This isn’t a difficult game. If you’ve got a handle on what you’re doing, you should be just fine, even on higher difficulties. You may think that using a New Game+ character for these is a good idea, but since enemies scale to your level, it would actually make things harder, as you’d be facing stronger foes right from the get-go. A word of advice? Pick an Adept for Insanity and start from scratch. Soldier is another good pick, which I used for Hardcore.
Even though there are some surprises along the way, WYSIWYG applies: Saren is the final opponent (physically, at least…). And he’s not too tough to deal with, all things considered. Moreover, the fact that he has an entire game to establish his presence helps a lot with the emotional investment. Not my favourite villain of all time, but a competent one nonetheless.
It’s generally a good idea to have a balanced team, meaning squadmates that compensate for your Shepard’s and each other’s weaknesses. There are even helpful metres indicating your chosen party’s aptitude in combat, biotics and techs on the party selection screen. Since each squadmate represents one of the six starting classes, one character will always be redundant. So, for example, a Soldier Shepard would need her/his squadmates to cover biotics and techs. Liara and Tali would be the best picks for that, but Kaidan, Wrex and Garrus all qualify too. Ashley, on the other hand, would be redundant. In any case, just make sure you’ve got Decryption and Electronics covered to open locks and containers.
Shepard’s interactions with other characters are entirely up to you. Typically, dialogue with NPCs features several responses to pick from, displayed via a dialogue wheel. Note that what is displayed is just a general indication of what Shepard will answer, so sometimes, you may be surprised – pleasantly or not – by what comes out of her/his mouth. Choices on the left of the wheel are usually ‘exploratory’ and allow you to learn more about a situation or a topic. Choices on the right tend to be actual responses to progress the conversation. The top right-response is usually the Paragon one, while the bottom-right one tends to be Renegade (but not always, just to keep you on your toes).
The middle-right response is usually neutral, which won’t gain you any Paragon or Renegade points when there are some to be gained. These points serve three purposes: 1) an 80% full Paragon or Renegade bar unlocks an extra sidequest; 2) stat bonuses are gained when the bar is 25%, 50% and 75% full; and 3) they unlock extra conversation options. Shepard has a Charm and an Intimidate skill tree, linked to her/his Paragon and Renegade bars, respectively (a higher score translating into more overall points). Putting points into them will sometimes unlock blue or red responses, which will either cajole or pressure the interlocutor into giving more info or doing something.
The Normandy serves as Shepard’s base. S/he can talk to all squadmates here to learn more about them and build a rapport. New conversations appear after every major mission and/or after three sidequests. Eventually, this will unlock their personal quests (for those that have them) and will allow Shepard to progress her/his chosen romance. Some other crewmembers – the snarky pilot Joker, the zen Dr Chakwas, somewhat jumpy XO Pressly and placid Engineer Adams – are also available for chatting, even though their options are a lot more limited than the squadmates’, and they don’t get any new topics of conversation once you’ve exhausted their initial ones. The lower deck houses the team’s storage lockers (except Shepard’s, which is on the middle deck), which serve to equip the entire team while on the Normandy, but also the Requisitions Officer, who sells equipment. His stock gets renewed every once in a while, and if you purchase licenses for certain brands, he will start stocking them as well. It’s a good idea to look up the good brands and only buy licenses for those, so that his inventory doesn’t get cluttered with junk.
Speaking of clutter, selling unneeded equipment or turning it into omni-gel is something you need to do frequently. You see, one of the main problems of ME1 is inventory management. First of all, your inventory space is limited, and the game will warn you when it’s almost full. Secondly, you can’t expand or sort said inventory, so sifting through to decide what to keep is NOT fun. Keep in mind, however, that some loot scales to Shepard’s level, so it might be best to hold out on doing the DLC until her/his levels are higher, because the rewards include rare equipment. That being said, Pinnacle Station eventually gives you unlimited access to top-end gear, provided you have the money to spare. Which you should, if you’ve been diligently selling all the other junk you pick up. Another good source of top equipment is the C-Sec Requisitions Officer, whose wares also scale to Shepard’s level.
Travelling is handled via the Galaxy Map on the top deck. EXP is earned from combat, sidequests, opening locks, but also collecting Codex entries, just like in Dragon Age. These provide information about the game’s world, from species’ biology to military structure, and can be obtained from conversations with NPCs or examining in-game objects. There are primary and secondary entries, and the former are voiced, for people who can’t be bothered to read, I guess. It’s not necessary to collect them, but they do create a sense of immersion and allow you to better understand some of the key mechanisms and issues of the in-game universe. They might also allow you to hit level 60, if you’re hurting for EXP. This is why it’s important to maintain good relationships with the squadmates, even if you don’t intend for your Shepard to romance them: some of their conversations unlock Codex entries, but brusque responses might make you miss out on them.
As with most BW games, Mass Effect’s structure is non-linear: once Shepard has been made a Spectre, you’re free to do missions and sidequests in any order you like. The Citadel serves as the main hub in the game, especially for shopping, but also for triggering sidequests by examining computer terminals or talking to NPCs. One Citadel sidequest in particular is determined by Shepard’s personal history. Other sidequests can be obtained by exploring the various star systems. Storyline/mission planets are inhabited and more elaborate. Sidequest planets are mostly empty, which, while realistic, means that exploration may become somewhat tedious. Fortunately, the explorable area is restricted, and Joker will notify the team when they start driving outside the allowed perimeter, which typically includes a mining settlement, lab or mercenary/geth outpost, several mineral deposits (identifiable via a minigame) and at least one Thresher Maw (sometimes two). If his warnings are ignored, he will forcibly bring the Mako back within the perimeter. Some planets also feature hazardous environments, such as extreme temperatures or a toxic atmosphere. If the hazard level is at 2, your team’s time outside the Mako is limited, indicated by a depleting meter: once it runs out, your characters’ HP will start to quickly decrease. The solution is to only exit the Mako in short bursts. Or to wear Explorer armour.
The Mako’s physics…suck, especially on low-gravity planets. It’s extremely easy to flip over, get stuck in improbable positions or go careening off a mountainside. Some planets have worse terrain than others (Nodacrux…), but, in general, it feels like Shepard is the worst driver in the galaxy. Mind you, it’s still more entertaining than the mining system in ME2.
Graphically, the game looks pretty good, but a few gripes do come to mind. First of all, hair looks like plastic, and textures can take a while to load properly. Loading times, in general, can become a hassle, even though some of them are masqueraded as elevator rides (which, incidentally, are the only places where you can hear squadmates banter with each other; alternatively, you can also get radio announcements that sometimes trigger sidequests). Secondly, there are a lot of reused environments, such as warehouses, labs, mines and spaceships, which becomes tedious once you’ve done a bunch of sidequests. Thirdly, there’s just one body type for each race, except for humans, as they’re the only ones to have both genders featured in the game. Honestly, that’s lame. Not to mention borderline offensive, since everyone is slim and athletic, and the default gender is usually male, except for asari and Tali, as the lone quarian. And this is supposed to be a futuristic, egalitarian society. Also, where are the children? Finally, the game is quite buggy. I’ve experienced far too many instances of characters getting stuck on scenery, necessitating a save and reload. And, as mentioned previously, there’s at least one serious dialogue bug, whereby one of the responses to turn down Liara’s romance does not work.