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The Ludophile's Repertoire

I have been playing video games since forever. (Well, for obvious physical reasons, since 198X, but you see my point). One of my personal silly life goals is to try every single game console. So here is, in the chronological order that I experienced them (not their release date), the consoles which I had a go at so far:

I tried keeping track, from October 1st 2006 to October 1st 2007, of all the games which I played. I realized I just couldn't keep it up when I got over the count of 50. I finally found an application from LivingSocial that allows me to make a complete inventory.

Thus, here are all the video games which I've played in my life, long enough to have some sort of memories and talk about them to a reasonable degree. Naturally, this list is, and probably will be for quite a time, a work-in-progress. Don't hesitate to write me to discuss any game you see on the list below. I particularly enjoy exchanging with people around my main research interests.

In the table, green stars represent the rating I personally gave to a game, while the yellow stars are an average of all LivingSocial users who rated the game.

In-depth reviews

Urban Runner

I often thought for no particular reason that Sierra was a kind of Hit-or-Miss company. For instance, I felt they hit the nail right on the head with King's Quest VI, and completely missed it with VII, but then that might just have been me. Now thanks to Urban Runner I can back up this intuition with a concrete proof.
Urban Runner is a FMV game. While some FMV games are good, or even really good, this one isn't one of them. The filming itself isn't bad, and I can see the director had a good grasp of what an adventure game was. For instance, there is a maze-like series of rooms that can easily be distinguished by the player because each is cast in a certain lighting and color. This kind of detail is often overlooked in FMV games and leads to spatial confusion.
But that's about it for the good part. The game comes on four CDs and lasts for roughly five hours. You will die very often because most of the game is timed and you must execute in short time spans very precise actions with little margin for error. It wouldn't be so bad if the solutions were plausible, but as they are, it requires your imagination to be of rubber band-stretching caliber. (What do you do when there's a goon running after you and you end up in a dead end? Why, you turn off the power switch, lower the electrified cable, spray oil on the ground and turn the power back on so the goon will slide on the oil and instinctively grab the wire for balance, electrocuting himself, silly!)
Now most of these FMV games with questionable interactivity or puzzles at least sport a good storyline. This one story is nothing short of pathetic. It starts with your character trying to double-cross someone and finding him dead, then running away from his bodyguard for a fair amount of time. Incidentally the bodyguard, when he sees you have entered a dead end, locks the door and patiently waits outside instead of coming to gun down your sorry unarmed self, so you may set up a trap with a fishing hook. When the bodyguard is knocked over, you can pick up his nail file (nevermind the gun, or a quick blow to the head to render him unconscious). When our protagonist eventually gets home, a killer is waiting for him and he escapes to an hotel, following a trail of clues. He takes the time to score with a woman who turns out to be a sexy secret agent/spy/murderess avenging her father and brother's death, lawyers murdered for standing up to a secret society that attempts to use medical research to do something evil (by the time it was revealed, I was hardly paying any attention). The acting isn't too bad, but most of it takes place over things that aren't explained or make little to no sense. The game puts forward a sense of urgency and relentless pursuit when needed and then dissipates it completely as the protagonists take a quiet little evening together and "fall in love". The ending starts off bad, with the villain (introduced at about three-quarters of the game) giving corny, overacted speeches of the mad scientist variety. It keeps getting better thanks to a narrator popping up in the next-to-final sequence while the entirety of the game thus far had been narrated in first-person by the protagonist. All of this comes to its logical and unavoidable conclusion, that is, the hero's best friend that had been murdered magically comes back to life in the ending sequence, as it is revealed that "he was wearing a bulletproof vest". Of course, it doesn't help that the sole purpose of his comeback is so you can question him about the game's plot, which he patiently explains and recaps in detail. Seems like the developer was aware that the plot was badly explained and felt they could patch it up quick in the end.
No matter what angle you try to approach this game from, I guarantee you'll think it's bad. In fact, outside of study interests or pure curiosity, the best thing to do is to not approach it at all - let it rot away. I'm sure that's what Sierra would want. If you must, however, then I recommend you take it from behind, with a garbage bag ready up your sleeve. Stealth-kill it quickly!

