I played the opening chapter of Mass Effect the other night, and it was superb. Terrific voice acting, nice cut scenes and story development, and an interesting plot. The NPCs are well designed, adhering to stereotypes but not in a /facepalm way. Channelling Helen Mirren as the ship Medic is a nice touch :-)
The voice acting was the most surprising thing. Whenever I start a game I always turn subtitles on (in case of interruption or distraction) and normally end up turning down the voices in a game, but this was so well done that I listened to every word. The dialogue trees in particular are fun to explore – the choices you are given are more about the “feel” of your reply than the actual words. So for example the tree option will read “Do you agree Captain?”, but what you actually say will be more detailed, with interesting intonation and sometimes surprising emphasis. Which is far more satisfying than just hearing the avatar speak the exact words you just chose.
All of which gives me sudden new hope for the “all spoken dialogue all the time” approach that Star Wars: The Old Republic is taking. I had thought that this would be impossibly dull, and would instead become an “all skipping all the time” system. But if they can make it as interesting and well acted as ME, then maybe it will work. At least for the first toon :-)
The combat was a bit chaotic to begin with, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was doing with the various weapon options. I ramped the difficulty down (is “ramping down” even a legitimate concept?) as I am more interested in the unfolding story than struggling with a 3rd person shooter. I even almost let go of the instinctive mix-max character levelling process, setting my squad to “auto-level”, and generally letting the game recommend my skill upgrades. I don’t think that will last (I want to max out my “charisma” settings to open up more dialogue trees for example), but it makes for a more relaxing game experience. No meta-gaming, no Gamefaqs, and the game is still entirely playable and enjoyable.
The huge advantage a single player game has over the MMO is that the designers have total control over the plot. Cut scenes and dialogue choices force you to pay attention and make decisions. The downfall can be that if those scenes and choices are poorly implemented, you’ll lose interest in the game pretty quickly. That’s definitely not the case with ME.
Compare this to Warcraft, where no matter how often I vow to read the quest text, it very rarely happens. The advent of TourGuide and the like means it’s more zen to just click accept, follow the TomTom arrow, stomp something, and hand in. Blizz’s own improved quest tracking only reinforces the “a-b-c” approach to levelling. The only time I stop and pay attention is if something about the quest is particularly lore relevant (Wrathgate being the obvious example), but even then I often miss it due to the incredible complexity of the WoW backstory. There’s very few quest chains I can recall with fondness, despite levelling many-a-toon. Mulgore is the only exception, because, well, it’s Mulgore.
ME is compelling, good looking, interesting to watch, with some nice direction and the feeling that the game universe is super solid. Being in space after spending all that Warcraft fantasy time is refreshing to say the least – Outland notwithstanding ;-)