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Graphics and System Performance
Mass Effect is a beautiful game. The indoor environments are very detailed and have an advanced, sci-fi feel to them. The planets (of which you will visit many) boast a wide variety of terrain types that really make you feel like you are visiting different worlds.
Weapon effects are excellent, though the weapons themselves are a bit drab. There are a wide variety of armor choices as well, and most of them are very cool looking.
The different humanoid races add a lot to the visual experience. The differences in appearance are more than just the old Star Trek standby "humans with bumpy faces." The huge, burly Krogan, the salamander-like Salarians, and the mole-like Volus are excellent examples of this.
On the XBOX 360, Mass Effect really pushes the system to its graphical limits and is one of the most beautiful games for the platform. On the PC, the game performs extremely well and scales effectively for different hardware configurations. At minimum specs the game still looks very nice. At recommended or above the game looks amazing.
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There are a wide variety of character classes and they all provide a different experience. They each have their own combination of combat (guns), biotics (the "magic" of the Mass Effect world), and tech (various support abilities, lock picking, trap disarming, etc.).
For those who prefer run-and-gun type gameplay, the Soldier (pure combat, see this guide) is definitely your pick. If you want to mix in a little "magic" (called biotics) you can go Vanguard (combat/biotics).
For those who prefer to stand back and use the powerful biotic abilities, Adept (pure biotics) would be the primary choice. But if you would like to mix in some tech skills you can go Sentinel (biotics/tech).
For those who want to manipulate the battlefield in a more support style of play, the tech specialist Engineer (pure tech) is the way to go. If you want to combine that with gunplay, the sniping Infiltrator (tech/combat) is the best class choice.
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Combat is a mixture of squad based action and cover-based FPS shooting. Cover plays a huge role which makes moving through areas very tactical.
Similar to Knights of the Old Republic, you are not in this alone. You will eventually pick up 6 different squad members and you will have 2 of them with you at all times. Their classes are varied (and slightly different from your own class options), so you can pick teammates to fill gaps in your own skill set in any way you prefer. Certain squad mates have unique dialog options when teamed with other squad mates which can really be a pleasant surprise. This also adds to the numerous variations in game play depending on how you choose to play the game.
Once you are in battle, you aim weapons and biotics like a first person shooter but your stats and gear affect how much damage you do or how accurately your shots land. The game does an excellent job of giving you control of where you are shooting while still rewarding you for advancing your abilities and level. You can also pause the game at any time to issue commands to your squad mates, help yourself aim (particularly handy for people who are not big on twitch gaming), or to plan out your own attacks, biotics, or tech abilities.
Enemy AI is not bad at all. Your foes will use cover, try to flank you, make effective use of their own strengths and abilities, and generally require that you think about your strategy. Combat is a lot of fun in this game and is never something that drags down the story or the pacing of the game.
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This is Part 1 of a 2 part review. Please see Part 2 for the conclusion of this review.