Mass Effect has two personalities. Most of the time, it's an exciting, fully realized sci-fi universe with fast paced combat that's got RPG bits sprinkled on top. Sometimes, however, it's a buggy game with long load times, bad AI, and an over-simplified binary good/evil system that has no real bearing on the outcome of anything. If only Bioware had figured out how to excise the demons that tarnish its better half, Mass Effect could have gone from just good to excellent.
Bioware's console games have been known for mixing action and deep RPG elements, like a parent mixing in a bitter pill with candy- knowing it's good for you, even if all those words and numbers get in the way of killing things from time to time. Mass Effect skews more on the action side of things than KOTOR or Jade Empire. In fact, it's possible to ignore the fact that you level up skills or get experience entirely, simply by allowing the game to level up your characters for you.
There is a great deal of variety in your experience based on the class of your character. Some weapons only are competently useful by the soldier class, for example, and certain biotic/mass effect abilities only appear in others. Unlike Bioshock, which was disappointing in allowing a character that could effectively specialize in everything, Mass Effect encourages replay by limiting your character's abilities. Bioware should have placed a disclaimer on the classes limited in weapon use, as many of the games battles are exceedingly more difficult for these characters.
Fortunately, you're accompanied by a variety of companions that bolster your abilities. Your control over them is more limited than past Bioware titles, to a fault. Typically they're intelligent, but that gets quickly forgotten the first time they run out of cover and get themselves killled, both reducing your abilities at hand, and drawing the enemy out towards your position. These companions are dull, compared to KOTOR's characters. Wrex is the only real interesting one of the bunch. The rest are pretty forgettable, and I didn't see any reason to delve into their stories.
The combat in mass effect is fun, but frustrating at first. The game has absolutely no tutorial. Either experiment and die, or study up on the instruction manual before playing. A few hours in, however, and you'll be tossing enemies in the air, putting up telekinetic cover shields, and melting your enemies weapons in their own hands.
Mass Effect could properly be classified as a third person shooter, and a competent one at that. However, the cover system is finicky, often sticking to objects when you want to move past them, and taking too long to stick when you're frantically moving under a barrage of enemy fire. The enemies you encounter also don't add much to the experience. Many of the encounters consist of a room of enemies that, upon discovering your presence, rush you until one of the two groups are entirely dead. Uninspired, but good enough- much like the rest of the game.
In Mass Effect, if you're not shooting, you're probably talking. Fortunate for it then, that the voice acting and story are top notch. There's always going to be people who can't abide story in their games, and be warned- Mass Effect has plenty of it. For the 20 or so hours I spent with the game, nearly half was spent in some kind of dialog. It's a credit to the game that I never became bored with it, but this isn't the "F YEAH" gung ho military game you're looking for. Bioware really overdid it with the backstory. There is a huge amount of codex information about everything from each planet in the game to individual technology. You need exactly none of this information to enjoy the game but it's nice that it's there for those who might get drawn into this world Bioware has created.
Mass Effect doesn't exactly deliver on its promises of dynamic conversations that change and flow with your responses. Your choices are very clearly marked as good, evil, inquiring, and continuing with the conversation. Bioware was smart to include abbreviations of the dialog choices, where choosing something like "I won't allow that!" might initiate a longer dialog, or get someone shot in the face. It always bothered me in KOTOR that the voice overs followed almost exactly the text shown on screen, giving me zero reason not to just read, and skip over the lengthy voice overs. Mass Effect does it better, adding some suspense and ambiguity to your choices that keep the conversations interesting.
So which side wins in this clearly flawed, but nonetheless enjoyable experience? I'm siding with the good, because although there's some framerate problems, very long and frequent load times, simplistic AI,very basic moral choices, and a cliched story with somewhat forgettable characters, I did really enjoy the game, and would gladly play through another couple times. I completely recommend Mass Effect for anyone who's even remotely enjoyed Bioware's console games in the past. Just as Jade Empire made their brand of RPG work with hand to hand combat, Mass Effect blends it with the third person shooter. read