<h2>The Fate of Everything Depends on . . . Your Chitchat Skills?</h2><br> Stop me if you've heard this one. In another wild and wooly future-verse, you're a military up-and-comer on an experimental stealth ship and improbably catapulted into the role of intergalactic savior and crack squad leader. As stories go, Mass Effect's rates better than Halo 3's, but--just to keep us honest--it's still, at best, like the work of sci-fi writers M. John Harrison, Robert Charles Wilson, or Gene Wolfe on training wheels. That's too bad, because wandering and wondering (out loud) form the core of Mass Effect's overbearingly garrulous game play. Pared down to a handful of stats, talents, weapons, and upgrades, the game's role-playing components interplay more like background noise than meaningful story-shaping elements. It's as if <a href="http://www.bioware.com/" target="_blank">BioWare</a> is hoping to return gaming to the days when bounding between locales and talking signposts subbed in for thinking and doing, and threw in the character-development aspects only begrudgingly to appease fans of their older, better RPGs like <a href="http://www.bioware.com/games/shadows_amn/" target="_blank">Baldur's Gate II</a> and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.