Every RPG has choices, but how many actually effect matters of life and death? Thousands of games let you pick answers, but with no effects on the story. A few create branching storylines, but in the end, all roads lead to the inevitable ending of the game. But there are a select few games that let the player shape their own story, and even decide the fates of their teammates. It's games like Mass Effect that raise the bar for the term "moral choices", bringing the player to a world that depends on them for leadership and protection. A world where great power means great responsibility.
Mass Effect puts you in the combat boots of commander Shepard. The only limits are your character's name and race(human). Everything else, facial features, hair, gender, and even your character's background can be dynamically changed to fit your preferences. The game puts you right into commander Shepard's role as a military officer in the Human Alliance Navy, where you must complete a mission aboard the Navy's top vessel, the SSV Normandy. I won't spoil the story for you, but in the events that follow, Shepard's role becomes much bigger, as a threat greater than all organic life in the galaxy is slowly revealed.
However, it's not the game's great story that steals the show, but it's the deep, likable characters. Most of your squad members aren't human, yet you will learn to understand each of your soldiers' back story, culture, and even their views towards other races and squadmates. The game's script is detailed and involving, worthy of any science-fiction book or movie, and the fact that you choose your own dialog only amplifies the sense of control over the relationships you make with other characters. It's even possible to pursue relationships with some characters, as well as friendships and trades. A new system called the “conversation wheel” lets you choose between a self-serving, ruthless path, a selfless, kind path, and options for ending the conversation quickly or drawing it out for more detail.
The graphics are top-notch, even for a game released in 2008, and many modern PCs could run it at max settings. The sound design is complimented by an interesting synth-heavy soundtrack, and plenty of science fiction sound effects.
The gameplay may be it's weakest point, but that's not saying much. Shooting is simple at best, but is still satisfying and fun enough due to the heavy RPG influences. Weapon-modding is extremely intensive, and if you don't play RPGs, you could be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of items at your disposal. Action sequences aren't hard at normal difficulty, but some battles will have you rethinking your tactics. There is also some slightly awkward planet exploration missions using your six-wheeled tank, the Mako. The gameplay, while slightly lacking, is still extremely fulfilling and weapon modding is a great game mechanic. There are many other parts of the game I don't have the time or space to list, but overall, the gameplay is Mass Effect's weakest point, but it is still excellent.
Bioware's efforts in sci-fi RPGs have paid off in the Star Wars universe, and they've done it again, this time creating a world that draws you in, and this is a world you won't wish to end. You'll want to save the galaxy, if not only for the sake of the great characters, then simply for some great, satisfying gunplay. The setting of Mass Effect is a galaxy that you won't soon forget.