This is what I've been doing with my spare time over the past week. I've held off writing about it until I finished the game, which I did last night.
I'd lost track and mostly lost interest in Mass Effect during the middle of the year. This time last year it was a definite highlight in the 360s upcoming games for me, but as I once again drifted from new stuff I took on the opinion that I probably wouldn't be bothered enough to play it. However, as I posted recently I've got a second wind on the 360 thanks to Virtua Fighter 5 and Sega Rally among others, and the approach of release for Mass Effect got me excited again (as well as embarking on a replay of a previous Bioware RPG - Knights of the Old Republic).
Right off the bat I'll say that it's the best RPG / adventure I've played since KotOR. The game plays like a hybrid of KotOR and Gears of War - plenty of dialogue, sidequests and moral complexity fused with a very immediate real-time combat system. Simply put, getting into a fight in Mass Effect is enormous fun. You take direct control of your character, leaving your two squad mates to the devices of the AI and a simple action type you've given them. They'll act independently of you but you can take control of their psychic - Biotic, as the game has it - powers for specific tasks. As it is the feeling of being in a functioning team is very strong, and rarely will the AI do something silly.
The main portion of the game takes place over a handful of beautifully realised worlds, while the extra assignments take you to a number of barren landscapes that are fairly identikit but just diverse enough to remain fun. Just driving the Mako land vehicle around is a blast in itself, and some of the environmental effects on show are breathtaking. Scattered around these worlds are various discoveries, minerals and items, all of which add to your wallet and XP, as well as furthering the exposition on the galaxy as a whole. Generally the sidequests involve travelling somewhere and confronting an enemy force, leading to a firefight or a diplomatic solution. Which one often depends on your own handling of the situation.
Once you get command of a ship early on in the game you have free run of the galaxy. The majority of planets can't be landed on, but many can be scanned for information and resources. The background detail revealed through the writing is vast and intricate. Exploring the planets reminded me very much of Star Control 2, though there isn't the means to exploit what you find in the same way. Add a dash of resource gathering, a simple trade system and more in the way of settlements, fauna and maybe even a little ship-to-ship combat and this would edge close to a perfect game in my eyes.
Writing and voice acting is top-notch, as expected from Bioware. It's easy to forget, in the midst of Japanese RPGs, that games written for the west by western developers have long been providing high quality stories and dialogue. Really, it's so far removed from the adolescent fantasizing of the vast majority of JRPG output it's barely worth a comparison. Mass Effect provides a quite serious, hard sci-fi tale populated with totally believable characters, each with their own stories, motivations and arcs. There's even a well-handled romantic subplot. I wish they'd done more with that actually, as the idea of a romantic relationship with a teammate that can be affected by your behaviour throughout the game would be a natural progression. Imagine being dumped because your lover disagreed with your actions so much. Further plays will reveal how your allies' attitude towards you varies according to your actions, and the different paths that open up because of it.
There are a few technical issues with framerate and texture pop-in, but nothing remotely game-breaking. However, the inventory and character management interface is a nightmare. Horribly designed and ill though-out. You can't check the stats of a team member that isn't actually in your squad of three, nor can you check their equipment if you're away from your ship. Also, the inventories themselves are cumbersome - everything in one master list that you can't quickly cycle through or organize by custom fields. Equipping and upgrading is very odd indeed, and the details of it aren't covered in the manual at all (indeed the manual is pretty much useless). I pray for a patch to correct all this.
Enough gripes though. The last four hours or so of the game played exclusively on the main quest provide some of the most thrilling and satisfying gaming I've ever experienced. I don't finish games very often at all (in fact I'm pretty sure the last new release game of any significant size I played this enthusiastically and finished was KotOR). It took me just over 27 hours, and I loved every last second. I'm going to squeeze a whole lot out of repeated plays with different character types and different choices at the crucial moments. Bioware have crafted a compelling and beautiful story, and I can't wait for the next chapter.