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Few games can claim to have had as profound an impact on a game franchise as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. This title breathed a whole new life to the series, just as Ocarina of Time, Metroid Prime, Super Mario 64 and Megaman X did for Zelda, Metroid, Mario and Megaman.
When this game came out in 1997, Castlevanias were platform games comprising anywhere from 6 to 15 stages. The first game was a succession of levels, with the player having the possibility of picking different power-ups (weapons) along the way. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest was the oddball one, the Adventure of Link of the franchise. There were towns and people to be spoken to, items to be gathered in an inventory and used at the right time, and the world was a bit more open - the player could go left or right and come across ruins or mansions and enter them or not. In Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, players were treated to an action/platform game akin to the first with the added feature of having a partner among several possibilities and switching between characters in levels. There were also multiple paths to follow in order to reach Dracula. Super Castlevania IV had not really brought anything new.
Then came Symphony of the Night.
This game built upon the Metroidesque model by opening up the castle to the player, who is free to roam the place. He now has HP instead of a life bar, and can replenish them by saving his progress in save rooms. He gains experience and levels just like in RPGs by fighting monsters. This leads to improvements in total Max. HP, Max. Hearts, and in attributes such as Strength, Intelligence, or Luck. More importantly, the player can equip swords, rods, thrown weapons, shields, armor, accessories, and helmets, and collect relics granting him a variety of special powers. Movement is now extremely fluid thanks to relics allowing a double jump, or by turning into a wolf, a bat, or in mist form. Simply put, this game is a 90-degree curve, and definitely for the best. Today Castlevanias multiply - to a dangerous point even since Dracula's castle is supposed to materialize every 100 years (bar "special cases"), which would put games in 2000 pretty soon - and Konami rakes in the big bucks.
What's really surprising about this game to me is the depth and incredible variety and originality in the items department. SOTN has hundreds of weapons and most of them, even the most insignificant sword found in a secret wall somewhere, have unique special attacks. The Sword of Dawn can summon skeleton mages/soldiers/archers. The Moon Rod creates a flurry of projectiles, the Shield Rod casts a different spell when used in conjunction with the various shields of the game, the Sunstone increases the player's attributes after 6 hours of game time ("After sunrise"), the Walk Armor gains defense the more of the game's map you cover, the Spike Breaker armor breaks spikes, the Cat Circlet restores a lot of HP when you get hit by a cat (?!? there are two in the whole game...), the Twilight Cloak has a nifty visual flash, the Joseph's Cloak allows you to customize your cloak color, the three Alucart items (fakes!), when equipped together, give you the "alucart" status which boosts your luck, the Secret Boots increase your height a little (as if you went from 5'10'' to 6'2'')...a lot of these are useless but fun. Real fun. It makes collecting the items something you want to do because all the game's items are unique in some way, instead of being a boring +52 sword instead of a +45 one. This also gives the game a lot of replay value, since you can attempt another game using the sword that gets stronger the longer you play, or the cloak that converts damage to hearts so you can keep using your sub-weapons, or another of the five familiars. This game does everything right, and that's rare.

