Despite some minor design flaws, it exceeds expectations.
When I first heard about Mass Effect, I was excited beyond belief. Bioware, known for their great role-playing experiences was nearly sure to deliver, and overall, they definitely did. Once you start the game, you get to make your character if you choose not to use the default (made famous by pre-release trailers). The character creation system allows you to decide on your character’s background story, which actually affects what other characters in the game say to you. You also get to customize your character's gender, face and head, though nothing else. Nevertheless, you have quite a lot of options with what’s already available.
On the technical side, characters and environments alike look absolutely astonishing. The animations are very well done throughout the entire game, especially the facial animations. Granted, there are a couple of downsides. The most noticeable is the texture pop-in. You could be riding in an elevator, which is how the game masks most load times, and when the elevator doors open, the room you are going into will have next to no textures. A few seconds later, they’ll start to show up and they do look great. The same goes for conversations. For a good bit of the conversation, you could be looking at a texture-less character model, waiting for them to load on screen. Another downside would be the frame rate issues. They are mostly prevalent in battles where a lot of things are going on at once. Overall they hardly affect the game unless you happen to be one of those people who let small things like that bother you.
The combat system itself is a mostly real-time combat system except you can pause and queue up skills on yourself and two squad mates. The choices will depend on who you select as squad mates, but there are plenty of different skills such that you probably won't get bored of them too quickly. When in combat, your aim hardly has an effect on accuracy. With Mass Effect being an RPG, the hit percentage here is dependent on "die rolls" behind the scenes. As long as you have the target in your targeting reticule, you have a chance to hit. On the other hand, you could have a sniper rifle targeted squarely at someone’s head and still miss. Unfortunately, these particulars may put off those who would mistake Mass Effect for a shooter, which it is most definitely not.
Sound can be a major part of any video game, and Bioware was aware of this. The sound effects when in combat are well done. From the guns, the biotic powers, to the enemy sound effects, they all sound well made and have power. The musical themes also fit each situation almost perfectly. Of course, what most people want to know about when you talk about Mass Effect and sound is the voice acting. Simply put, this is the shining point of the game's audio. I was greatly surprised when I first started playing and had a conversation. The voice acting is the best I've ever heard in any game; none of it is overly dramatic or dull, and all of your conversations flow very well and sound believable. Minus the occasional pauses between responses, such as when you’re deciding what to say, the conversations are the high point of the game's presentation.
The story itself isn't original on its own merit, but with the conversations within the game and the character attachment caused by the character development, it becomes an emotional experience in the later missions. It reminds me of Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and a few other lesser known sci-fi stories all put together really well. There are multiple endings depending on the way you play the game and they are all equally satisfying in my eyes. The ending you get also depends on your character’s 'alignment'. When talking to non-player characters or executing certain actions, you gain Paragon (Good) or Renegade (Bad) points. You can max out each one separately, so it isn't like you have to choose one or the other. Once you finish the game for the first time, you’ll likely find that it comes to a close wonderfully.
That brings me to replay value. With the different ways the story pans out depending on your choices and character type, the fact that you can play most of it in any order you want, and the different character types available, you will likely get at least three playthroughs out of it. The best part of that is that you can start the story over with your existing character, with all of your experience and equipment intact. I must say, it is rather enjoyable to start a new game with equipment that completely demolishes all of your enemies.
Overall, I would recommend Mass Effect to any RPG fan, as well as any Sci-Fi fan. I feel safe in saying that you will not be disappointed.