It took me thirty-one hours to finish Mass Effect, skipping a goodly portion of the UNC side-missions simply because Admiral Hackett's such a miserable old bastard. I didn't do the blue alien chick but I did accidentally run over a Space Monkey in the Mako, which earned a rebuke from Tali (I love that Quarian accent). Ash, ever the pragmatist, commented "personally I'd have just hit it with a rock".
Much argument has ensued over whether or not it's a good RPG, or an RPG at all, or even an actual game in the strictest sense, but I've found myself unusually unbothered by these questions, perhaps because the game mechanics seem incidental - you might as well argue about the font they used in War And Peace. It's just a way to get the story across. In a game like Halo the mechanic is everything, agreed: you don't play Halo for the storyline, even if it does have quite a nicely-built universe to house one in. I have never finished a Halo game, as enjoyable as they are, for the same reason other gamers repeatedly do them over: the mechanic is pure, distilled, thirty-seconds-of-fun-over-and-over - which is great, except for the over-and-over part. I crave variation, progression. I want a story, or at any rate a journey.
Mass Effect does this well. It has some flaws, certainly - the inventory management is painful, the tutorial nonexistent and the introductory Eden Prime level must surely have been designed last, in a hurry, possibly during a lunch break - but the combat engine, while lacking finesse, is flexible and robust. You wouldn't think it possible to tell a story via combat, or to have so much scope and variation among the many, many firefights, but unlike most shooters Mass Effect uses the combat as a means rather than an end, and in so doing gives itself license to explore the possibilities of a given setpiece rather than just revel in its own shootiness like some games I could mention. It's not as deep as you might expect in a pure shooter, but then it isn't a pure shooter: the RPG elements are pretty shallow once you come down to it compared to a beardy RPG, but then it isn't beardy. It's as if none of the game's many elements were ever considered the true focus of the thing, and somehow that translates into an experience. The impurity of it is exactly what makes it work, and in a lot of ways this is what I wanted Gears Of War to be like.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that the science fiction is of a surprisingly high quality - not the whole save-the-galaxy space opera bit, which is no less hackneyed here than in Amazing Stories, but the thought that has gone into the game's background. It's the mark of a good scifi mythos if it only has one MacGuffin to set it apart from the here and now, and Mass Effect's casting of Element Zero in this role is beautifully reasoned. You'll need to read the Codex entries to see it - it's not really essential to the plot - but it gives the thing a reassuring weight, making the mooted second and third parts of the trilogy viable beyond the commerciality of a sequel.
I am playing Call Of Duty 4 now but once I'm done with it I'll lay off games and read a book or two, I think. Mass Effect has reminded me of why I enjoy reading.