Technically speaking, Mass Effect is a fantastic game. The depth of the dialog options, the scope of the narrative, and the amount of content goes practically unchecked by any of its closest competitors.
Bioware's sci-fi role-playing shooter is a game currently available for the X-Box 360 and PC. This review will be addressing the 360 version of the game, not including any patches or downloadable content.
Bioware has a particularly distinctive style, which continues to show itself in their RPG titles of late. The three-member squad, third-person perspective, branched dialog, voice actor/actress choice, and method of weapon/spell selection all feel on the same vein as Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, and even goes so far as to feel like returning home after a long journey or meeting up with an old friend.
Mass Effect does stand apart from the sheer scope of the game. The narrative follows a human naval officer, Commander Shepard, into the early years of human's interaction with alien life. Having discovered the secret to faster than light space travel and an ability to traverse the Milky Way in thousandths of the time it would take, even with light-speed travel, humanity has discovered life "out there" and is trying to acclimate themselves into the society in space.
The main mission involves the hunt for what amounts to a rogue spy, eventually leading to the discovery of a virtually unknown extinct alien race, and a plot that has a drastic change on the course of all life in the universe. The main story alone provides about ten hours, with hours of side content available for the curious and exploration-happy players.
The amount of side content, customization choice, and polish of the game is remarkable without being too cumbersome, or even forcing itself on the player. Most of the missions come as a result of overhearing a conversation at a bar, or a news report played over the radio, and don't even have to be started, much less followed through. However, following through with side missions often knocks over the first in a long line of dominoes, opening up new side missions, learning more about Shepard's crew, and allowing room for Shepard's personality to grow.
The interactions with the crew members is well done, letting Shepard's personality shine through beautifully and letting the crew shape themselves and grow under Shepard's command. In some cases, they can even grow further and more distant from Shepard. Even to the point of attacking.
Although the writing is well done for Shepard's dialog, sometimes options still feel a little too black-and-white, and the obvious choice for one side or the other feels too unrealistic. The writing helps, but a bad situation can only be written so well. Beyond that point, it exceeds the willing suspension of disbelief, and Mass Effect flirts with that line frequently. Too frequently at times, and can ruin some of the immersion that the game normally achieves so seamlessly.
Beyond the story, the combat for Mass Effect is also fluid, switching from combat to at-ease situations quite readily where necessary. The fluidity and suddenness of ambushes and encounters adds a layer of likability to the title that, by comparison, is completely missing from other games of its type. A fluidity that is not missing from the combination of third person shooter and RPG elements. Combat itself is a joy to partake in, somehow managing to be strategic and adrenaline-fueled at the same time.
However, combat itself is unreliable, meaning the same fight with the same enemies could go horribly one skirmish, and swimmingly the next. The inconsistency makes for a frequent game of "repeat the battle," made all the worse infrequent autosaves and long cutscenes preceeding and postfacing major battles. And as bad as the problem is for human battles, the battles in the all-terrain vehicles are worse. Shield durability is incredibly variable, and the relative firepower of enemies against the vehicle are laughably vast in favor of the enemies. Large groups require countless breaks to recharge shields and hull integrity, while battle with small groups or individual foes become more a joke than a concern.
As well as inconsistent combat, spending time with the all-terrain Mako is oftentimes more an exercise in frustration than it is a joy to drive. The physics for the vehicle are almost cartoonish, allowing to drive vertically for a brief period given the right amount of momentum. The strange thing is that the mountain passes and constant need for all-terrain capabilities makes the bizarre physics a welcome sight, especially when navigating multiple planets in rapid succession.
Which is another problem with the game, the side missions. While they are frequent, their variety is limited. Usually condensed into "go to point A, shoot enemy B" spread across one or more planets. This means scaling several hundred alien planets' mountains almost ad nauseum, generally limiting the length of the mission to fifteen minutes of gunfights. Even the longer missions just repeat the process multiple times on the same planet or star cluster.
Even in the points where the game shines, it's littered with little problems like textures that load as while the player is navigating the map, or an accidental glitch that will wedge the player into rails or off of walkable platforms completely. Some even going to such extremes as killing the player for no reason other than being the unfortunate victim of a graphical glitch.
Simply put, Mass Effect's biggest flaw is simply being too good. The little flaws on any other game would seem trivial, but stick out so sorely when contrasted with the cleanness and almost childish wonder the rest of the game maintains. It provides a contrast point that makes the flaws seem so remarkable despite being ultimately, so trivial.
Bottom Line: Mass Effect is a fantastic game whose minor flaws build up enough to make a near perfect experience become seemingly unbearable at times. Although it is still without a doubt one of the best examples of what an RPG can and should be.
Recommendation: Buy it. It's worth every penny, frustration, and second of time spent.