I have been playing Mass Effect. Yeah, yeah, it came out last November and I didn’t play it ‘til August. I’ve never claimed to be hip or with it.
I don’t really go in for Computer RPGs in a big way. I enjoy the occasional CRPG (last one I recall was Neverwinter Nights — like Mass Effect, by Bioware), but in general I find them too scripted, too limited, and, well, fundamentally based on aesthetics I don’t enjoy. Mass Effect, on the other hand, is based on an aesthetic I grew up in, one I can wallow in with great pleasure: SPACE OPERA. Yes, my friends, I have saved the universe. And I enjoyed it, too.
One of the most fabulous things about Mass Effect is…well, there are a lot of ways to finish that sentence, but I started it intending to talk about gender. While the default hero, featured on the cover and demo cut-scenes in all his stubbly glory, is Commander John Shepard, the player can also play pre-made Jane Shepard, or make a Shepard from scratch. Since all the in-game chatter refers to the protagonist as “Commander” or “Shepard”, you can put whatever first name you like in there, and the face-generating interface gives far more freedom than I’ve ever seen in a game. You’re stuck with the body of John/Jane Shepard, and there’s only one voice track for each, but you can run a pretty full gamut of human appearance. (I don’t recommend trying to make Shepard look like someone in particular though. I tried to make myself for fun and found that my top lip to bottom lip ratio is not an option and, for that matter, that my mouth appears to be narrower than the preset minimum. Sheesh!)
Other customizations exist too — relatively minor, but it’s nice that your character gets to have a past, and you have some input into what that past is. Namely, you get to choose from three childhoods and three career moments as well as choosing your character class (from the fundamental mix of fighting, tk and tech spheres that the game uses.) Hell, if you’re female, you can choose whether your character is straight or gay. Sort of. In play. Let’s not get too far into the political implications or economic advantages of Johns being assumed straight and Janes bicurious, or other associated baggage, shall we? I’m doing my geekthusiasm thing right now.
Moving on to plot and gameplay: the plot is suitably epic, with a few small twists. The plot really inhabits the gameworld, which is fabulous. Some questions about the setting are actually answered by the plot. In addition (and this is why plot and gameplay get one paragraph) the plot pieces are more or less nonlinear, part of the free-play part of the game. You can sit down and decide, “Hey, I feel like tackling more of the main storyline,” and zoom your ship over to one of the plot planets, or you can decide to kill things and take their stuff (mostly side-quest style) by exploring the rest of the planets. I like that freedom in time and space when I am playing a game. Conversations are handled by a now famous interface that allows you to choose the drift of Shepard’s response. Combat is real-time shooter (well, third person shooter) but allows you to pause to use abilities, command your squaddies to use abilities, and even look around/aim carefully. And last but not least, for getting around on forbidding planets, there’s an ATV (despite its armaments, I think ‘tank’ implies treads) that is so idiot-proof I can drive it, even though driving in video games usually feels to me like one of those nightmares where I’m driving but can’t reach the pedals or see outside the car.
A note on squaddies — they actually gave the secondary characters…character. If you care, you can gab it up with your dudes between missions, and occasionally the two squad members you can bring with you will interact (like on the admittedly slow elevators), which can be amusing. Tip for squad interaction: I think humans are chattier (must be that curiosity aliens keep remarking on) so one human and one alien squad member seems to be a good formula for fun. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a combination where they don’t get along well, and you can have some snark with your galaxy-saving. (environmental noise A: What was that? What was that? B: Don’t have a panic attack, I’ll protect you.)
The last thing I want to say about Mass Effect here (I could go on and on) is that the atmosphere and production quality are both splendiferous. The music is really good, the voice acting is astonishingly good (Seth Green is my pilot? Armin Shimerman is on the galactic Council?), including, crucially, Shepard’s voice. (At least, the female Shepard. I have only played the male Shepard for a few minutes out of curiosity.) And wonder. They have remembered wonder, which is crucial for space opera. Stop running across a bridge in the Council’s space station and look up, at the lakes and parks curving away with the circular hull of the Presidium. Stop your ATV on a ridge on an alien moon and look up to see the vast scarred planet and eldritch star burning in the sky. Who wouldn’t want to save this universe?