Ever since games started to muscle in on cinema's territory there has been one omission that has reduced the emotional impact the player experiences once the credits begin to roll. All too often a game will exert itself trying to emulate the look, dialogue, action and presentation of Hollywood while ignoring one vital element - the conclusion. Time after time gamers would battle their way through hours of gripping gameplay and enjoy/endure increasingly complex narratives only to reach the climax and find out that, in fact, there wasn't any such thing to be had. It's as if developers forgot that at the end of each and every movie, (excepting oddballs like No Country for Old Men) there's closure, where the various stories and plots come to an end and are tied up, leaving the viewer with a sense of satisfaction from a journey well taken. Often I suspect this omission is down to time constraints, or if I'm in a cynical mood, because developers/publishers reckon only a minority of people will see the game through to its end so why expend resources in actually delivering one?
Therefore it came as a relief that despite its wonderful production values, it's hauntingly excellent score, interesting characterizations and an overarching plotline that gently veered from the hokey to the genuinely captivating that Mass Effect ends with a bang, not a whimper. As a matter of fact, this bang registers on the Richter scale, with Mass Effect providing the most gripping and intense finale of any game I can remember. I hesitate to use top tier superlatives but I don't feel I'm going too far by stating it has the best ending of any game I've ever played, period. Come the conclusion I found myself already salivating for the sequel; left in a state of excited anticipation that is even more giddying than that felt after the season finale to a cliffhanging TV show like Lost. Never before have I felt so involved in an epic battle for existence and never before have I had such an emotional reaction to a game's climax.
You're probably wondering why I'm making such a big deal over the end of the game and where are my thoughts on what you will spend the bulk of your time playing, (other than that you're bound to have read what the game's about in other, less late reviews [well, quite - red-faced Ed]). Well the simple reason is Mass Effect takes its own sweet time getting the ball rolling. The story at the beginning still has sharp edges left by the cookie cutter, the action elements of the game appear muddled and broken and there are technical issues which, while they are not game breakers, do have the unfortunate ability to pull you out of the game universe and back in front of your TV, game controller in hand. Then there is the cursed Mako and related missions. The Mako is your exploratory ground vehicle, which the player uses to get from one tedious side mission to another. To make this element of the game seem even more unloved by development time, the driving mechanics can be infuriating, especially when you find you've landed on yet another world of spikes and deep gullies. I'd really hoped that Bioware would smooth out the terrain and hence tempers for the PC release, but they have not.
Nor have they improved the identikit maps for the side quests, sexed up the soulless arsenal nor dealt with the frame rates and texture pop-ins which were flashpoints in the ME console fanboi battle. We can lazily point the finger at EA, who acquired Bioware just after the game's 360 release but to be frank these issues would have taken a considerable amount of time to deal with completely. As a result, both PC and 360 owners will have to hold on for the sequel and hope that the towering storytelling no longer sways from weak technical foundations. PC gamers do, on the other hand, have a less aggravating inventory to play around with and all those extra buttons on the keyboard are put to good use. Other than these few minor and obvious differences there's very little to separate the two versions. If you own a beefy rig don't expect your ability to ramp everything up to the max to pay the kind of dividends you'd expect. If you don't own a rig that can handle the latest pixel shaders, steer clear. This game was developed for a console and the assets plainly betray that origin. EA has also seen fit to add in some well nasty DRM, so expect your game to treat you like a thief pretty much each time you play it.
PC gamers should not let any of these things put them off ME, however. For while the side quests are rather lame and the improvements over the 360 version minimal the basic fact is that ME is one of the finest games to appear in the last few years. Even if you are firmly a stat-based RPG person and the idea of having to use a TPS mode for combat makes your nose turn skyward, to pass over ME would only deprive you of a fantastic gaming experience and the best ending to a game, ever. The PC is still the home to true RPGs in the classic mold, but it would be churlish to dismiss all console RPGs out of hand, and just plain insane to ignore ME because you are still in a sulk that Bioware have proselytized themselves at the altar of console sales. Mass Effect would gain little from having been born on the PC and it's worth noting that the streamlining that occurs to make a game console-friendly helps gamers zoom past the first few rather dull hours and set their engines for warp towards that oh so delicious climax.
The mid-game is packed with difficult choices that really do affect how things pan out and there's plenty of scope for real role-playing. The action element also really picks up once your characters master the technique of point the end that goes zap at the bad guys and the improved squad dynamics add an extra notch on Mass Effect's bed post. Once things have really got going there's a lot to explore here, even if the optional explorations of the universe seem an unnecessary diversion. Choose to explore everything and this game will last you weeks. Focus on the main story and you can whizz through in around ten hours. Mass Effect has oodles of replayability too, not only in the form of different party members and the attitude of your central character to the universe, but also in the bonuses to your stats that you get from achieving certain goals. I've played every single Bioware game out there and while a number of compromises do stand out the central storyline and its related gameplay is some of their finest work.
Did I mention the last two hours are pure gaming and storytelling nirvana?