We waited a long time for the PC version, and here it is at last: Mass Effect is an awesome space epic in which you, as an elite above-the-law agent known as a Specter, must prevent - what else? - the destruction of all life in the galaxy. With action-packed gameplay, excellent art design, and cinematic flare, BioWare has successfully created a universe as believable and fully realized as Star Wars or Star Trek. In fact, you could (but don’t need to) spend hours just reading up on the back-stories of all of the characters, alien races, and the history that sets the stage for the events of the game.
As a newly-appointed Specter, you’re given command of the Normandy, the most advanced ship in the Alliance fleet (plus its gravity-defying landing vehicle, the Mako). Like the keys to your first car, this is your ticket to freedom. You can explore the galaxy at your own pace - burn through the main quest, take on some of the dozens of side quests for extra XP and loot, or simply cruise around looking for trouble. Playing through the main story and completing about half of the side quests kept me happily occupied for around 24 solid hours, so completionists can expect approximately 30 hours for a full game. That’s not counting the second playthrough you’ll probably want to do in order to catch all the things you missed because of certain decisions, by not playing as a different class, or because you didn’t take certain team members on certain missions.
However, your second play-through won’t end much differently than your first, because the power of your choices over the story is somewhat limited by one inevitable outcome. While you have ample opportunity to treat people like dirt (some of which can result in the deaths of major characters and team members) and exhibit some unfriendly human-supremacist views, the big picture is unaffected by your actions - in other words, you can’t truly turn evil. That’s kind of disappointing, because the impact of having to make a choice is greatly reduced if it doesn’t really make a difference in the grand scheme of things.
Playing as a pacifist isn’t an option, either, since 99 percent of foes aren’t willing to negotiate. Combat plays exactly like a cover-based shooter (there’s no meaningful melee combat), though whether you actually hit what you’re aiming for depends on your character’s stats. Depending on your character class, you may have access to “biotics” (essentially, Jedi powers that can push or disable enemies) and technical skills to back up your firepower. You’re always accompanied by two allies, and you can hold the space bar to pause the action and manage their targets and abilities with a simple but effective command system (using an interface that’s far superior to the Xbox 360 version). This also lets traditional RPG players pause to line up their shots, which takes any undesirable twitchiness out of the equation.
Looting is streamlined - your vanquished enemies drop items directly into your inventory, eliminating the need to individually search corpse pockets in the aftermath of every battle. This speeds up the pace of play, though it does break the immersion a little. How did I get a gun from a guy I sniped 100 yards away? Which brings us to the stand-out worst feature of an otherwise excellent game: inventory management is a nightmare. When trying to buy or sell, all you get is a completely disorganized list of items with no helpful filters (like viewing only weapons or armor) to find what you’re looking for, or even stacking of identical items. There’s also no way to quickly swap out weapon mods - going up against different kinds of enemies requires different types of ammunition, and having to navigate the inventory screen to swap every time is a pain.