So anyway, Mass Effect. I've mentioned that Heavenly Sword had the best digital actors in any game to date, and after some thought, I'm reconsidering my opinion. I still am crazy impressed by Heavenly Sword, but the digital acting in Mass Effect is on equal footing, it's just that the characters aren't as over-the-top.
Let's start from the very beginning (it IS a very good place to start, isn't it?). When you start the game, you have the option to create your character from relative scratch, or choose one of the two default characters. All the advertising is based off the default male character, and that kind of confuses me. I created my own character, making him look vaguely like a badass version of myself. He had the acne scars, auburn hair, reddish unshaven look, big nose, that sort of thing. I remember going through the game as him. I see the advertising for the game with the default character and think, "Wait. That's not the same game I played. The guy is different. Who's this guy?" Then I get back to thinking that yes, I changed the default, and its someone else. It's akin to watching the TV show M*A*S*H for years, and then going back to the movie and wondering who this Elliot Gould guy is where Alan Alda should be. Or Michael Gambon as Dumbledore instead of Richard Harris. You get the picture.
So anyway, I went through the game with badass-me as the main character. And we start, and I'm already blown away. It's a movie, complete with recognizeable actors, but you're able to interact with the story. There is actual cinematography, actual acting in an interactive sequence. For those who are not as exposed to gaming, this is unusual. Yes, games have been getting more and more artistic as of late, but this raises the bar dramatically. These conversation sequences play to the viewer's emotions, unfolding according to how you respond, but portrayed in a very watchable style (there's even a rack-focus in one of the tense scenes). There were times when I was watching the story unfold in conversation sequence, and I thought, "Meh, I've seen movies like this before." And that's the thing. Games are still a relatively young art form, not nearly as advanced as film. And yet, I was comparing this game to a movie and favorably.
The story is moderately straightforward, but difficult to summarize. For that, I'll pull straight off the website:
The galaxy is trapped in an endless cycle of extinction. Every 50,000 years, an
ancient machine race invades the galaxy. With ruthless efficiency, the machines
wipe out all advanced organic civilization. They leave behind only the scattered
ruins of technology, destroying all evidence of their own existence. Few believe
this ancient legend. You, however, know it to be true. The fight to stop this
extinction event has become the most important mission in the galaxy. As
Commander Shepard of the SS Normandy, you will take your elite recon squad
across a galaxy in turmoil, in a desperate race to stop the return of an enemy
without mercy. To stop this enemy, you must act without remorse, without
hesitation, and outside the limits of the law. Your only imperative is to
preserve the safety of civilized life in the galaxy - at any cost. You must
become the tip of the spear of humanity, for you alone know the full extent of
what is at stake if you should fail.
Yes, it's something similar to what I've seen before: Ancient big nasty thing wants to destroy everything in your world, and you have to stop it (Babylon 5, anyone?). But the way it is told is what makes it magnificent.
The gameplay varies, depending on the style. In conversation sequences, as noted above, it's freakin wonderful. Each choice you make changes your path in the story. You can be a tough-but-good guy, or you can be a heartless bastard. It's all up to you. I understand that this changes how the story unfolds, but I have only played the game once. The action side of it, not as good. It works, and you learn it as you go, but in order to be proficient in combat, you really have to stop the action periodically so you can queue up your next ability. Not such a big fan of that. Ultimately, it didn't leave a bad taste in my mouth, but it did bring me out of the story.
This is a great game, and I recommend it highly. And yes, as the big hulabaloo is all about, there is a sex scene, if you choose to develop your relationships well. However, this game is rated M, and therefore has restrictions for sale placed on it, just like an R rated movie. The fact that the sex scene is about as tame as that which you would see in a PG-13 movie, or on TV after 9:00 doesn't seem to enter critics' minds, but it seems as though reporting impartially and factually doesn't either.