Since I'm on a video games kick...
I recently finished a play-through of the middle act of BioWare and EA's space shooter-RPG epic. BioWare, which has produced such piles of awesome as Knights of the Old Republic and Dragon Age: Origins, has become the go-to name in RPG's on the Xbox platforms. Hundreds of thousands of nerds (including, now, myself) across the country wait with bated breath for their efforts (Their next release will be Star Wars: The Old Republic; a MMORPG which will consume my life... I blame George Lucas). The Mass Effect franchise, which was initially intended to be a trilogy (but EA has been giving hints that they may want to milk the cash cow further) has quickly found an audience through its intriguing story, excellent voice acting, and strong game-play. Up until two weeks ago, however, I never had any interest in seeing what all the fuss was about; on a whim, I decided to ask my roommate if I could borrow his copy.
Jumping into the middle of a story is never recommended, but the series, with it's massive world creation underpinnings allows the uninitiated, who cares enough to delve, to quickly get back up to speed. A cute gimmick where the character "dies" in the 1st 5 minutes of the game allows for a story "reset." After brief fits of confusion, I was easily able to pick up the story and follow along with what was going on. The basic gist of the narrative is that you portray customizable super-soldier "Commander Shepard" as he battles an alien threat to the galaxy. Throughout the game you will go on missions not necessarily to progress the main story, but to collect characters and "build your team." Were this game only about the "main story line" it would probably only last a few hours, but the character missions (which do provide interesting background and story) balloon game play-through time to about 30 hours.
(Shepard and select members of his team)
Game-play reminded me of a cross between a 3rd person RPG (like Fallout 3) and a dedicated space shooter (Like the Halo series). Heath, unfortunately, is automatically re-generated (can't stand that... worst invention in video game history), item-hunting within levels often pays off with extra resources or weapons, and leveling-up is more focused on improving powers (like recent action games). In game action is fast-paced, with many enemies flying at you. You are able to combat your foes with a combination of team tactics (you get 2 computer controlled allies), special powers, and shooting skill. Easy to understand controls (with hot link-able powers on your bumpers) allow for precise combat strategies and execution.
Instead of the tired practice of "leveling-up" (historically in RPGs, you'd have to wander the country-side outside of story missions, fighting easy enemies over and over and over, in order to level up; this in turns gives you the requisite skills to face tougher, end-game enemies. It blows.), this game uses a mining mini-game to allow for upgrades and bonuses; while not a true leveling-up system, it has basically the same effect, wandering the country-side to prepare yourself for the actual game. You have to travel to many (often far-flung) systems to accumulate the necessary resources (most stops take about 10 minutes to mine all the available resources). Maybe I'm just impatient, but there has to be a better way to "level-up" your character. This is essentially dead time in the game, and is, quite frankly, boring. All RPG's are beset with this problem, and many people feel that this "dead-time" is what makes an RPG an RPG. That's crap. You shouldn't have to spend countless hours performing repetitive acts in-order to progress the story. It's like the practice modes in recent iterations of sports games: I don't want to practice, I want to play! If I wanted to practice I would've actually picked up a bat and spent time "outside."
(You'll stare at screens like this for hours.... boring!)
The game is, on the whole, very well designed. The world is beautiful, and attention to character detail is excellent (when you're on a mission you can actually see your multiple weapons housed on the back of your characters armor. This is a little bit of real-world logic that has always been missing from video games. For example: where does Link keep his giant sack filled with 3 different swords, 3 tunics, 3 pairs of boots, a mask, a boomerang, a bow and arrow set with 3 types of arrows, a hook-shot, a power glove, 3 shields, a few bottle of magic potion, etc in Zelda 64? For such a small guy, he sure does seem to be able to carry so much stuff effortlessly. ) When I first stepped foot into what was, for me, the first city traveled to (Omega, ironically), I felt comfortable; as if it made sense that the galaxy (set about 150 years in the future) would have developed this way. Combine the dystopian industrial vision of "Blade Runner" with the pragmatic western vision of "Firefly" and the "end of history" vision of "Star Trek: TNG," and you have some sort of idea what I'm talking about. Cities felt livable, but not not perfect. Characters, both in terms of writing and design, are believable; each have stories that invite you to delve deeper to discover their true motivations.
(The designers drew their inspiration from many sci-fi sources. In this fly over shot of Omega, you can definitely see the Blade Runner.)
One of the immersive world-building details which draw you into the story is the near-perfect voice acting. Much of the story is revealed through conversations with the myriad of characters throughout the "universe." Were it not for the talent behind the characters, these conversations would come off flat. Knowing this, BioWare has assembled an excellent cast capable of pulling the job of convincing voice acting off. Stars like Martin Sheen, Tricia Helfer, Yvonne Strahovski, Carrie-Anne Moss, Seth Green, and Adam Baldwin combine with series and voice acting veterans to form a stellar cast. It really is one of the best jobs of bringing video game characters to life I've seen in a while (All without the over-acting present in the God of War series).
(Some of the voice-acting talent in the game. Plenty of nerd favorites in that bunch.)
Overall, I found the game to be very entertaining. The expansive world creation efforts of the design team allows for quick immersion into the world, and solid controls allow for solid fast-paced action. The overwhelming sense I got while delving into this futuristic vision was that it felt like Halo combined with Star Trek. Halo in the sense of the swarms and aliens trying to take over the galaxy and destroy all humans, and Star Trek in the sense that a Federation of alien races combine efforts in the name of inter-galactic peace. It's an interesting combination; and one that has proved very lucrative for EA and BioWare. While not necessairly an original game, drawing upon countless sci-fi tropes for inspiration, this game does a great job of entertaining. I'd compare it to a summer blockbuster movie. Entertaining, but nothing really new. Regardless, I'm still looking forward to the 3rd installment, and I'm interested to see where EA will push the brand in the future.