Lots of videogames promise, choice, but none have ever offered it at such a deep level as “Mass Effect.” Microsoft’s new sci-fi title can be played as a stats-laden role-playing game, a story-driven action game or any mix of the two. But while developer Bioware deserves kudos for making a vidgame that can appeal to so many types of players, “Mass Effect” is ultimately weighed down by a series of shortcomings in the visuals, story and action that will keep it from being a broad based hit.
From the start, it’s clear there’s something different about “Mass Effect.” In less than a minute, players can choose to be Commander John Shepard and jump into the action. Those who want to, however, can change “John” to “Jane,” select the character’s back story and attitude, and design him or her with any other look they desire.
The option to, essentially, choose your own adventure or do a straight-ahead reading imbues all of “Mass Effect” and makes it significantly less intimidating than traditional role-playing games, the videogame descendants of old school geek fests like “Dungeons and Dragons.”
But as Commander Shepard sets out to save the universe, it becomes apparent that “Mass Effect” can barely hold itself together. That’s true quite literally at times, as the game suffers from frequent glitches that makes the onscreen action pause for a few seconds at a time.
Character models are detailed and outstanding, both for the dozens of alien species and Shepard him- or herself. Not nearly as much work went into the environments, though. The only difference between most planets is whether the winding road between the landing point and final destination is surrounded by dusty mountains, snow-covered mountains or grass-covered mountains.
Unlike the tedious, turn-based action in most RPGs, “Mass Effect’s” battles are fast and furious. It works well enough in small skirmishes, but becomes almost dysfunctional in major end-of-level fights. “Mass Effect” enemies can move as quickly as those in “Halo,” but players have to manage more than a dozen weapons and “biotic” powers in battle, some of which take a few seconds to activate.
“Mass Effect” promises an “epic” adventure, but that word really applies only to the size of the galaxy, not the scope of the story, a simple affair that borrows liberally from “Star Wars” and other sci-fi classics.
Nonetheless, working through the plot can be fun, thanks to a dialogue system that lets players pick Shepard’s response through short phrases like “I’ll do it” or “That’s illegal” that reflect the idea of what s/he will say, but keep the actual dialogue fresh.