Mass Effect is the most beautiful dice roll you never saw. It is an illusion, a picture perfect disguise, one that makes the foundations upon which role playing games are built - statistics, levelling up, character development - dissolve in an HD gust of wind. Because of this Mass Effect transcends its genre - a genre that began with a notepad, pen and dice all those years ago - and fully deserves its rightful place in the pantheon of science-fiction entertainment.
BioWare, Mass Effect's creator, must now be considered the greatest sci-fi RPG developer of modern times. It has taken its already critically acclaimed Knights of the Old Republic games, stripped away the Star Wars license, drowned them in a tsunami of next-generation polish and given me what can only be described as one of the finest video game experiences I've ever had.
That is not to say that BioWare's work with KotOR has been forgotten. Reminders of the series whisper in your mind as the Mass Effect universe takes its hold. From its game mechanics to the way it allows you to mould your experience like virtual clay, Mass Effect is KotOR refined - re-imagined for the masses - it is the result of a decision to make the best possible RPG for as many people as possible, even those who might otherwise have passed the genre by.
And the game's superb plot, told through some of the best voice acting we've ever heard (there are some famous voices in there, including the Arbiter from Halo) leads from the front. The game begins aboard the Human Alliance space ship the Normandy, where Captain Anderson and the Turian, Nihlus, are debating whether Commander Shepard, aka you, is ready to become the first human Spectre, a kind of all powerful galaxy commando, and not unlike a Jedi. Your first mission is on Eden Prime, a peaceful paradise planet settled by humans. A beacon built by the now extinct Protheans, an alien race responsible for the Citadel, a planet-sized space installation and the Mass relays, which allow travel across the galaxy, has been discovered there. Nihlus, himself a Spectre, wants to experience your skills first hand to see if you're ready for the role.
'Playing Mass Effect is a bit like watching your favourite ever sci-fi film - except this time you're the star and the director.'
Things go wrong pretty quickly. The Normandy receives a distress transmission from Eden Prime detailing an attack by a giant, claw-like space ship. You and two other squad members investigate the dig site, fighting your way past alien robots called the Geth. You finally catch up with Nihlus who has been murdered by a fellow turian Spectre called Saren. Turns out Saren's gone rogue and is commanding the Geth. He steals the beacon, but not before it imprints in your brain a vision of death and destruction. He escapes in the giant claw-like ship, Sovereign, that you saw in the transmission. It's now up to you to chase him across the galaxy, reveal his true motives and unravel the mystery behind the vision and the mysterious Prothean beacon. While we won't spoil the story for you, (relax, the ending is superb) what we will say is that playing Mass Effect is a bit like watching your favourite ever sci-fi film - except this time you're the star and the director.
Mass Effect is full of brilliant touches that help make it feel less hardcore RPG and more fast-flowing action game. Example one: the combat, which is absolute genius. Mass Effect's combat feels like Epic's blockbuster Gears of War. You've got a third-person camera angle, a targeting reticule, squad commands, a roadie run and even a cover system (doesn't everything these days) from which you can pop out, zoom in and hit a space mutant between the eyes with a well placed pulse from your sniper rifle. But don't be fooled - this isn't Gears of War. The dice is still being cast, it's just wonderfully disguised. Your chance to hit is being worked out from behind the camera. The percentage likelihood that your bullet, your tech ability or your biotic power will penetrate your enemy's shield and score deep into its flesh is the result of countless calculations worked out in real-time behind the scenes. No need to pause, no need to understand the why behind it all.
Sure you can micro-manage your squad if you want, pausing after every action to pick and direct special abilities from within the game's excellent power wheel, but the point is you don't have to. Your squad works perfectly well if you simply leave them alone to get on with the job and very rarely do they do a stupid thing or get in the way. Apart from the odd AI issue with them not being able to move across to certain positions despite clearly being able to, whatever two team members you choose to accompany you on missions you'll find that they never annoy, which is the most important thing. This is one of Mass Effect's greatest triumphs - to wrap KotOR in a fully functional and fantastically fun action shooter's robes. So good is the disguise that it was an effort for me to stop thinking like Marcus Fenix and start thinking like Commander Shepard.
Example two: the conversation system. Despite the hype, Mass Effect's conversation system is not revolutionary. It does not allow you to interrupt other game characters mid sentence, nor does it break any boundaries by making possible even remotely realistic dialogue - it's still question, answer, question, answer. But what it does do is burn away the inefficiency and fluff of previous efforts, leaving behind a simple, gloriously cinematic and intuitive way of interacting with computer controlled characters. You know you have a special RPG on your hands when you want to talk to people, and in Mass Effect that's exactly what you've got. It is a medium through which you can role play without hindrance, whether it is as a hard-nosed bitch, one that will do anything to get the job done, or as a do-gooder. And it all looks stunning, with dynamic camera angles, incredibly detailed facial animations and impressive textures.