I got my eager, nerdy hands on a copy of the Xbox 360 sci-fi epic Mass Effect just over a week ago, a few days before its official release. My friends on Xbox Live were not happy -- "You jammy git!" was about the friendliest response to them seeing what I was playing. Forget or BioShock -- for dorks of a certain age, Mass Effect was why we bought a 360.
Sadly, this RPG hasn't been universally well-received, especially in the UK (although a metascore of 92 is rather good). Many reviewers have been disappointed with a variety of elements, from rather buggy graphical effects to the not-quite- combat, to the undercooked exploring elements. All of these are very fair criticisms, and the disappointment stems from the developer BioWare's stunning track record in this genre -- Knights of the Old Republic on the original Xbox is one of my all-time faves.
And to be perfectly frank, Mass Effect really isn't anything new. It's KotOR with a wider range of planets to visit and prettier graphics. The gameplay hits all the same buttons: playing through a grand science-fiction story, seeing everything in the galaxy, and (most importantly) customising your characters through levelling up skills, choosing equipment and making moral choices.
Maybe it isn't the cutting edge of next-generation gaming, but I love it all the same. It's a huge pleasure to experience these familiar, comforting pieces of gameplay in a lovingly crafted, beautifully written new universe. I'm about 20 hours in, and I'm already planning my second character -- if I'd paid for it, I'd certainly get my Â£40's worth (cue more abusive messages from irate games-buying chums).
BioWare has planned to make Mass Effect into a trilogy on 360, which is a mouth-watering prospect. You'd definitely expect all the bugs and flaws in this game to be eliminated in a sequel. My only concern is that it hasn't sold very well -- it didn't even get into the all-format top ten on its week of release -- which would discourage investment in a Mass Effect 2. Hopefully people will pick it up next year when there aren't so many games around. It'll certainly keep you busy in the traditional New Year game drought.