Just Cause

The demo made me say: "Really cool! It's GTA with more stunts, in South America, fighting a *fictional* evil dictator. Though I'm not too keen on playing a CIA savior tasked with "cleaning up" other countries, it has great controls and graphics, high-adrenaline action, and excellent music. A definite rental!"
Renting the full game for a week makes me say: "Even cooler!" The game is a more sandbox-oriented version of GTA. The islands are divided in a number of provinces which you can gain control of by liberating settlements. After liberation, you can do small side missions for the guerilla leader of that settlement. There's a lot of fun to be had just driving crazy, jumping out of the car and opening up your parachute, landing on top of another car and ejecting the driver to take his place. You can hijack helicopters and planes, drive them up over a few thousand feet in altitude and jump off for some sublime skydiving over the sunset, with some quiet angels singing in the background. This is definitely a unique experience in gaming that you have to see. The game has an okay storyline, with caricatural characters and humorous lines. The main quest is very short and straightforward, and the last mission is ridiculously too difficult. The side-quests are very repetitive - there are around 7 or 8 different quests, such as "go hijack vehicle X and bring it back" or "Go to point X, meet people and get item, then drive back". The speeches are canned and the mission descriptions are too, so you're really doing the same 7-8 missions over and over at different settlements and with different targets to accumulate points for your faction so you can get better weapons and vehicles.
All in all, a game that has some flaws, but stays strong in one department: fun. This is the type of game you can grab on for half-an-hour every day and enjoy for months to come if you like doing stunts and running from the police. I recommend a rental.

Hitman: Blood Money

This game deserves a perfect Pac-Man score, but only if you like the basics of it. It may not appeal to everyone. Think of an open-ended Splinter Cell with social interactions. You have to complete missions, which usually have a number of targets for you to eliminate, but you're free to walk around the place, dispose of civilians (preferably by knocking them unconscious rather than killing them, as casualties attract the police's attention and gains you notoriety between missions which must be avoided), disguise yourself with someone else's clothes, etc. This is a social stealth game more than a shadow stealth one: you're not chasing shadows and shooting/neckbreaking everything on which you can sneak up à la Metal Gear or Splinter Cell. You're undercover, and you have to keep your cover up. If you're dressed as a carpenter, you can carry a toolbox around and hide a gun in it, which you may retrieve once you pass the guard at the door. One could sum this type of gameplay thus: "Keep your act up, look at the situation, learn the guards' patrol paths, and be prepared to recognize opportunities and take advantage of them."
Killing the targets involves the highest savoir-faire: poisoning drinks, pushing people over railings, and rigging machines to explode or fall on people are but a few of the means you can employ. If all else fails, or if you can't figure out how to exploit the setting or people on the spot, you can always hide in shadows, watch the target's walking routine, find a dimly lit place - or shoot out the lights -, sneak up behind your victim and strangle them with your trusty fiber wire. Or a bullet using a silenced pistol. Or a lethal injection with a poisoned syringe. The possibilites are many, and the player is given a very wide dynamic range which allows him to feel like he's having a very personal experience. The storyline is interesting and unintrusive. But undoubtedly the best feature for me is the rich variety of locales. From the opera to a suburban home to a mental clinic, two missions are never the same. The said missions are of very sufficient number, and there is quite a bit of replayability thanks to the four difficulty settings - increased AI behavior, limited number of saves per mission, no "radar" function, and (I believe) additional mission objectives all create interestingly different takes for each level. Upgrades can be purchased for weapons, which allow for a few different playing styles. Sniper Rifle? Machine gun? Silenced pistols? Or the setup which became my "usual", no weapons. The only bad thing about the game, which someone told me, is that it's just an improved version of the two first games in the series. Which, if you've played none like me, is not a problem at all. I highly recommend trying it out, even for just a mission or two, since it's a unique gameplay experience, and everything in the game is polished and organic. Great job IO Software!

