Thankfully, on-foot combat is a lot of fun. You'll accumulate six total teammates, two of whom can accompany you on missions at any given time. They have a variety of talents, and each of them is special in his or her own way. There's a variety of guns to choose from, from pistols to shotguns to assault rifles, and each weapon can be outfitted with various upgrades that may increase stability, add scanners that bypass disrupted enemy radar, and more. You can also outfit special ammunition, though you always have unlimited ammo.
On top of that, some characters have magic-like powers called biotics to mess with. It's worth noting, however, that these powers are focused on manipulation rather than direct offense. You can push enemies back with the throw power (awesome to behold at higher levels), lift them in the air, or create a vortex that sucks enemies toward it (another great use of Mass Effect's fun combat physics). Engineers have some nice abilities as well, such as the ability to sabotage weapons from a distance, which makes your enemy's weapon explode, or the power to turn robotic enemies against your own foes. As a rule, your teammates aren't a liability, though they aren't governed by the most advanced artificial intelligence we've ever seen. But provided you micromanage them as described below, you'll not only be getting the most out of the experience, you won't be apt to notice any drawbacks to the AI.
The radial menu allows you to choose special abilities while the game is paused.
The combat feels like it belongs in a third-person shooter at first, but if you continually approach it this way, you'll die. A lot. Like in many previous BioWare RPGs, you're meant to pause, survey the situation, and perform your actions. As long as you stick to that method, you'll find combat to be a lot easier than it first appears. You can set your party members to automate their actions, simply perform defensive powers on their own (the better choice), or only perform powers on your command. Holding the right bumper brings up the command wheel, which lets you assign orders to your companions, as well as perform your own abilities. You can also take cover behind walls or other objects, though this mechanic isn't all that helpful. Once you get into the groove, battles are rather enjoyable, with a flurry of bullets and biotic powers flying around. The joy of flinging the Geth around, filling them with shotgun shells, and watching them drop from the ceiling after lifting them in the air is a joy few RPGs can approximate.
The spoils of battle are always a fun reward for a job well done, and loot ramps up pretty well. You can also open up various lockers and containers for more loot, though it's best to level one of your party members in the decryption skill for the more difficult-to-open ones. To open locked containers, you have two equally odd choices: Either perform a minigame that resembles the overdone contextual button presses we've seen in far too many games of late, or smear omnigel on the container, which is an all-purpose goo that opens cabinets, repairs the Mako, and, we suspect, may also eliminate ring-around-the-collar. It sounds like a silly mechanic, but all things considered, it's a perfectly legitimate way of keeping the user engaged in the looting process, and it makes you feel like you earned the resulting spoils.
As you can imagine, you'll be doing a lot of fiddling with your inventory, what with all these weapons, upgrades, and party members to deal with, but this is another stumbling block that could have used some streamlining. The menu interface isn't terrible, though on its own, it's a bit clunky. But it's the little things that add up in a game that requires you to spend so much time in menu screens. First annoyance: In some menu screens, you can't hit a button simply to escape to the previous menu. For example, in the weapons upgrade menu, if you decide you don't want to make any changes, you can't just leave the menu--you have to choose something, even if it means scrolling to the top of the list and selecting the same upgrade you already had equipped. In other cases, such as when you convert an item to omnigel, the menu jumps back to the top of the list, which is vexing. You can't even deselect a power from the ability wheel in combat once you've chosen one. You can change the skill, but on the frequent occasion where you will want to change your mind after selection and not cast one at all, you're stuck wasting a skill and waiting for it to recharge.
Other problems rear their heads as well, such as the occasions when you or your party members get trapped on level geometry, which forces you to reload your last save. But you'll be apt to forgive them in light of the depth and variety to be found here. It's fun to get to know your crew, conduct a clandestine romance, or turn Shepard into a hard-line exclusionary (or a racially sensitive diplomat). You could finish a fairly complete play-through in 40 hours--standard for a role-playing game--but there's enough contextual content to make it worth a second play, if only to explore your renegade side, try out other romance options, or see another of the multiple endings. On the other hand, if you ignored the side quests and stuck with just the main storyline, you could be done in 15 hours or less.
Mass Effect's visuals are excellent. Facial animations are among the best in gaming: Characters move their lips believably with the dialogue, further expressing themselves with subtle tilts of the head or with a slight raise of the eyebrows. Character models are beautifully detailed, such as with your Krogan teammate Wrex, whose every wrinkle and ridge is carefully textured and molded. There are some technical hitches, however. The framerate can dramatically dip at the worst possible times, and there is a lot of texture pop-in. There are also frequent load times--some of them hidden by elevator rides, others popping up in the midst of exploration. Nevertheless, Mass Effect looks wonderful. From an artistic perspective, the game looks great, if not quite original. Planet outposts tend to use only one of two interior layouts, and environments owe a lot to games and films of the past (much of the game's look wouldn't be out of place in a Halo title). But even with the obvious inspirations, Mass Effect still conveys its vision clearly, thanks to meticulous character designs and dramatic set pieces, such as the Citadel itself.
Wrex isn't just a badass character model--he's also a badass.
It's also one of the best-acted games in recent memory. An all-star cast including such well-known actors as Fred Tatasciore and Seth Green bring Mass Effect's characters to brilliant life. Not once will a drab line delivery or overzealous histrionics get in the way of your immersion. The soundtrack is evocative, with just the right amount of sci-fi shimmering to round out the occasional symphonic swelling. Sound effects are great across the board, from the robotic yammering of the Geth to the din of a planetary blizzard filling the room with its high-powered whooshing.
All told, Mass Effect is a great game with moments of brilliance and a number of small but significant obstacles that hold it back from reaching its true potential. But in the end, if you like RPGs and want to spend some time in an absorbing sci-world populated with a bunch of unique inhabitants, you'll definitely have plenty of fun with this one.