'Mass Effect' sets the course for future thrillers

It's fitting that BioWare tackle deep-space drama, considering its experience in the genre.

Four years after wowing RPG fans with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the developer composes its own intergalactic opus with the highly-ambitious Mass Effect.

As a role-playing game, Mass Effect arguably sets the template future titles should follow. As an action shooter, it struggles through bouts of inconsistency.

The anchor of Mass Effect is an unbelievably deep sci-fi story. As Commander Shepard, you must thwart an ancient machine race's attempt to render the universe extinct.

What's most impressive is the boundless amounts of information on the universe. You could spend hours just reading the codex, an in-game encyclopedia, on the history of Mass Effect's planets, technology and alien species. Combine this with character interactions and you begin to grasp a complete understanding of each being's actions and rationales, something unheard of in most games.

Most scenes play out like a blockbuster film, except you control your character's dialogue. A wheel appears at the bottom with a series of comments to choose. If you prefer to act brash, you select curt responses. You can also opt for a diplomatic role and choose more neutral replies. Your response will then influence future interactions with these characters as you advance in the game.

Mass Effect begins with the option to play as Shepard or create and customize your own character. You choose between six classes: Soldier, Engineer, Adept, Infiltrator, Vanguard and Sentinel. Each class varies based on three skills: Combat, Tech and Biotic.

For example, Adepts have impressive Biotic skills, or the ability to manipulate objects in the environment. Engineers are tech experts capable of short-circuiting enemy weapons and hacking computer systems.

As with most RPGs, you'll gain experience as you interact and explore your surroundings. As reward, you receive experience points you can use to upgrade your specific skill set and unlock additional powers.

Throughout the game, you'll access an easy to navigate mission computer, where you can gather info on new missions, modify weapons and armor as well as manage your skill sets.

Mass Effect's presentation compliments the story wonderfully, with intricately detailed landscapes and an epic score. Lifelike facial expressions and convincing voice acting help sell some of the game's more intense story moments.

Finding cover plays a huge role in the combat. You can also issue orders to the other two members of your party through basic squad commands like 'target' or 'take cover.'

Unfortunately, the action on the battlefield doesn't reach the high bar set by the RPG elements. The biggest issue is the frustrating artificial intelligence. Often, allies cluster next to you unless ordered or stand right in your line of sight. Also, in a game where finding cover is crucial, your allies don't feel like they need it, resulting in frequent deaths.

The inconsistencies spill over into enemy AI as well. Enemies are sometimes oblivious to cover and march toward you like a giant target. When their forces are decimated, solo enemies prefer to hide and refuse to return fire. Weapon customization and the biotic abilities ease the aggravation slightly, but not enough

If you can get past the deficiencies on the battlefield, you'll find a bold RPG in Mass Effect. It's been a long time since the plot of a video game has been so engaging. Hopefully, it isn't the last.