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance

I was expecting a pretty generic Gauntlet Legends/Dungeons & Dragons Heroes clone, and my expectations were not betrayed - sadly. If you haven't played a game of this type before, and you really like Marvel superheroes, then maybe you could like this game. If not, I recommend you skip it. There's nothing in there that's unique, really interesting, or remotely important to see.
Games don't get any more generic than Marvel: Ultimate Alliance - the exception being Chessmaster or something. Gaining XP makes you grow in levels and gives you more HP, Energy (Mana), Defense, etc. As you gain levels you get new powers (your standard small-radius area-effect overhead hammer strike, combination, lunging forward tearing claws, etc.). You pick up items, of which you can equip one at a time, which give you things like +25% Defense, 10% chance to avoid melee attacks, etc. This is for the micro-structure of gameplay. Yeah, you've seen it before, there isn't anything worthwhile in here.
As regards the macro-structure, there isn't much more to see either - there's an introductory level, then you get to a central hub (town) from which you can go to the other levels. There is one attempt at originality with the hub, because you can walk around and talk to the various NPCs hanging around. Each of them can be asked 4 or 5 questions of general interest that reveal more of the game's backstory. The developers have also tried to diversify the range of actions beyond the usual hack n' slash by having "side-quests" which you can do in town. This fails miserably though since all of the side-quests I've seen so far are the same: "Hey, guy B is supposed to give me an item. Would you go take it for it?". Walk for 20 secs to guy B. Choose Dialogue option 4. B gives you the item. Walk 20 secs back to guy A. Choose Dialogue option 2. Yay! And so on.
From what I gather, the game's interest and unique features that set it apart are twofold: character suits and multiple characters.
Each character has 3 or 4 suits for the comic book fan to rejoice, each of these suits having three attributes in which you can invest the money you gather. For instance, Wolverine's first suit ("Modern", jeans and t-shirt) gives him bonuses in Environment damage (pick stuff up and throw it at enemies and it'll be stronger!), Defense (self-explanatory) and Energy (more Mana). His second suit, "Classic" (the good old yellow-and-brown spandex thingy) rather has Claw Damage (increases said form of attack), Defense (still), and...some third attribute. So you're supposed to max out a character's suits and switch between them as the current mission calls for.
Next, you can have four characters in your party at a time (a "team"), and as those characters do missions together, they gain "team levels" with which you can buy "team powers". Don't expect Chrono Trigger Double/Triple Tech Caliber, though, these team powers are passive-voiced upgrades like "Strength +5%", and not new, unique abilities that demand new strategies and broaden the space of possibilities. I think one of the team powers allows you to have more than 4 characters in your team though - that seems sweet. Characters must stay consistent as a team to gain team levels; if you swap one or two of them in or out, you won't gain team Reputation (Experience).
Marvel fans will get to choose from many heroes (if memory serves me right, about 15 of them plus some "locked"). This is undoubtedly where the game's major appeal lies. Unfortunately, this "selling point" is contradicted by the game mechanics, since while all characters gain the same amount of XP whether they are in-party or not (and as such level up consequently and don't get "left behind", the money you gain is part of a common pool. This means that the player gains money and spends money, and not each individual character. As thus, each dollar spent into upgrading, say, Thor's suit, means that they're wasted if you replace him from your team. Likewise, you can hardly enjoy looking at your character's different outfits, since if you change suits, you have to reinvest all the money you spent in suit 1 so your suit 2 will be up-to-date. We quickly learned our lesson, since a boss encountered as early as Stage 2 proved to be impossibly overwhelming to new, base-level characters we wanted to "try out". Not that we were bad players or anything, their attributes were simply not up to the task and we got wiped three times without any hope of winning. Then we switched back to our former heroes and the battle was quite easy. In short, you cannot afford to switch characters or switch their suits, so all that extravanganza is taken away from the game experience: you have to pick 4 characters at the game's beginning and stick to that team (as if the individual character development/suits limitation wasn't enough, you also won't gain Reputation, team levels and team powers if you switch characters). Granted, this is a major and common hurdle in all games featuring multiple characters, but since Enchanted Arms succeeded with it, I've grown more critical of the feature. It doesn't have to be this way.
On the narrative level, things quickly get boring as Marvel: Ultimate Alliance relies on what I call the syntagmatic dilatation of action. The game's events are lined up on the syntagmatic axis like any story's, except the bulk of missions, instead of multiplying the events so as to create a continuous stream of events, simply expand on each event to stretch it out so it can become a 2-hour game experience. For instance, instead of having a series of events such as: 1)The heroes must go to the fortress to find out why Doctor X stole the plans for device Y 2)They face Doctor X who runs away with the plans. He drops a mechanical part that comes from lab C. 3)They explore lab C in search for clues and find a dead scientist who's been killed by a trademark weapon from enemy W. They seek him out to confront him.
they opt for the stretching out in sub-events: 1)The heroes must go to the fortress to find out why Doctor X stole the plans for device Y 1a)Unfortunately the bridge to the fortress is down, so they'll have to repair it. They need 3 planks of wood and 1 toolbox for that. 1aa)The first wood plank is in the canyon to the East. They walk through the canyon and get it. 1ab)The second wood plank is guarded by a Moblin who will only trade it for Bait which must be bought from a merchant in lab C. 1aba)The merchant wants 1000$, which can be found by farming Blackrock Depths for 1 hour. 1ab)The heroes buy the Bait, go back to the Moblin, give him the Bait, get Plank B 1ac and 1ad) Get third plank, get toolbox 1a) Repair bridge, get into the fortress. Oh noes! The elevator is out of power! We'll have to walk up the stairs. 1b) Walk up the stairs. Surprise, surprise! The stairs have crumbled. OH NOES! We'll have to go outside the building and climb up the walls. etc. etc.
By the time you get done with the sub-, sub-sub-, and sub-sub-sub-routines of each action, you are so out of phase with the narrative that when you finally get to the top of the tower, you don't really remember nor care about what you'll get from...who again? Doctor X? Oh, right, the plans! Yeah.
The game ridiculously, tiresomely expands every opportunity for action and each mission becomes a lengthy affair. Out with it already! I could have completed a whole NES or even SNES game in the time it took me to achieve nothing in this not-so-interesting game. It sure doesn't seem inviting to complete the game, but I guess I'll have to bear with it for science. An update to this review will come in the following weeks.

