Gaming: Mass Effect – The essential catch-up guide

For those of you out there who are of the Xbox 360 persuasion, you may have heard about a little sequel called Mass Effect 2 – due to hit stores in Europe on Friday 29.

“But I’ve never heard of ‘Mass Effect’?!?” I hear you cry. Well, I hope to try and explain what it’s all about to those of you who are new to the Xbox family, or just those who the first game passed by, clued up on this tremendous and potentially genre defining sci-fi franchise.

So, what on Earth is ‘Mass Effect’?

Mass Effect is an Xbox 360 game released in 2007 (though it also got a PC release in 2008). The game sees you control Commander Shepard, a soldier in the Alliance, through the tense narrative of a space opera, which sees you uncover the truth behind an ancient evil threatening the galaxy and defeat it. Imagine playing your way through a mixture of Aliens, Star Wars and The Wrath of Kahn and you’re half-way there.

Why’s it called ‘Mass Effect’ then?

‘Mass relays’ are technology supposedly left behind by an ancient race which became extinct over 50,000 years ago called the Protheans. The relays allow spacecraft to travel across the galaxy over great distances in a short space of time, in a similar way that Warp and Hyperdrive work in Star Trek and Star Wars. The Citidel is the hub of the relay network, and since the technology was discovered the galaxy has been connected through it, allowing countless races to come together to meet, trade and share their own technologies and knowledge.

So you control this guy?

When you first start a new game you must create your character. Like many RPGs (role-playing game), you are offered the choice of a male or female character and an array of different classes which affect how you play the game. The in-game universe contains three main skill-sets – Combat, Biotics and Tech – which each class has varying degrees of. Combat is the skills of a traditional soldier, if you fancy the ‘all guns blazing’ approach then this is the skill-set to focus on. Biotics are a strange psychic-like force which allows you to levitate enemies in the air, throw them or otherwise immobilise them, meaning fans of spell-casting classes in other games will feel most at home here. Tech is, as the name suggests, focused on technology and levelling the battlefield in more of a supporting role than an out-and-out fight, making the players who use this ability more team-focused in combat, allowing your allies to get the kills while you weaken or hack the enemy troops.

So…why does how you play the game matter?

When talking to other characters, interactive dialogue options allow you to choose what Shepard says next, meaning you can change the way you respond to certain characters or react to situations in the story as they unfold. You can be as chivalrous or as dastardly as you fancy, turning your character into a ‘just’ hero or a hard-ass soldier as you level up and gain skill points to spend beefing up your character’s abilities and attributes. If you are nice to characters you meet in the game, they will often help you, or pay you to carry out certain missions, but if you aren’t you may have to fight your way to your goals, or knock down whoever is in your way rather than talk your way past them.

What is the point of the game?

At the opening of the game, a lone human colony on Eden Prime has discovered a mysterious artefact, your first mission is to go there and uncover what is going on. It soon transpires that the colony is under attack from an race of enemy machines called the Geth, under the command of a renegade Spectre agent: Seren. As the plot thickens, you must stop Seren from unleashing an even greater enemy and wiping out life in the galaxy.

‘SPECTRE’, isn’t that a James Bond thing?

Spectre stands for: SPECial Tactics and REconnaissance, an elite fighting group working directly under the Alliance council as their right hand their “first and last line of defence” and have access to unique weapons and equipment to get the job done, like a sort of inter-stellar SAS.

Didn’t I hear something about getting cosy with an alien?!

There are countless sub-plots in the game and one of the most controversial of these is the ‘romantic’ sub-plot. As Shepard you can attempt to woo some of your fellow adventurers between missions as the main plot progresses, leading to the inevitable just before you visit the final planet of the game – providing you’re particularly charming and romantic, obviously.

So what makes ‘Mass Effect’ worth playing?

For all those people who say computer games are nothing more than blinking lights and killing people, this game takes a chance on giving players a decent story to follow, and it pays off. Despite faithfully holding on to the traditions of the sci-fi of yore, the story is put across in a very sheek and modern style, and the interactive nature of the narrative means that the game can have several different endings depending on the choices the player makes during the game. On top of that the characters are full and realistic, with some very talented voice-actors lending their voices to the game, including Keith David as Captain Anderson, who has been heard lately in gaming blockbuster Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 as Sergeant Foley.

And what about ‘Mass Effect 2’?

There are some problems with the first ‘Mass Effect’, but the game’s developers BioWare have gone to great lengths to ensure these issues are addressed, and improved upon significantly in the sequel. The feel of the new game is much quicker, with the combat being easier to navigate and the visual detail of the game being greatly stepped-up. The most exciting feature of ME2 is the fact that the decisions you make in ME1 carry over to the next game if you continue your save. Something this ambitious has never been tried before, since the choices players have made can mean some characters will be either alive or dead in the second game. Side quests and plot points which seemed insignificant in the first game may prove to be important in ME2, creating a very different and individual game. BioWare always intended the games to pan out as a trilogy, meaning the stark contrast between different games is set to get even wider when Mass Effect 3 is released.

So, hopefully that has answered some questions. For those of you who are yet to play either game I would strongly recommend playing through the first one first, since the entire second game will be far more enjoyable once you know the characters, though if you do want to skip ahead you can start a new game in Mass Effect 2 with a ‘standardised’ storyline. But the beauty of this game is in the amount of detail put into it, from the moment you set foot in The Citadel for the first time, you get an epic sense of scale at what BioWare have created with this expansive universe. Even if you can only just stand science fiction, I would highly recommend buying this game. Since you can now pick it up for not much over a tenner, what have you got to lose?

James Michael Parry

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