Your boss called. He's busy, so he needs you to take care of a few things today: Take the new spaceship on a test run, buy milk, discover an ancient alien civilization, save all organic life in the galaxy from annihilation, and get yourself a little cosmic bow-chicka-bow-wow in the process. If you don't think you can get all that done, he says he can probably wait until the weekend for the milk.
Well, of course it's impossible. But it's exactly what you do in Mass Effect, a starry-eyed space opera that melds the deep story and character development of a role-playing game with the bullets-flying action of a squad-based shooter. It's one part talking to the good aliens, two parts blasting big, gooey holes in the bad ones, and one part monster trucking over distant planets in your six-wheeled, cannon-turreted space buggy. It's also fan-bloody-tastic.
We'll start with the talking, which is actually Mass Effect's greatest strength. Hollywood wishes it could find a script and story like this. It starts with the discovery of an alien artifact (yet somehow it doesn't feel like Halo or 2001: A Space Odyssey) and ends with you rescuing literally every intelligent organism in the Milky Way from a grisly, violent death.
Too vague for you? Sorry. To say more would give too much away. Just trust that it's all great: plot, characters, voice acting, the sheer sense of scale - everything. Add in fantastic graphics and a cinematic flair, and the end result is a truly memorable story. Our only complaint was that it ended too soon - we wanted more.
Despite the quality of the cut scenes and conversations, everyone knows most problems are solved with firepower. At any given time, you'll be accompanied by two of your six crew members, who range from human soldiers to Wrex, a hulking, reptilian alien with the teeth and temperament of a crocodile with a toothache. And regardless of appearance, they can all use guns.
Thus, despite heavy RPG roots, Mass Effect's combat feels more like a squad-based, third-person shooter than anything else. You can use cover, you have customizable firearms, grenades and a melee attack, and the D-pad gives your wingmen instructions to go there, come here, shoot that, or take cover.
If you want to get even more tactical and RPG-like, pressing the right bumper freezes the action and enables you to select each team member's special moves. These range from making enemy weapons blow up in their faces to summoning a small black hole, so they make a big difference in battle. Constantly pausing to issue commands admittedly gives battle a more stuttery feel than the smooth gunplay in Halo 3 or Gears of War, and it can still get chaotic during the bigger battles. But it's nonetheless the shootin'-est role-playing game you've ever seen.
In fact, combat's only real weakness may be your enemies' low IQs. Few use coordinated attacks or flanking maneuvers, and many either just run straight at you or stand more or less in one place, firing away from afar but neglecting to give chase if you just back up. We'd really appreciate some more elaborate strategy next time.
It's worth mentioning that this is a beautifully realized game universe. No, it's not quite as colorful and dynamic as Star Wars - honestly, nobody's ever going to beat light sabers, wookiees, and Leia's slave-girl genie bikini. But Mass Effect's version of the galaxy is still captivating. It looks graphically stunning, and though tech-heads will notice that textures sometimes pop in a split-second late, nobody will really care.
The game world isn't quite as wide open as we'd dreamed - you can't land on every single planet (and those you can visit are often a bit barren), and you can't randomly steal things or kill civilians and get arrested like some kind of sci-fi Oblivion. But the staggering amount of attention paid to details and backstory - how hyperspace works, why the elcor aliens talk funny, what each planet is made of - makes the overall experience feel much more rich, realistic and satisfying.
The main critical path is 20-30 hours long, though it feels a bit shorter - probably because the main missions are quite long, so there aren't as many as you'd imagine. Optional side quests should supply you another 20 hours or so, and gave us a fun, Star Trek-like sense of wonder and exploration. They usually take place on different planets and you often have absolutely no idea what you're going to see or do. You might find yourself ambushed by a giant worm on a desert planet, trying to defuse a nuclear warhead in an abandoned mine shaft, or frisking space monkeys on a lush-but-poisonous paradise world as you search for a lost data module.
There are also a few small frustrations and peculiarities we were surprised to see in such a major game. Organizing, comparing and managing your inventory is a huge mess. One particular cavern map is reused over and over on different planets. You spend far too much time standing in elevators and run too slowly. It often places potentially plot-changing conversations directly after boss battles. And it's glitchy - twice, we had to restart our 360 because the game had completely locked up, and two other times we encountered critical doors that refused to open, forcing us to reload our saved game.
All that said, any weaknesses are handily overwhelmed by the game's amazing strengths. When we finished Mass Effect the first time, the very next thing we did was start it all over again. It's clear that this is the beginning of a fantastic franchise, and we're already salivating over the possibilities for Mass Effect II.