New Super Mario Bros.

I have been playing New Super Mario Bros for the DS for a healthy amount of time every day for a while now. So how good is it? It's Super Mario Bros. 3-good as regards design and fun factor. But mostly design. That is incredible. Granted, it's not too innovative - although the mini and mega mushrooms are a very organic addition and they do not feel out of place at all. Mostly, they fixed a lot of things that had been lying around in dormance since the early days of Mario. Sure, you could pick up coins in Mario 1 and get extra lives. They were mostly hidden in blocks or secret areas, the idea being that players would be rewarded by coins by exploring. The idea was good. The result was not so good, and only by sheer arithmetics. Since my girlfriend is currently doing a contract for revising translations of math schoolbooks, here is the problem:
Q1: Little Jimmy wants to beat Super Mario Bros 1. He starts the game with 3 extra lives. He knows that he will need at least 10 extra lives to make it past World 8-2, 8-3, and 8-4. Given that it takes 100 coins to get an extra life, that secret places typically contain 20 coins, and that trying to reach a secret place usually carries a 20% chance of losing a life in the process, what are little Jimmy's chances of success?
A: Litte Jimmy is screwed, and should ignore secret places altogether and try to beat World 8-2, 8-3 and 8-4 with less than 10 lives by trying them over and over and memorizing the enemies' patterns.
Coins for extra lives seemed like a very valid concept back in the day, but there seldom was enough coins to warrant the risk taken in obtaining them. New Super Mario Bros fixes that by multiplying coins. There are many more, and they are brilliantly used: instead of appearing most of the time in secret places or in blocks, they are laid all over the place, tracing patterns over pits and effectively suggesting "ideal" paths to the player. The result of this is that you get a glimpse into the level designer's thought process, and how he thinks you should progress through the challenges he laid out. This is brilliant. Any long-time Mario fan will likely be struck by the abundance of glitters in this game. And as a result, you want to collect coins, because they're easy to get and plentiful, and thus you get a lot of extra lives with them. Suddenly, they're worth it, and that adds a dimension to the game that should have been in there all along but was merely a ghostly halo, an unfulfilled promise, a marvel that had never been.
Another thing that really struck me is what they did with the end-of-level flagposts. You remember them from SMB1, and perhaps from SMB2J ("The Lost Levels" that appeared on the Super NES Mario All-Stars cartridge, not the Doki Doki panic edited for the US market as "Super Mario Bros 2"). In SMB2, you could use a spring to fly over the flagpost in a level, and, congratulating your genius in finding such a secret, you continued to walk past the end fortress, only to come face-to-face with a warp pipe that would take you back to level 2. ("Who's the genius now?", I could almost hear as the devilish pixels on the screen grinned at me) Well, these flagposts were giving you more points the higher you touched them. Big deal. Points. I never understood points. It's one thing when they give you extra lives, but when they're useless, they need to go. They're unnecessarily cluttering the screen, and giving fel armaments to these braggarts who used to take photos of their high scores - back when taking pictures meant spending money on film, let me add in passing - and then pride themselves in their "0867454" points. At least Capcom understood and took out scores from Mega Man 2 onward.
So New Super Mario Bros fixes this by offering the player increasing points the higher he touches the flagpost, and an extra life if he gets his feet over the flagpost (Mario still comes down, no secret backwards pipe this time). Okay, it's not totally fixed (you still have *gasp* points! Want to know what my score is? Why would you care anyway?)
