I am playing through Mass Effect this week. It is a really fun game and I find that there is a pretty good balance between combat and story - it is also nice that you can skip past either of the two elements fairly quickly if you want to. One thing I noticed is that it is shockingly like a Final Fantasy or similar type RPG once you get past the spaceship and lasers overlay. There are lots of enemies to fight and they always give you XP and sometimes give you stuff! A hardcore twink like myself cannot resist the lure of more stuff so I do every side quest, find every storage locker (treasure chest), hunt down every last geth (monster) and refuse to spend money on anything because I want to save it all up for the endgame. Buying gear and then selling it back to the vendor at a loss is unacceptable - only buy things that will never, ever obsolete! In the same vein the classes read much like fantasy RPG classes. I am a fighter and my two friends in my party are a fighter (Ashley) and thief/cleric/mage (Kaidan). Thankfully 'multiclassing' in ME is actually quite good and I basically have two tanks who do all the killing and one guy following us around CCing the enemies, opening locks and healing (having lots of First Aid). I guess some general designs are just timeless and transcend genres.
One thing that really irritates me though is that much like Final Fantasy 1 the combat mechanics are entirely unexplained. How can I find out what my accuracy ratings on weapons do? What does increasing my accuracy regenerated per second by 1% even mean? Just like in FF1 you can experiment randomly with weapons to see what happens but the tooltips seem to give a lot of information that is quite useless for making decisions. I am used to WOW where I can get really detailed combat logs to allow me to make good decisions and in ME I can't see how you would figure this stuff out without just playing through the game a bazillion times. I am not advocating providing tons of explicit combat log data to everybody. Most people would find it irritating and useless because they just want to put a lot of points into shotguns and then shoot people with shotguns - as long as that works the numbers aren't helpful. I sure wish that the game had a good combat mechanics section in it though that told me exactly what my stats are and what they do; right now I look at weapons that have 150/1 damage/accuracy and compare them to 140/5 and there is nothing whatsoever that tells me whether or not the new item is an upgrade and it is exceedingly unlikely I could figure that out just by shooting the enemies.
I do like the Paragon/Renegade system. You can earn points towards either as both are essentially reputations - you can be known for being a badass or a hero or both. My first playthrough I am playing mostly to get Paragon points and doing the good guy thing but I plan on running through the game as a pure Renegade next time so I can select "Bite me" from the menu a lot of times and see what happens. I took max points in both Charm and Intimidate to give me lots of chat options on my first playthrough and that looks to have been a mistake since I only had a chance to use them 3 times so far in my 15 hours of play and they haven't been particularly useful even then. Next time through my biotic assassin isn't going to mess around with 'talky' skills - I am going to have two responses to situations - kill them or tell them to F off.