I was invited up to Bioware earlier this month to get some hands-on time with their latest RPG: Mass Effect. While I had three hours to immerse myself in the universe of Mass Effect, the prominent feeling at the end was the wanting for more.
Before anything truly begins, the first step is as little or as much character customization as a player likes. For those who don't want to be bogged down, they can jump right into the game with a default setting for the hero. For those who really want to make the game their own, a highly detailed character creation awaits. More than just gender and hair color, the player can manage eye color and shape, placement of multiple facial features, and even scar levels. There are many RPGs, especially online, that would love to have the customization allowed in Mass Effect.
The game starts off with little more than a tutorial mission. There's some basic story to get the ship moving, as well as placing your character in a battle situation. The main lesson here is that Mass Effect isn't just a shooter with a story. There are three in the party, and all three are important for success. As commander of the trio, issuing commands is an important part. Using the controller's D-pad, basic commands can be given to the other two companions. Unfortunately, there isn't a way to issue them commands separately, but they are smart enough that it's not usually a problem. The use of cover is somewhat easy to execute, and essential early on. While it's possible to shoot on the run, your accuracy suffers. This is clearly shown by the round target in the middle of the screen. The larger this circle, the less accurate the shot. Simply holding still and even crouching will shrink the circle accordingly.
The introduction mission has a few surprises, both in story and gameplay, so it would be rude to go into detail. Suffice to say that it was most enjoyable, and took about an hour to get through. After that, the story places the team in a large city. While I wouldn't call Mass Effect open-ended, there are many options on how the exploration will go, based not only on decisions made in the city, but possibly even from the character's creation and skill set. Expect a lot of this, adding more reasons to replay Mass Effect than the Xbox Live achievements. There are two specific skills that will open up extra story selections if they are leveled adequately.
The balance of action and exploration seems perfect. While I only had three short hours to explore this title, it took hold of me like few games have. There's only a week left until release, but the wait is almost unbearable. If you are into a game now, hurry up and finish it before November 20th. Otherwise, you might never finish it once you start Mass Effect.