EA Mass Effect
Mass Effect is very much a Star Trek game under another guise.
It's you, as the gruff-yet-heroic starship captain, and your mixed-species crew of companions, against an evil force that threatens the entire universe. It's an age-old formula, but it feels absolutely right for a role-playing game. Most similar games have fantasy locales, but here the developer behind Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic has created its own space-faring universe.
Mass Effect's gameplay has much in common with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Bioware, the developer, has something of a formula, and Mass Effect sticks to it. It's broken up into conversation-heavy hubs that each lead to a series of linear, combat-based missions. For the most part, this approach does an excellent job of balancing brain with brawn.
The dialogue is well written and well performed and, as with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, you have a degree of choice over your responses. You can't make Shepard, your character, into a villain, but if you pick the aggressive conversation choices you'll soon create a rule-breaking sociopath who's even prepared to knock off his own crew members if they're not towing the line. There isn't much subtlety to it - you're either a nice guy or a mission-obsessed hard-arse - but it's your character making your choices, rather than a fixed template.
The combat doesn't fare so well, striking an uncomfortable balance between basing the effectiveness of your attacks upon your character's statistics and the real-time control of a first-person shooter. Noble intentions aside, it's clunky and disruptive. Fights tend to go disastrously wrong within moments of kicking off, forcing far too many replays. Fortunately, the difficulty can be adjusted up and down as desired. By reducing it, you can succeed on the abilities you've chosen for your party, rather than being forced to rely on the unwieldy cover system.
The degree of freedom just about compensates for the irritating gunplay. There's a core storyline that you ultimately need to follow, but between the start and end there are many more hours of optional adventures. There's not a great deal of variety, but the game certainly evokes the Star Trek ideal to "boldly go". There's even a space-buggy that you can steer across planets in search of loot and giant beasts, though sadly the conversion process from Xbox 360 to PC has lumbered the game with truly hateful controls.
Mass Effect presents a huge, wonder-packed universe with smart, grown-up dialogue. However, anyone who is familiar with Bioware's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or Jade Empire may find this latest variation on a theme a little bit too familiar.