I must end this review by stating how they tackled the problem of audience. Mario is a long-timer. I've been playing Mario for about 20 years now. How can they offer me something new and interesting and still be able to hook up the 14-year old that got a DS last Christmas? "The ages-old saying, "Easy to beat, difficult to master", which is so overused it says next to nothing, can be mentioned. The stages in New Super Mario Bros are easy to beat, but finding all three Koopa coins is difficult and requires thorough exploration and puzzle-solving. I'm pretty sure I could have been done with the game already if I just wanted to beat it, but the fun for me comes in finding all the Koopa coins in each level. The challenges are built on the old rules of Mario (jumping, throwing shells, hitting switches and running, entering pipes, etc.), but the new elements (mini mario can jump higher and float in the air, you can ground-pound to knock blocks below you, you can wallkick-jump off walls) introduce many new permutations on these old familiars, and tax my comprehension of the game mechanics. My hat off to Nintendo!

Gears of War

It wouldn't be accurate for me to say that I played Gears of War and loved it - it's more like I lived it. I turned on the game on friday two weeks ago, got straight to act IV, then finished it up the next morning - all together, about 12 hours of gaming in a 20-hour time span. This game is so great in a number of ways. The cover system set it apart from the generic, "strafe-dance" first-person shooters, in which you just dance and jump around your opponent and whoever aims or predict the other's movements better wins. The environment is as much a factor in battles as the enemies, which considerably reduces the feeling of repetitiveness that often plagues the shooter genre (for me). A given set of enemies can be anything from easy to extremely hard depending on your tactical ground (dis)advantage and position.
The game is labeled a "tactical shooter" and it's not "tactical" as in "try to get your AI partners to do what you want" but rather by the levels' architecture. Since you can duck behind cover and be relatively safe, there's a lot less twitch gameplay and more careful maneuvering and decision-making. It is less about aiming perfectly while moving left and right to avoid being hit than about keeping yourself in a defensive position and forcing your enemies to maneuver dangerously. Typically, I would enter a room, get behind a wall (or anything - but I had a big smile when I first hid behind a piano, and enemy bullets went through it triggering loud snapped strings noises and clunky notes) and try to flank my enemies using my AI teammates. If they move around to match my movements and not get themselves flanked, or try to flank me, then they expose themselves to fire during the time they are advancing to another cover. It becomes a game of movement on a grid, akin to chess. Give me that kind of "tactical" any day!
Of course, one cannot speak of GoW without touching on the visuals. If I had to sum up Gears, I'd like to call it "a shooter with a vision". Art direction is well-done, with beautiful environments and ugly monsters who are not overdone. Two things in particular worthy of praise: the camera and the chainsaw-gun effect. Video games seem to be still in their "cinematic envy" infancy. The bulk of most game cut-scenes is shown through a fixed camera shot, which is, as most would suspect, the oldest and simplest use of a camera. The camera in Gears bobbles and wobbles around, pivots, shakes, and so on. This gives an incredible effect of presence to the cut-scenes. The chainsaw-gun effect, as the name implies, comes from the fact that one of your guns has a chainsaw attached to it, and you can "melee"-attack your opponents with it, resulting in an instant kill. Blood splatters the camera as the victim's body falls away in chunks and entrails. The effect is startling and hits spot-on on the lead designer's vision of "intimate violence" that seemed to be, along with "destroyed beauty", the words to define the game.
I will say that Gears of War is the best game I have played this year, until Mass Effect proves me wrong (or not). Pacing is perfect, difficulty is fair, the game is short and intense (give me that over "long and OK" any day), there's a variety of weapons that is enough to shuffle things around but not too much so as to render some of them useless or confined to a bizarre, hybrid role, and the game keeps throwing new situations at you regularly ("ride a mine cart!" "stay in the light!" "lure that Berserker out!", etc.) In fact, I just bought the limited edition. (a friend had lent it to me - I will finally get to return it to him!)

