Like many RPGs, Mass Effect has a bit of a slow start. I nearly stopped playing after the über boring Citadel part where you wander around aimelessly and get familiarized with meaningless, tedious sidequests. However, immediately after this the game gets a lot better as the plot stars picking up speed, you grow attached to your character and the game's mechanics start sinking in.
The main missions are a good mix of puzzle-solving, combat, cutscenes and amazing visuals. All in all, there's quite a bit of variety, not just in terms of environments but gameplay as well. On top of this, nearly every mission has segments where you get to drive around in your Mako car in open environments. Just as you're about to grow tired of some confined indoor location the game treats you with these huge outdoor areas with plenty of vertical details. The game's applauded universe is not confined only to logs and conversations but it's made pretty evident by massive structures that fill the game's numerous landscapes. Navigating from one mission to another is done via a starmap that gives a bird's-eye view of the Milky Way galaxy. It's here that you're free to explore star systems as you see fit.
There are also tons of sidequests; or so I've heard. I actually checked only a few of these (maybe seven planets) as the consensus among gamers and reviewers seems to be that the sidequests are a waste of time (and they are, based on the few quests I ended up trying). Moreover, I didn't want to get distracted from the storyline. The story had these cool elements that made you feel like you're in a race against time so it didn't even make sense to start deviating from the main quest. Also, there's no real reward for completing sidequests, no super boss waiting for a beating. Worst of all, every sidequest location is almost indentical design-wise with only some textures changed (to make the planets look distinct even though they're not) and furniture & decorations (such as crates) arranged a bit differently each time.
The characters are a mixed bunch. I have always thought that these Babylon 5 type of aliens have huge credibility problems. It just can't be helped that any scene involving aliens is unintentionally a bit silly. (No wonder then that I tended to keep alien characters out of my squad and had no reaction when one of them got shot.) Character animations and lipsync are great though as is voice acting (for a three-year-old game Mass Effect looks depressingly fabulous compared to, uh, DNF). You can get quite a lot out of NPCs by making conversation but I didn't find this appealing enough to really bother with it.
The game's biggest shortfall is the combat system. There are so many things
wrong with it that I don't even know where to start. The hitreg system is a bit
blurry so that you never quite know how well you're hitting. The recoil factor
is way overblown. Your squadmates die a lot, leaving you running a clinic.
(They're particularly vulnerable at close range, unable to perform simple manoeuvres.) There's a forced
melee mode that kicks in if an enemy gets too close. Big, tough fights are
usually preceded by cutscenes which means you have to go through them again in case
you die because saving is not allowed in the middle of a fight. The cover mode is a bit
unpredictable, getting in your way from time to time. And so on. Yes, this is an
RPG, not a shooter, but if any one of you actually liked these pervasive
elements then please raise your hand.
But it's not all bad. The composition of your squad actually matters a lot and there are some cool tactical aspects such as special abilities that are easy to use with hotkeys. Aside from the cover mode, moving around is pretty smooth and I liked how you're allowed to move the camera around.
Aside from this flawed combat system, the game's RPG elements work pretty well. Experience points are easy to come by but there are so many attributes to develop that you have to make significant tradeoffs when allocating points between the attributes. You're not only able to determine how your character looks (I built a female Aryan warrior, but I can see how someone might get kicks out of staring some guy's ass for 15-20 hours), but also her/his background and class. Your responses and decisions affect outcomes and determine whether you're a "paragon" or a "rogue"; I turned out to be a bit of both.
Things like weapons and armor can be upgraded with a rather simple system.
You're allowed to carry 150 pieces of equipment, be they ammo upgrades or
weapons. While this might sound like a lot, it's not and you quickly run
into the problem of having to get rid of stuff (or reduce it to Omnigel which
can be used for various tasks such as hacking). The problem is that if you
hit the limit while picking up stuff, you have to let go of your old stuff
without being able to view their properties first; you have to make guesses
based on names and equipment classes. The whole system reminded
me a bit too much of STALKER where I'd have to make stops from time to time
just to scroll equipment lists.
Equipment can be found as you play so you never really need to go shopping. Stores are probably run by some sort of a galactic Jew alliance because everything is too expensive and never quite worth the money (would you give up half of your income for a 10% improvement?). So I never bought anything and had tons of money by the end of the game.
Conclusion: Two hours into the game and I was ready to condemn it to hell, but after this the game turned out to be a lot better. With the help of logs, conversations and, most of all, level design Mass Effect boasts a credible universe. Aside from its very flawed combat system, the game's RPG elements work in its favor without compelling you to spend too much time in menus. Particularly, I loved the fact that you were able to build your character - her looks, personality and attributes - from the get-go which is something I haven't done before. The game gives you an opportunity to do lots of exploration of the galaxy beside the main quest; unfortunately rewards for deviating from the storyline are trivial. But even without the sidequests the game should keep you entertained for quite a while (nearly 14 hours in my case according to the in-game clock) as you're never really forced to get stuck doing one type of thing for too long.