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Back in the days of the original Xbox, Bioware created Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - an RPG based on the Star Wars universe. Not only was KOTOR a great game, but it also rekindled the flame of Star Wars properties for all the die hard fans who had fallen into despair after the appalling Phantom Menace and terrible miscasting of Hayden Christensen as Anakin.
KOTOR and the latter Jade Empire managed to move the console RPG genre on, appealing to a new breed of players, and giving a real alternative to games like Final Fantasy and Zelda. Therefore when I first heard about Mass Effect I had very high hopes, and those hopes were bolstered when I managed to get some time playing a preview build back in September. But now Mass Effect has hit the shelves and the big question is whether the finished product lives up to expectations.
Make no mistake, Mass Effect is a hugely ambitious project and on many levels Bioware has realised that ambition. The most obvious achievement is the visual experience - the graphics are, quite simply stunning. I'm not usually one to waste much time with character creation, I tend to jump straight into a game and not care what my protagonist looks like, but Mass Effect convinced even me to spend a ludicrous amount of time tailoring the appearance of Commander Shepherd.
The facial textures and animation are really second to none. In fact it's slightly unnerving when you're constructing your character, as they become more and more lifelike with every joystick flick and button press. You can make Shepherd either male or female, with the same dizzying array of facial customisation available to either gender. It's actually strangely compelling to create a character that is, to all intents and purposes, unique. OK, so there is will be a finite number of permutations, but the chances of anyone you know creating a character that looks exactly like yours are pretty slim.
But it's not just the characters that look great. The futuristic environments are lush, colourful and beautiful. A massive amount of care and attention has been given to the Mass Effect universe, and every planet, building and spaceship that you venture through looks superb. There has been a lot of talk in the office recently about the poor environment textures appearing in games at the moment, but no such criticism could be levelled at Mass Effect. Every wall, every floor and just about every other surface looks like its part of a real world, 3D environment, complete with relief. Just like in the real world, flat surfaces aren't actually flat, and you'll see pits and holes in walls as you wander around corridors. The environment is also subject to damage, so you'll see holes appear in walls as they absorb gunfire.