The sandbox approach to games – letting players roam free to explore a game world rather than holding them to a narrow, set path – has its good and bad points. It’s good at immersing players in the game, giving a sense of real exploration and the freedom to take as much or little time as the player wishes. It can be bad, though, when players are left wandering without direction.
“Mass Effect” achieves a nice balance, leaning toward the overwhelming side, but always with directions to the quickest way to advance the main story. However, the core story only makes up a small part of the game. Plenty of side missions are available all over the galaxy, and players would be shortchanging themselves if they didn’t go out and explore.
The amount of voice acting for “Mass Effect” is staggering; every single piece of dialog in the game is voiced, down to the idle chatter from teammates while riding in the Citadel’s elevators. Looking up “Mass Effect” on the Internet Movie Database reveals a cast list longer than most movies, with quite a few familiar names. There are also different voices for the main character, depending on whether a player chooses a male or female version of Commander Shepard, and almost every conversation has multiple branches and possible outcomes. Conversation choices can range from saintly to evil, but are just the basic idea of what Shepard will actually say; the actual dialog always sounds justifiable and realistic. As a result, players don’t have to feel as guilty if they tend toward the darker side, though some moral decisions have no clear right or wrong.
Players can also customize Shepard’s face with enough detail to make him or her look like almost anyone, and the character will be rendered like that in high-definition. Other customization options – job class, abilities, talent levels, weapons, etc. – are fairly standard, though the weapon component upgrade system isn’t laid out or explained very well.
Those familiar with BioWare’s previous sci-fi hit, “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic,” will find a lot of similarities in the depth of the dialog and characters, and in the way missions are acquired and completed. Combat is fast third-person shooting with two computer-controlled squad members helping out. The action will pause when selecting a special ability from the shoulder-button radial menu, but combat is still faster than in most other role-playing games.
“Mass Effect” is also able to achieve the perfect middle ground between action gamers and the hardcore role-players by having default and auto settings for all the customization options in the game. Everything can be as behind-the-scenes or micromanaged as the player wishes, and even dialog can be skipped entirely or investigated in-depth down to minor characters’ personal lives.
With its different squad members, moral choices and several possible endings, it’s impossible to see everything in the game just playing through once. “Mass Effect” is definitely worth revisiting, as developer BioWare has created a new high standard in immersive action RPGs.