4th Jun 2008 | 14:00
The excitement in the air was thick as toothpaste. Mass Effect has already established itself on the 360 as a classic RPG and one that corrects many of the complaints directed at BioWare's previous epics.
Having twice played through the console version, the true source of my nervous excitement was to see this great game arrive on my platform of choice.
Porting a console game to PC is a process that can go very wrong - but thankfully Mass Effect reaches its apex on the PC.
BioWare have made a game that flatters the PC's controls so perfectly that the 360 version feels, in comparison, as effective as a papier-mâché hammer.
Gone without trace are the clunky UI and irksome combat of the 360 - with the mouse and keyboard, players can look forward to a smoother, more enjoyable and better-looking escapade than their sofa-bound siblings.
You take on the part of Shepard, a Commander in the Human Alliance. You can gently customise his looks with a few sliders, or leave him as the generic space stud from the front of the box.
He can be given one of three character histories. These will affect the occasional dialogue tree but, ultimately, don't have much meaning.
Switching genders is an option too, but playing Ms Shepard doesn't make any impact on the storyline, unless you have sweaty palms for a spot of xenomorphic sapphic love.
Once your face and upbringing have been set you're able to choose a class, and that's where you really get to nail down your own style.
There's a choice of three classes. Soldier places the focus of combat on gunplay and has you leading the party in a storm of precision shooting.
The Adept class specialises in biotic powers - science-magic that will make Star Wars fans think of the Force, and demands a combat style that has you taking cover and popping out like a angry gopher to deliver your damage.
Then there's the Engineer - a debuff class that lowers your enemies' defences, allowing party members to kill them more effectively. This is an unusual, and initially difficult, class to play.
At the game's start, you can also select one of three combo-classes: the Infiltrator - a gunner that specialises in long-range attacks, backed up with the Engineer's debuffing; the awesome Vanguard - a balls-out warrior who blends the close-range attacks of the Soldier and the Adept; and the Sentinel, who focuses on defending and healing allies.
The early stages of the latter can be challenging, but Sentinels' more powerful abilities - such as higher-end biotics - are more devastating than the most powerful guns.
Combat plays out a little like Gears of War - having you dash behind various barriers searching for cover and pressing forward to deliver damage and use and abuse your various sci-fi talents.
Oddly for BioWare, combat is all in real time - mostly. Unlike Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire you don't have the option to stack attacks up in a paused queue.
The only time you can take a break from combat is when you give orders to your teammates.
This stops the combat briefly, allowing you to target your teammate's opponents and designate the next attack you'd like your buddy to use.
However, you never get to control their every move, as you can in KOTOR and Jade Empire. For this reason, you'll need to choose your class carefully to make sure you like its fighting style, as you'll be fighting a lot.
Most importantly though, fighting is fun. A common issue with KOTOR and Jade Empire was how floaty and distant combat felt, but in Mass Effect you
can turn the tide of battle with a well-placed shot, cunning use of cover, using appropriate weaponry or manipulating distance to your advantage.
For a BioWare RPG, you feel shockingly in control of your battles. For example, the Vanguard specialises in short-range weapons like pistols and shotguns.
Using the Throw ability (the biotic version of Force Push) you can slam an enemy down and give them a devastating gob of shrapnel.
I'd be going on a bit if I said that a mouse and keyboard will always beat a gamepad for accuracy and speed, but console veterans will find it hard to believe how much more control you have over Shepard and his cohorts, while those new to the game will find the controls natural and intuitive.
Once you've gained mastery of your squad, combat becomes a symphony of paused squad orders and real-time execution, and the thoughtful re-interpretation of the UI allows for a new feeling of grace and satisfaction.
You can forge a complex tactical battle with relative ease, which becomes incredibly valuable against the more unpleasant geth (lethal robots with a hive mind, and one of Shepard's major adversaries) found on the harder difficulty levels. You'll be forced to think on your feet, or lose your arse.
Thankfully, the tougher difficulties reward you with more experience, money and achievements, which many will be glad to hear aren't tied into Games For Windows LIVE.
So the rewards are there, for those willing to throw themselves at the mercy of the game's more brutal settings.
Talk To Me
On top of the first-rate combat, Mass Effect sports some of the most dramatic storytelling in gaming. Drew Karpyshyn's return (he was KOTOR's lead writer) is a good sign, and his story of a band of heroes saving the universe from genocide is as rich in canonical sci-fi elements (or cliches, to the less charitable) as it is in brilliant characters and humanity.
As Shepard, you are made part of the elite Spectre Unit, and at the behest of the Council (a generic governmental body that gets in your way) must hunt down rogue Spectre agent Saren to stop him unleashing an ancient race of machines which will kill all intelligent life in the universe.
You're not alone in your quest as you pick up all kinds of helpers on your journey, from the homicidal yet intelligent Urdnot Wrex, to Garrus, a humanoid bird detective with a chip on his shoulder.
