I recently finished Mass Effect, and decided that a review is in order. This is going to be more of a "my thoughts on" than a very detailed text, just to give you an idea of what I found good about the game, and what I found irritating.
First of all, I have to say - this is not as good a game as I thought it would be. Some of my friends called this a very good RPG, and a very good video game in general, and I have to admit that overall, my 25-or-so hours spent with Mass Effect were enjoyable. Unfortunately, I saw way too much small things which ruined the overall experience for me. Some may call this nitpicking, but to those people I can only answer "The fact that they didn't bug you doesn't mean they weren't there.". Anyway, lets deal with the plot first, because that's usually seen as BioWare's 'thing'.
The story itself is strong, but it is full of cliches (saving the world, being it's last hope, the only person capable to turn the tide... boooooring), and it seems largely reused from KOTOR! Let's see... the antagonist is known from the start: check. The antagonist searches for an artifact to give himself the edge in the coming conflict: check. The protagonist receives a 'promotion' early in the game: check. There is a race of ancient beings with which both the Protagonist and Antagonist interact: check. Visions as one of the game's themes: check. I probably could pick out other stuff, but let's just add the stereotypical characters (especially visible with Wrex who is a re-themed Canderous Ordo). Seriously, it's ok to praise Bioware for the plots of their games, but am I the only one who noticed this? Not cool.
Anyway, there are some memorable moments in the plot - probably the one which is the most crucial is a choice you have to make late in the game (sacrifice teammate A or teammate B), and some other ones which leave an impact. However, those do not come close to the important and long-term choices you were forced to make in The Witcher (which is, by the way, a very underrated game and probably one of the best cRPG's out there).
The locations you visit throughout the game range from interesting to run-of-the-mill, with some beautiful planets (Virmire being a prime example for me). Unfortunately, again, there are some hickups. First of all, some locations are simply reused all the time (interiors of the ships and mines), while other have an uninspired feel to them (say what you will, but The Citadel didn't make an impression on me at all). Secondly, the exploration missions which constitute a good part of the game grow tedious very fast, and the bad driving mechanics do not help. You traverse the surfaces of planets in Mako, a six-wheeled tank-ish vehicle, which is, apparently, made of rubber and doesn't weight a thing. You can go up a steep slope, and on your way down, if you hit the wrong direction key at a wrong time, you'll do a 180 degress spin, or start turning around in the air.
Surveying the planets is also a bit pointless. All you have to do is select a planet and click a single button for the planet to get surveyed for artifacts or resources. Which simply means, that if you want to finish some of the quests, you are forced to mindlessly click all the planets in a system, as if it couldn't have been done automatically (it doesn't cost you any effort anyway, and what's the point of clicking a planet if you're not planning to click a second time to get the prize?).
Those, however, are secondary missions. Or even tertiary, really, since you've got some strong secondary plots going on without the tedious surveying and driving around in Mako. The main story is, as I already mentioned cliched and, at points, derivative, but I think the main problem with it is that it lacks immediacy. In KOTOR you got cutscenes which showed you Darth Malak plotting and advancing his plans. The main antagonist of Mass Effect, Saren, is seen once at the begining of the game, the a second time in the last-but-one main quest, and as a boss in the games' finale. Of course you fight with his allies, the mechanical Geth, but because you do that all the time, you stop seeing them as any threat. They are just there, and you have to get rid of them to progress. No threat, immediate or otherwise is felt - the NPC's (outside of your team) don't even bother to point out that your search for Saren is of the utmost importance from time to time.
To finish off the plot-talk, I have to say that I was pretty dissapointed in the choices you are given. As a rule, you can only resolve a situation in two ways. There are no middle options, no chances to role-play subtle traits of your character. In one mission, you can either kill a bunch of crazed settlers, or try to pacify them in a non-violent way - the only choice you get is how many of them you wish to spare. No options for sneaking past them, or creating some diversion. This is quite poor, but then again, I haven't seen any game transcend this yet. Which is, by the way, both a shame and an interesting problem to discuss.
I found some of the mechanics very puzzling at first, and they haven't become clear even nearing the end of the game. My main problem was the abundance of items you can collect. First of all, you've got four main weapon categories, but with no control whatsoever over which weapon the NPC's will use, you never know which gun you should give to which party member. One of the few characters who can use a Rifle - Wrex, kept using a Pistol by the end of the game, for reasons unknown to me. For the main character, this isn't cool either. There are no real differences between, say, Sniper Rifles and Assault Rifles if you have the same skill in using them. There is a difference between a sniper rifle and a shotgun of course, but other than that, the weapons are pretty much interchangable. And with the number of different models in a category, it can get quite silly when you try to min-max your team with no knowledge of what weapons are actually going to get used. You can also customize ammo, which is a fair option, but it only adds to the general feeling of "Too much options". Also, your inventory can get clogged pretty fast, and there's virtually nothing to do with excess equipment. Sure, you can change it into Omni-Gel (with a limit of 999, which I reached right after half of the game and seldomly fell under that later on), or sell them, but you've got way too much money anyway, so what's the point?
On the other hand, the system for character progression is great. It's intuitive, you can see what you are getting and all that, but again, it was hard for me to judge which skill I should put points into. In KOTOR or The Witcher, I always had a skill or two which I knew I wanted to get. Here, it's more like 'Meh, I'll just take this, not that it matters much'. I hardly ever used the special abilities granted to my by some skill choices, but that's probably because on the Easy difficulty, the game is not much of a challenge, or really is no challenge at all.
Speaking about characters, your team mates have some interesting stories to tell, but I found them too short. You do not get that much options to talk to them about something related to the plot, and I ran out of dialogue options long before I reached the end. Also, I found the alien races in the game to lack character. Neither their artistic design nor their character traits were very interesting, and again, the game seemed to try and mimic KOTOR, but fell short of Lucas' Universe. Which is quite an achievement, given that Star Wars has a very uneven record when it comes to alien races. Also, why do all the aliens speak plain English? What's up with that? I thought for a moment that they had some kind of vocalizers (Garrus' and Turian voices in general sound a bit like they were projected through some kind of device), but I don't think that's the case. Seriously, Humanity has made first contact not 30 years earlier, but already everyone in the galaxy speaks English?
Well, apart from minor annoyances, Mass Effect stays a game with fun gameplay in general. While it has it's flaws, and they are aplenty, and doesn't quite beat KOTOR in my eyes, it is a good cRPG with a few interesting twists. Although a bit too combat based for my taste, I've come to terms with it by calling it 'Gears of War + RPG elements'. That formula seems to work well for the game, but not well enough for it to get a rating higher than a not particularly strong 8/10. Mind you, this is not a bad game, it's just very uneven in it's quality - both that of gameplay, and that of plot. Still, I can recommend this to all cRPG or Sci-Fi fans out there.