By the time this article hits, most major review sites will have already dissected Bioware's latest creation, Mass Effect. I have no clue how it will be received—not that the game isn't great, which I'll explore in a moment—but whether or not reviewers will find too many small bugs, from texture pop-ins to the occasional glitch in a side mission/storyline to admit that the game is great.
I don't really know, and I don't really care. The game's constructs—loading times hidden within elevator rides and random worlds to explore that aren't nearly as gorgeous or detailed as the main story arc planets—will be clear to most of our readers and all of the critics. Hopefully the public will see these idiosyncrasies as a natural byproduct of pushing a system to its limits, the sweat on a sprinting athlete or burp after a good meal. Because Mass Effect is a pile of amazing. It's so good that I have the game paused right now and I'm debating whether or not I should keep writing. The trick of Mass Effect is that it's a completely conventional RPG—you still talk to Sam to talk to Sally to talk to Sam again. You still kill baddies or save someone's cat from the tree to gain experience (to thereby be better at killing baddies, but not necessarily saving cats from trees).
But the experience is so well articulated, so to speak, that Mass Effect transcends a simple class categorisation and becomes a statement all its own. More than any game that's come before, I identify with the main character. I feel like my words are the protagonists' words. And that the protagonist's fight is my fight.
The dialog scenes are a subtle revolution and a complete sham...in the best way. Beyond the masterfully cinematic direction and voice acting within these frequent back and forths, there's always a choice in how you'll respond to another character. You can be overly nice, sarcastic or brutally honest. In essence, you may not control the exact words your character speaks, but you will convey their tone. Sometimes this tone will affect a relationship or change a mission. But most of the time, it does nothing to change an immediate outcome.
Here's the kicker: I don't care.
I don't care that the choice is often an illusion because Bioware has come closer to speaking my voice than any game maker before. And I don't care that the idea isn't 100% new because it's executed so cleanly.
Feeling such a connection with the protagonist is an invigorating feeling. It means that I suddenly care about exploring side missions, learning about made up extinct civilization or memorising those classically horrid alien names that sci fi fans have had to suffer their way through since the beginning of time. And those times when the choice finally is real—when I can decide whether or not to eradicate or salvage a colony—I weight the consequences in a more substantial way than just wondering which response will make me more spacebucks. I care about...I kid you not...the fate of the galaxy.
By creating a uniquely close connection to the story's main character, Bioware can develop the story slowly, and make the game as much about exploring the Universe as conquering it. Instead of hyperfocusing on my stats bars maxing out, I've come to value every other element in the game that I normally skip over in an RPG.
Mass Effect has created a superbly interesting and beautiful world for exploration and battle. But more so, with Mass Effect, Bioware has justified a genre. Do I mean RPGs or sci fi? Maybe a little of both.