From the late ’90s through the first half of this decade, Canada’s BioWare revolutionized computer role-playing in the West by making imaginative use of the Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars licenses, forging the first single-player RPGs to properly re-create the experience of getting sucked into one of those undergraduate friends-around-a-table sessions that could make poker tournaments seem brief. In 2005, the company created its first original game universe in the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon–influenced Jade Empire, which in retrospect seems like a dry run for the company’s latest and most ambitious project.
With Mass Effect, BioWare offers a woven-from-whole-cloth future with a level of history and cultural detail that the Alien and Star Trek franchises took years to accumulate. Players are thrown into the deep end as Commander Shepard of the SSV Normandy, a character whose predetermined traits are limited to age, rank and surname: Gender, appearance, sexual preference and areas of expertise are all chosen by the player, as are past psychological traumas that influence the way characters parse events. Much of the story unfolds via dialogue sequences in which you select menu options to obtain info from the computer-controlled characters, who are voiced by well-chosen fanboy favorites such as Seth Green, Keith David and Lance Henriksen. Mass Effect is part one of a scheduled trilogy, and while part two is almost certainly more than a year off, the outcome of this initial chapter varies so dramatically based on player decisions that exploring all the possibilities should keep us busy until part two arrives.