Bioware does their thing.
Mass Effect has some aspects that are good indicators that the game is interesting and deserves to be played. It's an RPG, but not an ordinary RPG, a Bioware RPG. The company that blessed the gaming world with classic titles within the genre certainly has good stuff in store for a new release. It's also a relief that people embrace the fact that RPGs are not just orcs, elves and fairies wielding swords combining magic potions in a Tolkien style fantasy world. The futuristic style is, if not groundbreakingly innovative, at least not same old.
As basically any western RPG today, you first customize your main character, choose his first name and kindly accept his last name, Shepard. Fitting since the voice-overs are abundant and being called by your last name by basically everyone feels right. The aesthetic options for different characters don't impress anyone, you can still change sizes, shapes and color of basically everything related to the main character's face, but finding a good first model to work on is painful. Getting a final result that satisfies, hard enough.
After making selection of class and other small details like his background story, you're ready to venture into the world of Mass Effect. The controls are actually weird at first, and might take a while to get used to, especially in the beginning where, in a action RPG with actual fire-weapons, the cross-hair will be sufficiently large to make it feels unwieldy and uncomfortable. Like you're shooting everything except your target.
But that's the thing, in an RPG you start small-time and climb your way up, it's not so easy when it comes to guns when most games just require good aim and a decent bit of skill. Sniper rifling will be hard at the beginning, the constant shaking will make it more about luck than anything else. But that's the beauty of RPGs. Things eventually get better.
But what's really important in the genre is not any of that, what's really important are the menus. Maybe I'm overreacting but a bad menu system hampers the fun one can have at such menu-heavy type of game. Just think Morrowind when it came out. Mass Effect doesn't offer simplicity at that, even though it's not generally bad, it's certainly not good. Mass Effect dwells in its messy complexity, it's not user-friendly at all, but can't be called hardcore with a steep learning curve. Most of the time it's just chaotic.
You gain experience by completing quests, killing enemies, taking certain paths with the story and so on. As you get experience you also receive points which can be used on your characters to improve their talents like shooting, assault training, intimidation, charm or one of the many different talents. Basicaly every weapon has its talent governing the prowess of that specific field, like improving pistols or improving shotguns.
The question about which kind of weapons the character might use the most is pretty interesting. Certainly improving assault and sniper might come as a no-brainer for most players, but won't you be using the pistols a lot more often? What about the shotguns? If taken as second-rate by most wouldn't it come in handy in some specific situations or change the way you face threats completely? I find that first playthroughs have players taking the "safe" decisions, second playthroughs tend to become more experimental.
This most likely will require a second playthrough though, during the adventure you'll have to choose responses to situations imposed by the game's incredibly solid and engaging story, based on your responses the game might hand out different outcomes. Most of the time it will be easy to tell how the answers are connected to the big picture. The first being the more heroic or by-the-book option, the second being the middle-ground, and the third is the rebelic, prepotent or cocky response. Even though that's pretty obvious, the highlight would be the final result with differing choices here and there.
Mass Effect even presents a counter that fills in based on your responses. After sufficient amount of interaction you might fill the meter to become a paragon or a renegade. The paragon would be the good guy, that does everything right and honorable. The renegade being the cocky bastard. For a more humane outcome a mix of the two would be nice, but in the end one of the two should emerge victorious, having serious relations to the ending and the story itself.
You might spend a lot of time inside your main ship, said to be the best in the galaxy, which would be the lobby where everyone get together and enjoy a good friendly (or sometimes not so much) conversation about anything surrounding them. Maybe one of their missions, maybe about their past, about their races and home planets or something they set out to do, asking for your help and finding a whole new quest. It's in-between missions that most bonding between characters happen, and when the story gets deeper, engaging the player even more.
When you're not inside your ship, free from the strictness of military work, you can only take 2 parters along. The decision must be made with caution since different characters have different abilities, and excel in distinct areas. As they interact during missions, people might also choose to choose based on what characters they want together, noticing the distinct kind of approach between them.
Another factor to take in consideration are techs and biotics. They are special powers characters learn if a certain talent is upped high enough. These powers are mostly for support, like barriers, throws, decryption and hacking. Some have place in battle, some will help get through the game investigating or avoiding more trouble. Using these abilities in battle is often clunky, especially when it's about a partner move instead of your own. The PC and its hotkeys help a little bit with that, but the extreme action focus of gun fight diminish their actual usefulness, at least for unexperienced players and first playthroughs.
Mass Effect is quite an achievement, when it comes to story and character development, as one would surely expect from Bioware. Each and every character is memorable. Their points of view toward the way things must be done set them apart from one another. Their backstory are interesting to get to know, even though not necessarily crucial to the course of everything. Players who know the long-time expertise of Bioware in creating engaging characters, beautiful atmospheric sceneries and a coherent base mixing it all up to forge an incredibly solid experience.
Mass Effect should please most gamers, even those not inclined to delve deep in its story. Its RPG elements are constructed well enough, and the shooting has the right dosage of strategy and role-playing to make it not feel like a mindless shooter of some kind. The game is fun from start to finish, and the amount attention to detail put into it really calls for a chance. Bioware does a good job again.