As with all BioWare games, there is at least one element of Mass Effect that is excellent, but unfortunately, as with all BioWare games there are more that are uneven in quality, some of them game breakers.
You can tell that some groups of BioWare were really into what they were doing. The teams in charge of capturing the expressions of real people and putting them into the digital avatars. The directors in charge of voice acting. The designers who crafted the look and feel of each level and cut scene. The UI interface designers who made the menus. The writers who were able to keep a user-guided story on the rails.
Then there were the groups who really did not grasp what they were doing, or why. The ones that designed the levels. Those that handled AI. The group that was in charge of weapons and how they handled. The guys in charge of boss encounters. They were either the same group, that just did not have the passion for the elements that let the game down. Possibly the game director did not care enough about those elements to provide any oversight. Whatever the case the disparity in skill, time or oversight demoted Mass Effect from being great to merely very good.
What Mass Effect does well is project credible human responses and emotions on screen and with the dialog wheel mechanic, allow the user to make choices not only about what path to take, but also how to carry him or herself. They have effectively brought acting to games.
When you snap at an insubordinate who has taken liberty with her tongue she reacts appropriately hurt and surprised. Later, when you choose to send that same team mate on a suicide mission it makes for a gleefully devilish moment. Buh-Bye Ashley.
There are fewer levels than most would expect from this type of game, but each level is lengthy, giving weight to the mission at hand. What this enables is a better conveyance of the story. It is not so slow moving, as in a JRPG, that you forgetting your motivation nor is so convoluted that you lose interest. If you are placed in a world, you know where you are and for what reason. Without doing any side-missions the game can be completed in about 8-9 hours.
There are lengthy sections of levels in which the dialog is not a part, and so for long sections of the game you are relying on the poor combat as your sole gameplay mechanic. This is a particular problem in the middle and last third of the game, just when the story arc is hitting it's crescendo.
Just when you want to forgive all and declare a truce the game serves up a boss battle that is no different from any of the countless firefights you have had so far. The difference is this enemy takes about 5,000-7,000 shots instead of 3-4. For several minutes you will do nothing but stand behind a piece of obviously provided cover and squeeze the trigger while aiming at a bullet sponge. Bioware concedes the cheapness of the boss by slowing down and starting to pause the enemy for longer periods about 10 minutes into the battle. It is an unsatisfying conclusion that brings down the entire experience.
The word that kept coming to mind while playing Mass Effect was uneven. Fortunately the lows never quite match the highs.
- Phil Fogg