. I get accused of vagueness fairly often.
I'm not saying you're "wrong" or anything. I'm sure that a lot of players see choice in Mass Effect
to the degree that I'm assuming that you implied that you have. I'm sure I could've been one of the those player if my life was going differently at the time when I played. I may even be when I go through ME3 - something I haven't done yet.
I'm saying that this dis-illusionment with choice in games such as ME is not uncommon. eva brought it up, I can relate to it, Jon Blow did a talk on Bioshock's examples. Mass Effect has "stream-lined" updgrade paths for the chars. Those, even at high-level, I'm sure aren't nearly as varied as the game would have you believe. ME even had that issue with the ending, where choice was finally shown to be superficial. These patterns are there. I can't definitively say how much choice is present, just that I feel there is a missed opportunity.
I was actually trying to avoid re-designing ME for them, because it's less work. But since you asked, I don't mind.
I haven't played in a while, so I'll reference the powerups in general ways.
Shooting is a complex game. Just dealing with positioning, timing, reload speeds, ammo clips sizes, appropriate ranges, enemy health, AI patterns (particularly generalities that apply to all enemies), damage you take per attack type, blast radiuses, average cover setups in standard situations, how fast you can move between cover once you get in the groove etc. There is a big difference between mouse work and controller work. Just getting into a shooting game, with no powerups, is challenging. There is a lot of choice inherent in any well built shooter, even with no guns and simple level designs and one AI. Throwing all that together makes play confusing.
I don't think the Bioware guys spent a lot of time understanding what a good shooter is before adding all those powerups. They are RPG devs. They make excellent RPGs. But once you throw in shooting, what options the player actually has grows drastically, in very different ways than it does in RPGs. It's hard to know how a powerup will affect gameplay without first having a very good understanding of all the different ways in which a shooter can played.
The first ME was more RPGish, then it went towards being more of a shooter, successfully, as fans and the press seemed to say. I agreed with them. I put down ME1 b/c I found the shooting bland. I'll probably go back to it.
I think that best summarizes it: the powerups (in ME) are RPG powerups in a shooter. They haven't made the transition yet.
I have to learn all these things that are specific to the game, including squad controls, then these powerups hit my face and I don't understand what's going on. I can cast a spell that raises a guy in the air for 0.8 seconds at a range of 10m? What the hell does that mean? I have no freaking clue. In Baldur's Gate I would because everything I do is in ranges and cast times and effect durations; the powerup is a direct translation of the existing gameplay patterns; I understand the relationship in my mind. But in ME that relationship is confusing. The menus present the powerup choices with lore and all this stuff, but that isn't really
what's going on with them. The lore behind a fireball in Baldur's kind of sells its function. The lore behind lifting a dude in the air in Mass Effect doesn't, including how it's animated (especially), what it's called and so on.
Maybe it's more appropriate to say the ME gives you choices, but throws them at you when you're already trying to handle so many variables mentally that you can't relate to them. An extra few spices in a dish may mean nothing to a novice chef, but may make a world of difference in its reception by consumers.
Are the different powerups meaningfully different? I don't know as a regular player. In what way do they affect my strategy? Maybe one powerup is good for a novice, but is useless to an experienced player because he can use the basic mechanics to nullify its value (i.e. find better solutions to the problems itčs meant to solve). How does a powerup affect play? What does good play look like? I can't understand how a powerup will enhance my strategy if I don't have an understanding of my strategy is.
I can't prove the powerups are useless. I know for sure a lot the skills in DII and WoW are, because the internet knows. Shooting is hard because there's far too many player-execution variables. But I know understanding their role is confusing.
If I redid Mass Effect, I would keep the powers. But I would find out what the shooting mechanics really were. I would record players playing. I would draw graphs and charts of all the ways players can play. Then I would make sure that the player is being taught, through play, what I/we haved determined to be the core skills of an ME player. Then I would hand out powerups at the right pace so that the player is always making a decision that they understand the consequences of, because they have a vocabulary for how they are playing - they can visualize it. Then I would match the lore (of the powerups) to their function, and embed that lore into the actual story, instead of being these isolated off-shoots. I would probably have to tweak the function of each power so its actual battle use reflects its appearance and "narrative-function".
I don't know if that's what you're looking for.
Extra Credits puts it nicely: a lot of game fall in the habit of masking calculations as incomparables. Making a powerup choice in ME is presented in a narrative way. Ok. Is the narrative function comparable to the mechanical function? I have no idea without delving into the meta-game. Am I really making a personal choice, or is there one best choice, or one best choice given my play style? I have no idea, without delving into the meta-game. Maybe there is no best choice most of the time, and good fundamentals are all that really matter. I have no idea. My decision might matter, it might not. I don't know.
Mario using a star: even a first-time player understands immediately what that does, and how it affects what is available to him. Some powerup in ME? The player might actually know. They might think they know and be right, or wrong. They might not know and know they know that. They might not know and believe there is no possible knowing. They might sort-of know, and think they know the right way to investigate, but be wrong about that and end up knowing less than they originally did. There's a lot of this stuff.
Bioware presents these choices, then does all this hand-wavy stuff, and connects these choices to results, that I'm not even sure they always understand. So the player makes a choice, sort-of understands the results, but believes in his choice so stays immersed. This pattern is present for the action choices and the story choices. How the decisions affect the game, and how they feel to us when we don't think too hard about how they affect the game, have this really big divide. Sometimes we can fall for it, sometimes we can't.
I managed to get immersed in ME2. I liked it. I would've liked it even more if my action decisions were clear-cut like they were in HL2. I would've liked it even more if my leveling decisions had clear consequences like they did for me in Grandia II. Maybe these things were clear to a lot of people (like you). But they weren't clear to a lot too (like me). Whatever that is, I want to actually know what I'm deciding when I'm deciding. There's a lot of ways to do that (from the dev's perspective). All of game design is there. The only metric is: does the player understand the meaning of this choice? Or, is the development of his understanding natural? Or, is this true for as many players as possible?
I'm only talking from instinct. I can't prove anything.