I'm going to get stuck into the controversy straight away: I don't like RPGs.
I don't like the fact it takes three hours of conversation to extract half a point from a meaningless character. I don't like the fact that the combat is so detached with bizarre 'you-slap-me-then-I'll-slap-you' turn-based nonsense. And I really don't like the fact that most RPGs are based around some obscure anime so that only people with beards large enough for nesting kestrels understand what's going on.
I'm pleased to report that by and large, the game's narrative errs on the side of clean shaven. As the enigmatic commander on board your ship, it is your task to uncover the intent of a rogue agent who is roving the galaxy collecting artifacts relating to a long-dead race of vicious machines, and appears happy to dispose of anyone asking questions.
Along the way you are instructed of various activities on a number of different planets worthy of investigation. Aside from a few narrative corridors, it's entirely up to you how you proceed. Some worlds will further the over-arching storyline, some will prove distractions to acquire bonuses and power-ups, while some of them are great mountainous swathes of naff-all.
On face value, Mass Effect ticks most of the standard boxes. You acquire XP to power up your character and your team, there is the opportunity to take on or ignore as many of the assorted tasks as you choose, and there is of course the opportunity to engage with any number of galactic oddities. But where many titles of this ilk become bogged down in stats and pointless dialogue, Mass Effect hand-picks the finer points from the genre and weaves some more modern twists into an altogther more satisfying whole.
For a start the combat is real-time and far more reminiscent of any current third-person shooter, featuring the obligatory over-the-shoulder view. Tactical cover has been ripped straight from Gears of War and the many fire fights coupled with the basic commands you can issue to your squad are involving enough without becoming confusing.
There is an impressive sense of scale thoughout and production values that would make an executive at EA smile. The scriptwriting largely forgoes the annoyance of repetition and every line is delivered with conviction by a number of established actors, including Lance 'Aliens' Henrikson and Seth 'Buffy' Green. It really does make a difference to have professionals on board and some of the scenes, often dictated by your responses, are genuinely cinematic.
Action fans shouldn't get carried away, however. The story does take time to become fully engaging and your initial squad, weapons and missions are not going to trouble Red Faction: Guerilla. Indeed, much of the action is shoe-horned into segments separated by lengthy spells of exploration, as opposed to random scuffles when the feeling grabs you.
In the main, each planet and base looks fantastic with plenty of aesthetic variety, though it must be said that some trips in your exciteable dune buggy can turn up very little of interest when straying from objectives.
Give this game the time it deserves though and you will enjoy a rich experience. The transformation into one of a variety of specialists, from gun-hungry mentalist to mind-bending magician is a joy to experiment with, and the choices you make individually and as a squad do have a noticeable impact. The story - so often a tiresome aside - is told in as credible a manner as games allow for, and is worthy of repeat plays.
Sometimes sparse, but infinitely more accessible than Final Fantasy and no less deep, this could be the game that makes you start thinking about facial hair.