Video games like "Mass Effect" don't come around too often, and it's a good thing: This new science-fiction epic is so good it's basically sucking away all of my free time.
Action addicts who'd rather shoot first and think later might find it pedantic, but "Mass Effect" is a wonderful example of dorky digital storytelling. It's a space opera in the "Star Wars" tradition, sans the father-son limb chopping and inane romantic dialogue.
In this distinctive universe, the Milky Way becomes a staging ground for intergalactic political intrigue, some racy interspecies romantic flings, (yes, they went there) and, of course, battles with viscous aliens. (If you prefer aliens of the E.T. variety, fret not: There are plenty of boring, friendly creatures to chat with, too.)
In "Mass Effect," humans have only recently begun to find their place in a considerably larger galactic community. That's right: We arrogant humans hardly matter. There are more than a few creatures who'd like it to stay that way -- namely, the game's chief villain, Saren Arterius. As a special agent gone bad, he's on a zealous quest to aid a race of artificially intelligent creatures called Geth and destroy all intelligent life in the universe.
Sadly, we hardly see him during the game. Beyond that, unleashing a race of life-squelching monsters turns out to be dumb decision -- at least if you have any say in the matter. As human Commander (insert the first name of your choosing here) Shepard, you engage as a planet-hopping, alien-quashing superagent, called a Spectre, who goes sniffing around the vacuum of space for Kryik.
Like those endearing Choose Your Own Adventure books, "Mass Effect" gives players many paths to follow -- good, evil and somewhere in between -- by selecting from one of several responses during even seemingly mundane conversations. There's a ton of dialogue and it's well-done by video-game standards.
My earlier caveat to action gamers is warranted: If you run into the fray like some trigger-happy maniac, you'll die. "Mass Effect" battles are what it would be like if you could play chess, Dungeons and Dragons and rock/paper/scissors at the same time. There are many role-playing elements, which is cool because you can really tweak Shepard and your computer-controlled companions. Planning, strategy and skill-point allocation far outweigh fast reflexes.
The graphics are superb on the Xbox 360, with some of the most realistic-looking aliens ever (if that makes any sense). Dialogue sequences are shot like big-budget movies and feature wondrous backdrops such as sprawling space stations and seedy, dimly lit bars.
With games like this lasting for weeks, why even bother with commercial-filled TV space dramas you can't control?