Mass Effect, the latest installment of Bioware's epic RPGs, promised us the world, nay, the galaxy. It spoke of a universe of incredible depth, a future world in which humanity has discovered the means by which to travel to distant stars, interact with aliens, and eek our our place in the galaxy. It's got an incredibly compelling story, in which you are selected as humanity's first "Spectre," an agent of the galactic government empowered to do anything you see fit to preserve galactic stability. The visual artwork is compelling; the game has a "graininess filter," to make it look like an old 80's sci fi movie, and the music fits right into that genre (it makes the game feel all nostalgic). The use of HDR is gorgeous, and while at times it might feel a little overused, in general it is fantastic.
Although graphical quality is excellent, there is one exception: load times. Please, take five more seconds to load the textures and the bump maps.
As you can see in the photo to the left (I apologize, they were taken from my digital camera pointed at my TV), the bump map and texture map on the ground didn't load immediately. Take a few extra seconds and load the bump maps before I get into the game. In my opinion, it's incredibly immersion breaking, and should have been unacceptable to Bioware. Unless load time was one of the highest-priority requirements, which I can't imagine (and I'll say why in a second), it amazes me that it made it to production.
One of the COOL things about loading in this game, though, is the elevator load style. Loading happens in a lot of areas by going into elevators - definitely one of the least immersion-breaking aspects of the game. That was a fantastic move, and in fact while we're on the Citadel, you can pick up information on new missions and get a little more information about your squad members. It was definitely one of the strongest parts of the game.
This is without a doubt one of the best games I've ever played in terms of control. It is incredibly easy to control the characters, the selection of dialogue is fantastic, and the menu interface is great (with the single exception of - surprise, surprise - inventory management).
One thing I'm curious about - the E3 2006 dialog depicted to the left - where did it go? "A billion lives are hanging in the balance here. I won't let some piss-ant bartender slow me down." That seemed like such a great scene. I'm disappointed that it's not in the game.
There is one downer - the vehicle is ridiculous in terms of control. I'm on my third playthrough, and I haven't figure out how to control it steadily. One thing I totally loved, though, was the running-over the Geth. It was fun to run them into the lava on the planet, incidentally, shown in the image with the bad load times.
I also don't like the mission assignments. Besides the main quests, it's annoying to hear from the Systems Alliance admiral whom you never meet, who just says "You're a Spectre, and you answer to the Council, but you're still a human." Come on, give me a break. Seth Green, give me a chance to say no - don't just say "Transmission comin' in - patchin' it through" every freaking time I look at the Galaxy Map. PLEASE, SETH GREEN, LET ME DO MY OWN THING!
The music is absolutely fantastic. It's one of the best soundtracks I've ever heard; it's absolutely distinctive. And it was inexpensive to buy on iTunes! Other than that, I can't say much.
Finally - the Universe
I think this is possibly Mass Effect's greatest weakness, as well as the greatest strength. While places like the Citadel are built up very well, the Citadel feels like about 60% of the universe's civilization. That's pretty sad considering that they indicate a few million (maybe seven million) people live on the Citadel, and there have to be hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of people across the galaxy. The planets you can visit outside of the main quest feel forced and random, not to mention barren. It's supposed to be the galaxy - why do I hardly ever run into people who aren't trying to kill me?
But on the other hand, the way the other races are introduced and described is incredibly thorough. It's exactly how I'd like to see a game introduce the races it has. I can't sing the praises of the story or the universe (in this sense) enough.
Go buy it, if you haven't yet. It's worth the cash. Get it new - support BioWare.