Which is probably why exploring planets (the main activity of side missions in Mass Effect) is so bloody boring.
Warning! (Boring) Spoilers Ahead.
Just about every side mission has the following attributes:
- (optional) Find a piece of Intel about a possible mission in a location (sector/system/planet).
- Arrive at location (by random chance or by design) and get a voice communication about the problem that updates your journal with the actual mission.
- Search the system.
- Find the one place you can land. There is only ever one. It is usually a planet. Sometimes it is an impossible to find moon. It may also be a generic freight ship. The rest of the system may or may not have interesting descriptions or collection quest items.
- Land on planet (or dock with space ship).
- (optional) Shoot some stuff from your inter-galactic space rover (only applies to planets).
- Shoot some stuff as it runs at you.
- (optional) Talk, get some exposition, try to reason with the madmen who are shooting at you.
- (optional) Shoot some more stuff.
- Get XP.
If you happen to land on a planet you will always find at least one of each:
- Hidden minerals
Docking with a ship reveals that all space-faring vehicles not your own were purchased from Bob's Discount Freighters. They have been loaded to well under capacity with large crates by a union of psychologists running human-sized rat maze experiments. The subjects of said experiments will be hiding behind the first corner. You will have to shoot them as they swarm you.
In fact, most of the other locations you visit will be stocked with similar detritus (box- and human-shaped).
Any terrain you are dropped into the middle of is guaranteed to be barren, dusty, extremely hilly, and difficult to navigate with a tiny radar display that has no topography information. Yes, the main map does have topography, but it's at least 3 clicks away, and then you have to zoom and pan to figure out which tiny dot is you and which is the next interesting thing you want to drive towards.
The planetary lighting does change, and on occasion you get some interesting and lovely sky effects. Which you will be able to enjoy for the next 5-10 minutes as you will be dropped on the other side of a large tench or mountain range from your destination. Going outside of the arbitrary mission zone will see you picked up and dropped back where you started. Yes, your pilot hates you. He can drop you on a dime, he just won't.
Mass Effect wants very much to be a cinematic game but every time I wandered away from the spine of the story I found myself faced with boring, repetative, and lack-luster side missions on generic and boring worlds. The goal was obviously to create an open and developed galaxy with many posibilities of exploration and exposition. All I want to do is stay wherever civilization has managed to huddle for warmth against the cold galactic night. Everywhere else is a pre-fab carbon copy world of bleak despair.