You may have noticed it's been a bit quiet around here lately. There's a very good reason for that. I've been mainlining Mass Effect on PC for the last week, so I haven't had any spare time to devote to the diverting niceties of blogging. Now that I've finished the game, I'm going to talk about it, with huge amounts of spoilers, so if you have any intentions of playing the game, here's the short version of my verdict before I get to the things that might ruin it for you: It's absolutely brilliant. It's not a revolutionary step up from Knights of the Old Republic - if anything, it doesn't do much to veer from the typical Bioware formula of that game - but the combat is so well implemented, that you're not really going to care. For me, it plays like a very talky FPS, rather than an RPG, but the implementation of RPG skills in the FPS model is much smoother than in something like Deus Ex. From me, all you're going to get is an unreserved recommendation to buy it. It's terrific.
And now, the analysis and 5P0IL3RZ. Leave now if you don't want to be thoroughly spoiled. Really. Last chance now...
Firstly, let's get the sex out of the way. When Mass Effect was released, there was a huge ruckus in the US about it featuring "full digital nudity and the ability for players to engage in graphic sex" and "the most realistic sex acts ever conceived"... Suffice to say that these statements were made by people who'd never played the game and that these comments, to crib a phrase from Boris Johnson (Grud forbid) are an inverted pyramid of piffle. Actually, I'd go stronger than 'piffle'. I'd go so far as 'bullshit'. Frankly, you see more tits'n'ass and explicit sex on Springwatch... (Randomly, Kate Humble has got lovely hair) and it's about as offensive - that is, not at all. The phrase "much ado about nothing" springs to mind.
I sexed Ashley, because she's terrific. Sassy, confident, funny, a kickass soldier and not afraid of speaking her mind, she's a brilliant character. She even beats KotOR's Bastila as the NPC I most have the hots for. I most like her not because her ass looks great in a combat hard-suit (though it does) but because she's got the best lines, some of which are spectacularly inappropriate. A good example is early in the game where you pay a visit to a "gentlemen's club" on the Citadel and she comments "Here we are, one million light years away from Earth and we're in a bar where men are looking at women shaking their asses on a stage. I can't decide whether that's funny or sad." And she doesn't even bat an eyelid if you decide you want to sit down to watch a dance. You've got to love a girl like that. She even quotes Tennyson and Whitman (in context, to boot!), but her best line has got to be near the end where you have to choose between her and Kaiden splitting off from the main team to accompany a Salarian recon team to make a diversionary attack while you try and plant a nuke at the Main Bad's Evil Lair: "Why is it whenever someone says "with all due respect", they really mean "kiss my ass"?" She's absolutely adorable.
It's a bit of a shame (if unsurprising) that the rest of your Ship of Fools (or as Richard would call them, 'The Ship of Extras') aren't quite so memorable, but I did like Wrex a lot and the rest of the cast are actually verging on being useful in a firefight (rather than the norm of only two being worth a damn and the others just being there for colour), which is surely breaking some kind of law. I went through most of the game with Ashley and either Wrex or Garrus: mainly for sheer firepower; swapping Wrex with Garrus whenever I needed hacking abilities rather than biotic effects (my character was a straight Soldier class). For the random on-planet rambling with the Mako rover, I took the techies (Tali and Kaiden or Garrus) if only to allow me to hack into artifacts and loot more easily, so I managed to find a use for pretty much all of the characters, even if I tended to favour just a couple of them for the main story missions.
The voice actors, typically for a Bioware game, are well-cast, particularly Seth Green as Joker and Lance Henriksen as Admiral Hackett, though the biggest props have to be awarded to Jennifer Hale, who does the voice work for the lead character if you choose to play as the deadlier gender of the species. Cam "Bloody" Clarke makes his obligatory appearance, bless him, though thankfully not in a lead role this time. It's bad enough having to suffer Carth Mark II as the hetero-romantic lead for a female character, but at least it's not Sky Mark II... honestly, I'm sure Cam Clarke is a nice enough guy, but... that voice. Brrr...
As you would expect, the other production values are first rate: the musical score is excellent - at times reminiscent of the Vangelis score for Blade Runner - and the script is first rate in execution, if not in originality. It's a shame that The Big Moral Dilemma you're given towards the end of the game (whether to leave behind Ashley or Kaiden to be nuked along with Saren's Evil Lair) is totally undermined as an emotional choice by the level of characterisation between the two of them. I never felt much empathy with Kaiden at any point in the game - and he's made almost completely redundant by the other Biotic and Tech specialists within the game. So it wasn't really that hard of a decision - the fact I was romancing Ashley didn't really matter; Kaiden was always going to be the more expendable - though at least it was nice to see that Ashley did have a guilty reaction afterwards. It will be interesting to see whether the reaction changes with a female player character... sorry, Kaiden, but as a girl player character, I'm going to be sexing the slinky blue alien... I'm going to let you get the hots for me, then I'm going to leave you to die. Deal with it, sucker! Hey, I didn't select the Ruthless trait for nothing, you know.
I've got a couple of secondary characters on the go at the moment: a Vanguard (combat/biotic), an Infiltrator (combat/tech) and an Adept (biotic specialist). I'm furthest in with the Vanguard (almost halfway) though I'm probably going to concentrate most on the Adept, since the biotic powers are rather cool in combat. A lot of people have basically said they're a Jedi class without the lightsaber, and I can see where they're coming from with that - but I think that's a little unfair.
Mass Effect does have a great sense of being its own universe, with a strong visual aesthetic, its own history and lore, and it's all the more seductive for it. The dreams have started already... It's a bit of a shame that they didn't open the galaxy up a little more - that you can't explore the galaxy more and see more colonies - but I guess that clashed with the "race against time" plot: that is, you're on a critical mission to hunt down a rogue special forces operative before he unleashes a force that will annihilate all life in the galaxy, but you've still got time to do dozens of petty errands and trivial tasks for all and sundry... Hopefully in the sequel we'll be given a bit more of a free rein and a license to muck about around the galaxy at leisure, and not have to pay lip service to a plot that by rights should demand your immediate and undivided attention, but ultimately will make the bad guy wait around until you're good and ready to turn up and sort him out.
Overall, Mass Effect is a worthy successor to KotOR. It's got a good story, excellent characters, looks awesome, has a lovely script and score, it's well acted, and the combat is deeply satisfying. If I had to pass a score judgment... 9/10, easy. It's worth playing for Ashley's sass and class alone. I'm not too fond of the transferal of the whole "achievement" thing from the 360 version - so much so that I've not even bothered to find out how to check which ones I've even gotten - because if you get anal about it, the achievements are almost dictating terms to you as to how you should be playing the game: as if you can't enjoy the game unless you're "achieving" something. Whatever the hell happened to just having fun? But this is a minor criticism, and not just of Mass Effect. I really hope that this kind of thing doesn't become endemic, because I don't like being told how to play my games, or somehow being told that "you need to do this before you can say you've had fun". I like to define my own terms, whether it's nailing a Geth Rocket Trooper with a headshot or chuckling at Ashley saying how she'd like to show me her dance moves in a Citadel nightclub, I don't give a monkey's scrotum if that's deemed worthy of an "achievement" in the eyes of the developer or not. Anyway, it's a superb game, and it's going straight into my Top 5. It might even supplant KotOR as my most completed game. Hell, it's kept me away from World of Warcraft for an entire week, and there aren't many games I can say that about...