Mass Effect

The team at BioWare knows how to suck players into a story: They give you just enough freedom to personalize your protagonist, and then they spend the whole game telling you who you really are, what you're doing—and most tantalizing of all, what'll happen to you next. When Mass Effect gets going, it's impossible to put down. Yet the payoff falls short, and not just because of the gameplay. (Though whole sections of the game do look like they came from the interns: the color-matching hacking puzzle, the half-hearted shooter action, all those mysterious, mysterious planets that turn out to be two valleys and a pile of junk, and the stupid ground vehicle that's as lethal as a Ford Taurus with a shotgun taped to the hood.)

Role-playing-game addicts could easily ignore gameplay problems if the story kept delivering. Yet Mass Effect feels like the first two acts of a great space opera, and the main villain and the most intriguing parts of the backstory have been saved for a sequel. The non-player characters that hang around with you have also taken a major step back, with less dialogue and none of the spontaneous clashes (and subtle flirting) of BioWare's past high-water marks, Baldur's Gate II and Knights Of The Old Republic. The graphics keep improving, but the diehards would rather be immersed in the words.

Beyond the game: Mass Effect crams a lot of setting into a single game. Spend enough time reading up on the history and politics, and you'll start to see how much is hanging on a split-second decision.

Worth playing for: Panting over the lesbian sex scene will lead some players to pick a female protagonist. But the real reason to play a woman is the fantastic voicework by Jennifer Hale.

Frustration sets in when: All those side missions feel like a distraction while you're hurtling toward the destruction of the galaxy. But make sure to finish them before you get too far: Once the main story's over, you can't go back and explore what you missed.

Final judgment: A space opera with huge potential ends in a shrug.