It's all your fault. I'm not blaming you per se but the unfortunate consequence of my getting to review the best games in the world first, is that I have to stop playing after only a few days. I've hardly scraped Mass Effect's surface, yet here I am obliged to cease and write about it, just to tell you what you already know; that it's brilliant, that it's massive and that if you don't like plot in your games (fans of Crackdown and Gears of War exit now please), you might not like this. Right, can I get back to playing now? No?! Grr.
Okay, you remember Knights of the Old Republic, the Star Wars prequel that was better than the last three movies? Well, this is made by the same people, Bioware, who also made genius old skool RPGs like Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights. This is Knights of the Old Republic 3, but outside of the auspices of Star Wars, a galaxy-spanning epic with a twisty plot and lots of humanoid aliens banging on about morality while you massacre hundreds of people. It's a bit like Babylon 5 or Star Trek but with a giant body count and you as the hero.
The plot follows Commander Sheppard, humanity's pre-eminent soldier, three centuries after humans have made first contact with alien species. Sheppard is a candidate to be the first human Spectre, basically an intergalactic 00-agent who can go anywhere and do anything. During his testing mission a rogue Spectre called Saren, with a grudge against the human race, kills another Spectre and Sheppard has a technology-induced vision of a galactic genocide from 50,000 years before, with the insinuation that Saren is seeking to recreate it. From that point you're chasing Saren and his robot sidekicks across the galaxy, seeking to catch up with him and foil whatever it is he's trying to do.
You do this by flying about in your ultra-magic Starship the SSV Normandy, that's packed with all sorts of wonderful technobabble, visiting various planets throughout the universe, chasing down clues to where Saren is and what he's up to. Once you've got to a planet, depending on its civilization level you either dock your spaceship on the surface or drop the Mako (your APC) from orbit for a bit of dune-buggying. When you've got command of the Normandy, you can explore the uncharted worlds of the universe, solving people's problems galaxy-wide. The missions on these extraneous worlds are entirely self-contained, giving them the feeling of Star Trek episodes; you know that anyone who's introduced in one of these will either stay on the planet or be dead by the mission's end, like the infamous redshirts of Trek history. Downloadable content is therefore likely to take the form of new systems with more planets to explore.
The most important place you'll visit though is the Galactic hub called the Citadel, an amazing five-pronged habitat floating free in space, which trumps Halo's Ringworlds for sheer grandeur and scale. It's here that you recruit all your team members in the initial plot set-up element after the training level and it's here that most of the roaming missions are given out. Of course, inside all the buildings it feels just like KOTOR and that's the only major problem with the game.
At its heart, Mass Effect is an old style Role playing game with the now-irritating KOTOR framework at the heart of it. This structure is the only reason this game hasn't made a ten; the branching conversational trees, though amazingly fluid, are very familiar and the options aren't always clear; in context. Meanwhile, the locations (save the planets are surfaces) have the same old circumscribed feel; it often feels you're just running down empty corridors between areas to make the game a bit longer.
Indeed, there are some loading issues (which could be a function of our dying debug 360) which Bioware have attempted to rectify by slowing your movement between areas using slow lifts and non-automatic doors, making it even more irritating to move between areas. There are fast-travel methods in the citadel, but nowhere else. Indeed, some time-saving features from KOTOR have been removed, like the ability to change your team at any point outside of your ship or return to it at any point; here you have to make a lengthy backtrack to the Normandy to switch characters.