The tl;dr summary of my experience with Mass Effect: I started it on normal difficulty with a versatile character and quickly got frustrated with the janky combat to the point of not wanting to play any more. I re-rolled a Give No Fucks Soldier who just shoots their way through every problem, slipped the difficulty down to Easy at the outset while I got used to the game's quirks, and suddenly the game was immensely more playable. I enjoyed maybe the first ten hours or so, until I noticed how often environments were copied and pasted. That and the bizarro Moon Patrol buggy driving that's constantly required of you made much of the game's playtime feel like cheap, tedious filler, and the super-janky equipment menu didn't help the process at all either. Bioware's vaunted "great writing" also was at SyFy Channel levels for most of the experience; it picks up a bit at Virmire, but that's like 4/5 of the way through the game. On the whole, I was kind of disappointed, but it wasn't bad.
Now returning you to your regularly scheduled l;r.
Mass Effect leans heavily on two games that came before it; Bioware's own Knights of the Old Republic, and Star Control 2. Essentially, Mass Effect is KoToR stripped of the Star Wars license and with its combat converted to FPS style, and it swipes some of its major plot elements and overall structure from Star Con 2. It's a few hundred years into the future, and humanity at some point stumbled across the technology of the Precurs
Protheans, jumping it forward technologically hundreds of years in a short time. Eventually they make contact with all these other intelligent alien races, who use a system of "mass relays" to warp their ships between star systems in short order, also left behind by the Protheans. All of this centers on the Citadel, yet another Prothean remnant from which a council of various alien races provides a form of universal government. Of course there's various malcontents and ne'er-do-wells, the current crop being the Geth, a race of bug-robot aliens being led by a former Citadel secret agent gone rogue. Our character, Commander Shepard, a decorated military hero, steps into the middle of this mess. Aside from pursuing the main plot objective of stopping Saren, the superpowered rogue secret agent, you'll also comb the galaxy scanning planets for resources and old technology, and driving around on the surface shooting and dodging various dangers to pick them up.
Character customization offers male/female gender and an impressive range of facial modification, if not so much for bodies. No Mega Titties Shepard 4 U. Impressively the game is fully voice acted for both male and female (with longtime AAA gaming staple VA Jennifer Hale doing duties for FemShep.) You get to choose your first name, but the game ducks around this by simply having all the VA call you "Shepard" constantly. While we're on the subject of VA, it's mostly a cast of competent unknowns, but they snagged a few "names" - Seth Green is your wisecracking ship pilot Jerker, Keith David (They Live) plays an admiral, and Marina Sirtis
has a substantial role as a secondary character. You'd swear John Goodman was voicing frog-alien Wrex, but it's not actually him.
In-game you're quickly launched into an "opening level" sort of tutorial as the game explains commands and menus in the midst of real combat. I really hate this way of doing things when the game has a complex/confusing control scheme or menu system, and Mass Effect has a little of both, particularly the menus. It basically plays like a cover-based third-person dudebro shooter, with all the leaning up against shit and chest-high walls and all that; that aspect of it is quite self-explanatory. The weapon system is also nicely simplified, at least in terms of gameplay - you start out with (and always have) a pistol, assault rifle, shotgun and sniper rifle on hand which are easy to flip between, as well as a limited stock of grenades. You also have Psychic Powarz available to use, however, and this is where the game starts getting a little messy. To use these, you have to pause the action and use them from a menu; aside from breaking the flow of combat with constant stops and starts, when you instruct an ally to use one of their Powarz, you have to actually manually center the screen on the point you want them to throw it at, rather than simply flipping between targets or something more sensible. Things get REALLY messy when you factor in the equipment menu. Though you always have some form of each of the four weapon types and a grenade, you'll get better and better ones as you go, and have to keep up on equipping them via some messy list. But wait! There's Moar! Each weapon has "upgrade slots" that have at least one hardware modification, and one ammo modification. The ammo modification gets particularly annoying, as some battles expect you to stop, go into the clunky equipment menu, and change ammo multiple times to take on different types of enemies. You also can't look at or modify the equipment of party members that aren't with you at the time.
Allies are a bit of an issue as well. You're usually forced to have two mooks with you, and while they're not godawfully stupid, they aren't particularly bright about positioning either. Running suddenly in front of your field of fire is their usual favorite, though you'll also see them trying to shoot enemies through walls, and sometimes trying to shoot enemies through both you and the wall you're taking cover against. The one thing that keeps this all from dealbreaker status is that enemies tend to concentrate their fire on Sheppard heavily, so the mooks usually don't take enough damage to get killed unless you're totally running around out of cover.
So, if the semi-janky combat and menus don't put you off during the tutorial, you'll next make your way to the Citadel, which is basically Taris from Star Wars: KotoR repurposed (complete with Bioware's fetish for diddling blue women with Nerf Football heads.) After a few quests here and talking to a metric shit ton of people, you're finally given your ship and turned loose in the galaxy to explore freely. This is where the game takes a bit more of a Star Control 2 turn, though instead of freely exploring space you're simply jumping between a checklist of systems and planets ... and since you're flying a stealth ship there's no random alien encounters
And this is where the game also began to really disappoint. Out there in the galaxy, there's four plot-necessary missions that you can take on at your leisure (enemies are scaled to your level, as well as loot), after which a fifth one at the aforementioned Virmire pops up, then after that you're off to the endgame scenario. Plot-mandated content thus runs roughly only about 15 hours; but Bioware hyped the game as having something more like 60 hours of gameplay. There's lots of side-quests to pad out that extra time ... but padding is most definitely what they are. It's forever the same routine of landing on a planet, driving the comically janky buggy all over it looking for random crap, playing the weird little Frogger mini-game (used in everything from lockpicking to recovering minerals), and/or assaulting some little enemy compound the layout of which is copy/pasted from about three or four generic sets of environments. It gets boring quickly, and even though I came in expecting to do most of the side content (as I bought this in a package deal with Mass Effect 2 and wanted to import the most robust character possible), I could only take a few hours outside of the main plot before it got eye-clawingly tedious and I decided to just barrel through the rest of the game.
The writing also really needs to be talked about, since you spend so much of the game time looking at it. Like most Bioware games, the strength of it is in the depth of their detailed, well-thought-out universe, documented by an ongoing journal/encyclopedia just spilling over with background detail. The particular strength of Mass Effect is that all these little decisions you make, from your character creation onward, ripple out to effect the story not just in this game, but in the sequels as well. But there's the rub for this particular game; the time spent trucking through all the conversations and side material may pay dividens in Mass Effect 2 and 3, but in this game it's largely a slog. Bioware is great with depth of world, but not so much with dialogue and characters, hovering somewhere more near the SyFy Channel / Generic Tropey level. Rich amounts of background detail are great, but only if the story, setting and characters are really interesting; this being basically just Space Babylon Stargate Trek warmed over, I felt very little compulsion to actually dive into the depths.
Though I haven't played them yet, Mass Effect 2 and 3 were reportedly refined to address a lot of the issues I bring up here. Mass Effect 1 isn't a bad game at all, but the line between "playing for actual enjoyment" and "putting up with as an investment for future games" was way more blurry here than I would have liked. I get the sense this was one of those projects where the design team had a really grandiose vision, then the realities of Budget and Schedule got in the way like they always do, and they ended up having to compromise it with a bunch of filler and leave some aspects of the gameplay unpolished. This is one of those series that really have to be taken as a cohesive whole, though, so if you want to play the rest you're looking at grinding your way through this one regardless.