels are small and linear; some are just plain incompetent - the two useful areas of your ship (the ones you have to visit all the time) have some pointless corridors and a lengthy loading screen disguised as a lift between them.

  • Tacked on side quests. There are lots of missions to undertake that aren't part of the main story. These all take place on barren, barely distinguishable worlds with lots of mountains that are tiresome to navigate in the tank. The destination is always a mine, a warehouse or an underground bunker. Every mine is identical to the next but with differently placed crates. The same goes for the other types of location and any spaceships that require being boarded. Poor.

  • Ropey combat. This isn't Ghost Recon. Ordering your companions about is inexact and hampered by a dubious camera. Enemies often just rush at you.

  • Silly missions. You're a special agent on a quest to save the galaxy; why do you have to buy your own equipment? Does humanity seriously have no one else to switch off a rogue computer on Earth's moon? Is this really the time for prospecting? Why hasn't anyone else found the artifacts you keep tripping over?

  • Slow pace. Cut-scenes, conversations, lots of running backwards and forwards, stacks of loading screens and plenty of uneventful driving.
There are other minor issues (and probably some major ones that I've blanked from my mind) but, essentially, nothing seems finished. There's just an air of 'this will do' about it all, as if the developers were relying on hype and the fact that RPG fans are used to putting up with this kind of thing and would buy the game anyway.

They got away with it. Despite its flaws, Mass Effect is vaguely enjoyable, it had strong sales and there are glowing fan reviews all over the internet. It's a big budget, non-Japanese, science fiction role-playing game featuring space travel. As such, there really isn't much competition on consoles apart from the Knights of the Old Republic games. I guess it will have to do while we wait for that proper Babylon 5 game that will never happen. I'm not sure I can face the two planned sequels, though, unless the developers put some real effort into fixing most of the problems. They won't get away with it again.

Conclusion: If you loved Knights of the Old Republic you'll like this... a bit.

Graphics: The game features possibly the best character models ever but dumps them in often uninspiring environments. Motion stutters and details sometimes pop into view a second or two late.

Length: Medium if you just whizz through the main story. (Recommended.) Very long if you do all the side quests. (Don't do it. Really. It's not worth it.)

Rating: Just barely 3/5.

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