Shepard's crew are some of the most memorable of BioWare's creations, and make for enjoyable conversation far beyond the main storyline.
Yet it's the Unreal Engine 3's ability to portray realistic expressions and body language, and the excellent voice acting and motion capture work that adds a cinematic nuance to cutscenes and conversations, which makes you truly engage with the characters you play and meet.
Emotionally and narratively Mass Effect does things like a big-budget movie, rather than settling for KOTOR's flat, empty-faced conversations: Shepard raises an eyebrow quizzically, Joker - your pilot - grimaces in embarrassment, and chief evil-doer Saren angrily chews space furniture like no other.
Dialogue trees are handled slightly differently to KOTOR and Jade Empire. Rather than selecting an exact sentence you pick a response that has a particular tone.
For example, telling Joker "You worry too much", starts Shepard on a diatribe about him being too cautious.
What's especially interesting is when you use charming or intimidating answers (highlighted in blue or red) they can end in an altercation, a threat or even flirting.
Beyond this, you're able to choose the generic paths of good (Paragon) and evil (Renegade), but there are areas where you're given choices that are definite shades of grey.
For example, when you're choosing between letting a murderous insect race live or die, characters voice persuasive opinions both for and against their genocide.
These decisions are only made more agonising by the genuine emotions that BioWare have invested the characters with. Even ardent evil-doers may find themselves edging towards friendlier acts when their long-neglected conscience comes a-knockin'.
What's more, good works don't negate evil ones. In KOTOR good and evil were on a sliding scale, so doing nice things made up for your prior evil doings in a vaguely Church of England manner.
People you encountered liked you - no matter how much of a dick you'd been a few hours previously. In Mass Effect, if you do evil, people will remember your reprehensible actions and act on them, even if it's the only blemish on a career path that makes a paladin look sleazy.
No Direction Home
Your choices do have an effect on the storyline, though they're not as pronounced as in, say, The Witcher.
Characters live and die by your actions, and fall in and out of love with you depending on how you treat them.
If you're clever, you can even create an uncomfortable love triangle which comes to a head in the briefing room like the critical scene of seminal classic How To Be A Player, with your two jealous paramours crossing their arms and pouting as you choose between them.
These moments of levity provide a welcome and much-needed contrast to the overwhelming shadow of impending doom that spreads over the whole game, encompassing a space operatic adventure that stretches over 20 hours on the first play.
And that's if you're mainly sticking to the primary storyline. Mass Effect's duration can be stretched further by exploring remote planets with the slightly irritating M35 Mako and taking the chance to search for strange and unusual stuff, from a small military base full of renegades to a gigantic angry Thresher Worm.
Occasionally, you'll also receive missions from the Alliance Navy, members of your team, or residents of the Citadel (the giant space station that's the centre of Mass Effect's civilisation) that lead to more complex quests that reward you with money and experience and - in one case - a brand-new class you didn't get offered at the game's start.
Some of these missions are genuinely brilliant stories - such as hunting down Dr Heart, an organ trader with a horrible secret, and watching in awe as the usually calm and friendly Garrus encourages you to shoot him in the head. Dramatic stuff.
There's not a lot to dislike about Mass Effect, but there are certainly things that could've been better.
The Mako is one of the least driveable vehicles in gaming history, bumbling around like a drunken St Bernard. The (mercifully few) times that you pilot it seem lacking compared to the rest of the game.
There are times when side missions feel repetitive, with many being nothing more than a brief skirmish, followed by a conversation that ends in either a friendly chat or a crispy corpse.
They're not all that low grade - especially in the case of the free-to-download Bring Down The Sky pack, which adds 90 minutes or so to the game - but the non-story planets can lack polish and variety.
If you have the Xbox 360 version of Mass Effect, you're in a pickle. On the one hand, there's nothing truly new here.
On the other hand, playing the game on a mouse and keyboard is like playing a brand-new game. Unlike its console predecessor, the PC version makes combat exciting and fun, depending less on auto aim and more on real skill.
After two playthroughs on the 360 and a third on the PC, I can honestly say that this is how the game was meant to be played, and the experience is incredibly refreshing.
If you've never played the game before, then this is an unequivocal must-buy. If you have, and the money's knocking about - then you still might be interested in playing the definitive Mass Effect.
This is simply one of the best action RPGs to come out in years: beautiful, dramatic and epic, with memorable characters, replayability in bounds and delivering fantastic in-game storytelling.
Considering you can complete the game a second time to try and get different endings, achievements and sexual partners, there's at least two plays here for both action and RPG fans alike.
If you are a fan of what BioWare's done in the past, like action with a hefty dose of sci-fi and want something new, or just like playing a really good game, then you owe it to yourself to pick up this fantastic title.