That's not to imply that Mass Effect is as atmospheric as Star Wars. Far from it. The problem starts with the character I'm supposed to inhabit -- Commander [insert name here] Shepard. Aside from his first name, my ability to personalize and inhabit Shepard is limited by Mass Effect's rudimentary role-playing system. In order to develop Shepard's skills, I regularly need to pause the game's action, then select points on a row of dots -- like a standardized aptitude test that, when filled out, defines Shepard.
Much of Mass Effect is devoted to conversations among characters, and for a game that depends so heavily on its script, Mass Effect has some of the worst writing I've seen in videogames. "What do you know about X?" is a question Shepard repeatedly asks, and it's invariably followed by a variation on "Only what I was told. X is a [insert boring encyclopedia entry here]."
In between conversations and treks across the galaxy, Mass Effect tries to enliven things with a bit of combat. For the most part, Mass Effect's shooting works. But while the main action is well-animated, much of the in-between, transitory action is neglected. In Mass Effect, helmets -- POP! -- disappear when removed. An entire crew -- POP! -- appears standing on the ground outside of a vehicle when they exit it, then -- POP! -- disappears suddenly when they reenter.
The most primitive thing about Mass Effect's action is the use of a "health meter." Haven't we gotten past that? Some games give the screen an increasingly bloodshot-red tint to indicate damage. Others actually animate characters' wounds, making them limp and bleed. In Mass Effect, everything looks perfect until Shepard dies. Then he suddenly falls to the ground with the camera swirling in slow motion. Death, in Mass Effect, turns out to be as lifeless as the rest of the game.
THE GOOD: While listening to characters talk, I'm free to select the direction Shepard's next statement will take. Then, when the speech ends, Shepard adds his question or comment. It's smooth and cinematic, and in such a talky game it's a saving grace.
THE BAD: Missiles fly through solid earth to strike their targets. Doors that let Shepard into empty rooms won't let him out again. Enemy characters point their guns at Shepard, but let the shots repeatedly hit an intervening wall. I'm sure there's a patch that I can download to fix these and other bugs. But when I've paid upwards of $50 for a single piece of entertainment, I want to play it, not provide tech support.
THE BOTTOM LINE: A vast intergalactic role-playing game that quickly turns into a protracted space crawl.