Mass Effect

Mass Effect is good, but not awesome. The combat system heavily favors the Soldier class (which is to say, the guy with the big gun who doesn't cast spells or use tech powers), which is a real shame. A real-time shooter engine doesn't particularly lends itself well to the variety of strategic possibilities that a RPG offers, because it is in itself interesting enough and sufficiently hard to master. It also runs counter to the idea of strategy and optimization. Sometimes I would leave a couple of weapons or armor suits in my inventory for a while instead of equipping them, because it didn't seem to make so much of a difference in the heat of combat. My motor skills were the real cookie-cutter.
I also did not equip things because you gather them at a ridiculous pace. This is even truer of level-ups. Get this: the main quest can be completed in 12 or 15 hours, and will probably get you up to level 35 or so in the meantime. That's a heck of a lot of level-ups, and each time you're supposed to go in the menu to your "character sheet" and spend a couple of points on some skills. The skills are so simply laid out (there really isn't a "tree" to speak of) that the player has very little choice. Usually you'll check the 7 or 8 possibilities at the beginning of the game, pick one or two skills that will be your priorities, and then for the next 10 levels or so you're good to go. It's just pointless to have you go in the menu and put your point in there every time. Especially considering that you often gain a level just talking to people.
Another reason why I didn't really keep track of my inventory is that the inventory menu is so uninviting. Note that this is probably actually a conscious design choice, as BioWare wanted the game to keep a "shooter pace". That's why, as they said in interviews before the game's release, the game will automatically loot everything on a corpse instead of allowing you to choose what you're going to take. By this logic, it would make sense to have a good, detailed and organic menu to skim through the hundreds of items you're "automatically" picking up along the way. But if the menu is too good, the player will spend too much time in the menu, and that would break the shooter pace, so the solution is simple: make the menu as uncomfortable as possible so he or she will want to get out of there as quickly as possible.
The game writing is a notch above the industry average, but I was a little disappointed. This isn't KOTOR or Jade Empire caliber. In fact, I am pretty sure I won't remember much of the game in 6 months or so. It just doesn't create a lasting appeal. The dialogue system, however, is interesting. Having the player pick a choice from just a few words and then watching the character speak is a good mechanic, as it leaves room for the character to surprise you - sometimes in a very bad way (Shepard pulls out his gun and shoots the guy! or some such), but that's what makes it interesting. The game positions itself along the idea of a third-person narrative, reminiscent of the FMV games of yore. The player does not become Shepard so much as he influences him.
Mass Effect ends up being somewhat of a cross between an average shooter and an average RPG, where the two generic logics often collide. But that's what makes it interesting for me and rest assured, you will read more about it from this author in the future.