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Mass Effect: Sci-Fi Brilliance with Annoying Aftertaste

I’m completely enthralled by Mass Effect, the new sci-fi adventure game for the Xbox 360. It’s simply one of the most engaging single-player experiences to hit the Xbox this year, along with BioShock. But while the game is all kinds of excellent, it tends to leave a somewhat nasty aftertaste when it hits you with its idiotic auto-save system (or lack thereof) and a couple of other minor, but recurring, irritations.

Designed by BioWare, makers of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the game transports you back to a time when science fiction had a super-futuristic vision of enormous scope. Rather than today’s more realist, dark and dingy portrayals of the future, Mass Effect conjures memories of sci-fi on a grand scale — think The Wrath of Khan, Star Wars and the like. In Mass Effect, humans are newcomers to the greater galactic community, which includes other humanoid alien races like the blue-skinned, monogender asari and the reptile-like turians. Each species has discovered incredible “mass effect” technology left behind by an ancient race, the Protheans, and has built a spacefaring civilization upon it.

You play the role of Commander Shepard, a Systems Alliance soldier who is tasked with stopping a runaway alien named Sarin who, for some reason, wants to destroy the galaxy. Long ago, it seems the mystical Protheans were exterminated by an alien machine-race, and Sarin wants to bring that machine-race back so all organic life can be exterminated once again. Why, I couldn’t say. Perhaps he’s simply mad.

One of the first things you’ll notice about Mass Effect is how simply gorgeous it looks. These are truly next-gen graphics here, make no mistake. The character detail, in particular, is stunning, although the facial expressions (what little of them exist) still don’t quite stack up to older classics like Half-Life 2. The environments are beautiful and amazingly large, fully rendered and similarly detailed. As a result, though, there’s quite a lot of framerate inconsistency, and an egregious amount of texture pop-in as the high-res bitmaps are loaded. Not enough to bother you, most likely, but enough to be conscious of.

Once you get about 20% through the game, you’ll be given command of your own starship, and then your freedom really opens up. You can travel about the Milky Way Galaxy as you please, visiting any one of several star clusters, systems and planets as you search for Sarin. Of course, there are plenty of side quests — more than main quests, honestly — that can have you visiting various systems looking for missing scout ships, kidnapped hostages, ancient relics and rogue Virtual Intelligences. Not all of the planets can be explored, and the ones that aren’t critical to the story have only the most basic and generic of maps, but most hold a variety of hidden treasures.

When going planetside, you’ll land your “Mako” all-terrain personnel carrier and drive around the surface, shooting at hostiles with your vehicle-mounted cannons and rocket launcher. The Mako (not to be confused with those silly MACO rent-a-cops from Enterprise) is actually pretty cool; it’s able to climb up even the steepest of mountains, enabling you to virtually crawl all over the rocky alien terrain as you please. It also has “mass effect” anti-grav thrusters — essentially a “turbo boost” button — which help you get out of sticky situations, jump over incoming missiles, or get yourself unstuck from the level geometry (which can happen on occasion!)

Mass Effect is like a combination of a role-playing game and a third-person shooter, so there’s plenty of character customization available. You’ve got the requisite set of experience points that you can spend toward talents, a huge swath of armor, weapons and upgrades, and a three-person “landing party” you can customize to the hilt. Perhaps the strongest parts of the game’s story-driven experience are the dialog sequences, in which you’ll interact with other characters and choose your own responses to help further the story. If you’ve put enough points into them, the “Intimidate” and “Charm” talents will open up further dialog options that will earn you additional side quests, additional money, or additional ways to complete the task at hand. The choices you make can earn you either “Paragon” or “Renegade” points, which basically equate to how big of a saint or a douchebag you’re being.

Unlike Knights of the Old Republic, the combat in Mass Effect is real-time, not turn-based. You’ll get a third-person, over the shoulder viewpoint during firefights. Force powers are replaced with “biotic” powers, and there’s a full spate of pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles and grenades available to you. Weapons can also be upgraded with a variety of enhancements and different ammo types. Much like System Shock and BioShock, choosing the right ammo type for each particular battle will help give you an edge.

I should also mention the soundtrack: In a word, it’s awesome. It has a very ’70s/’80s sci-fi synth vibe to it, combined with orchestral elements, that will make you think of science fiction films long past — or perhaps even Babylon 5. Excellently done — now I’d just love some way to rip it out of the game. (The Collector’s Edition of the game comes with the soundtrack on a separate disc, but I hear you can only play it in your Xbox!) The sound effects, too, are well done and neither too repetitive nor too “canned” sounding. Lastly, the voice talent is top-notch, with voices provided by the likes of Marina Sirtis (Counselor Troi), Seth Green, and others.

While the graphics are gorgeous, the story well-written and the gameplay quite captivating, Mass Effect does tend to rub you the wrong way at crucial times. It all boils down to the savegame system. While you can pop open the pause menu and save your game anytime you like, the game does not allow this under certain circumstances. Namely, when you are “in battle.” The game bends this definition to mean “anytime there are hostiles visible on your radar,” even if you’ve just cleared the room and would like to save before your next enemy encounter. Sometimes you can, but mostly, you can’t.

This would not be a problem, if the game would simply do an auto-save at certain critical moments. After spending half an hour clearing a huge swarm of enemies from part of a planet’s surface, I encountered an enemy base and went inside. I was immediately surprised — and killed — by stronger-than-expected foes within. Where was the last auto-save? At the beginning of the goddamn level. Half an hour’s work had to be redone. This time, I was more careful, and discovered the scant handful of places where manual saving was actually allowed.

Then there are the sequences where you come face-to-face with a major story character, have a big fight, go through some lengthy dialog, and then fight again. The game auto-saves after the first fight, before the lengthy dialog, and then not again. So if you die during the second fight — which is, naturally, a lot harder than the first — you have to repeat the whole blessed dialog sequence again. There is at least an “interrupt” button that lets you skip each snippet of dialog one at a time, but you still have to make your intended dialog choices, which still takes a little while to do. If the game would just auto-save at the conclusion of the dialog sequence, this could have been avoided.

While this is a pretty major gripe for me, it hasn’t spoiled my enjoyment of the game — so far. Last night, for the first time, I found myself wanting to put the game down and not come back for a while. About two-thirds of the way through the game, you are called away to do this mission on Earth’s moon, and it is simply one of the most lazily-designed, boring missions of the entire game. It didn’t help that I had almost finished the mission when I encountered another one of those “sudden, unexpected death” situations, and found my last 45 minutes of mindless, boring gameplay wiped out due to a lack of saves. RAGE!

All-in-all, though, I give Mass Effect a hearty recommendation. If you just make a conscious effort to find those “saving allowed!” moments between firefights, you will cut down on the one major annoyance I mentioned above. And from there, everything should be kosher.

BioWare originally intended Mass Effect as the first part of a two-game “series,” but as BioWare has now been purchased by Electronic Arts (hasn’t every game company these days?), whether that will pan out remains to be seen. For what it’s worth, I hope it does.