With simple flicks of the analogue stick you can shape conversations to your own play style, choosing what to say a few seconds before the other character has finished. Where dialogue options appear on the wheel determines their effect. Choices that appear at the top of the conversation wheel tend to lend themselves more towards the Paragon (Light side) play style. Sentences at the bottom of the wheel will more often than not result in Renegade (Dark side) points. Then you have dialogue options that become available only when you've spent points in either the Charm or Intimidate talents. Charm dialogue options appear in blue, and will result in Paragon points; Intimidate options appear in red and will get you Renegade points. Add to this choices that allow you to investigate further or options that move the conversation towards a swift conclusion and what you have is a simple yet dynamic system that never grates. It's great fun to just pick an option that you just know will end up getting whoever you're talking to really pissed off - if you're playing as a Renegade that is.
One of the most thrilling bits of Mass Effect is where you deliver a morale boosting speech to the crew of the Normandy. You get to shape the speech, choosing whether to inspire with warm words of encouragement or demanding threats, all to a suitably heroic score. It's a superb highlight and something that will probably stick with me for years to come.
'Mass Effect is still an RPG at heart of course - the Gears of War style combat cannot detract from that.'
Of course, video games have been allowing us to decide between right and wrong for years now. Indeed the KotOR games provided clear indications of what would earn you Light side points and what would earn you Dark side points. The moral decision-making in Mass Effect is not a revolution by any stretch of the imagination, and nor does it blur the lines between right and wrong, but it does force you to make some tough decisions and allows you to shape the story more effectively than anything we've seen before. A case in point - the game forces you to decide who should live out of two of your compatriots - characters you've spent a great deal of time levelling up and developing an emotional bond to. Most missions will allow you to shape the way in which you tackle them - either subtly with the least amount of death or gung-ho with no care for casualties. Most boss encounters will let you decide what to do with them once you've forced them into submission - whether it is murdering them in cold blood or setting them free, the choice is yours.
And there's a real sense that your decision making has an effect on the Mass Effect world and the people who live in it. In fact, one of the first things you need to decide upon if you dump the default Commander Shepard and create your own character is your early history (Earthborn, Colonist or Spacer) and your psychological profile (Ruthless, War Hero or Sole Survivor). These decisions will affect how the game's characters react to you. One mission presents an opportunity to kill off an alien race for good. If you do, your Codex, an evolving historical record of the galaxy, will mark that species as extinct. In another situation, a journalist asks you for a few comments on your mission to save the universe. Storm off in a childish huff and later in the game you'll be informed of how public opinion is turning against you back on Earth, and how a PR machine has been put in motion to smooth things over. And there are of course a few different love sub-plots which you can pursue. The decisions you make as either a male or a female Commander Shepard will either hinder or help your efforts to get your object of desire into bed (yes, there's nudity in Mass Effect boys). It's little things like that which give you a sense that deliberating over tough decisions is more than a consideration over Paragon or Renegade points.
Mass Effect is still an RPG at heart of course - the Gears of War style combat cannot detract from that. Just like in KotOR, you'll find that much of your time is spent running around planets, space installations and the Normandy, talking to NPCs, getting side quests, running errands and generally letting yourself tumble into the game's world like Alice down the rabbit hole. The side quests are probably the game's weakest in terms of refining the KotOR mechanic. Most will involve an NPC in distress, for example an alien who wants you to help him develop his betting outcome device by attaching it to high stakes gambling machines, or a human security guard who wants you to get rid of a preaching alien. In almost every case you're presented with a moral decision - so you can decide to turn the betting device in to the authorities or help him out. Or you can convince the religious alien to give up and rethink its life or find him a preaching permit. Most will follow this pattern. Collect side quest, resolve it in whatever way you see fit, collect the credits and experience points and move on.
If the side quests stand out as a tad disappointing, it's only because of the quality of the overall experience. It is a sci-fi fan's wet dream, with movie quality presentation, storyline and score that's a real showcase for the 360. Mass Effect is the game every Blade Runner fan has been anticipating for years, and BioWare has done a stupendous job of creating a world that is not only engaging but completely drenched from head to toe in futuristic cool. You feel it everywhere. It's in the tremendously effective film grain effect which is washed over everything, giving proceedings a more cinematic feel. It's in the wonderful 80's sci-fi inspired score, a soundtrack surely destined for separate release. It's in the impressively detailed cut-scenes, whether it be landing the Mako rover on a far away planet or a full scale galactic conflict overlooking an embattled space station. It's in the game's physics, which sends enemies spiralling off ledges and slowly floating away in zero gravity environments like rag-dolls on speed. It's in the plot, a superb tale full of political machinations, mysterious alien races, hidden artefacts, shocking revelations and an evil alien commando gone rogue. It's in Urdnot Wrex, the tough talking and reclusive Krogan Battlemaster who joins you on your quest. It's in the game's sound effects - the pulse of the sniper rifle, the ripple of space as you invoke a Singularity, the gravitas of simply bringing up your squad's power wheel. And it's in the Elkor, an alien race so depressing and yet loveable that you'd throw Winnie the Pooh's Eeyore and Yogi Bear into a river if it meant you could take one home.