For the most part, Mass Effect 1 is a very easy game, even on Insanity Difficulty. Only certain circumstances and personal challenges will make it hard (for example, if you insist on fighting a Thresher Maw on foot for maximum possible XP award).
Any career or talent mix will do because you can make up most talents Shepard is personally missing by having companions, but you can save yourself some Talent Points by carefully considering skills and deciding whether to invest in them or not.
(A handy chart of Talents and Careers is available here)
The overarching principles for choosing Talents are, in this order of importance:
- Defeat enemies with as few resources and with as little risk as possible.
- Control the battlefield to completely neutralize the enemy.
- Output damage to quickly kill the enemy.
- As a last resort, rely on defense or defensive powers to endure enemy retaliation long enough to win.
I recommend you turn off squad use of offensive powers, and instead pause the game to issue attack commands. Tech Powers from your squad launch as if Shepard used them, and none of your squad need line of sight to the target. Biotics and attack powers (like the Shotgun Carnage power) launch from your squad.
There is a cooldown period for power use from your squad -- if you try to immediately launch another power, their controls will be blanked. Also, your squad is notoriously stupid at how they take cover, at not shooting you in the back, or in handling themselves at hand-to-hand distances; so it is generally better if Shepard can solo encounters without relying on fire support or powers. Biotics are especially useful and in some cases critical, so Shepard should have at least Lift for emergencies.
They key talents for Shepard are Lift and Sniper Rifles. If you have nothing else, get these.
- Lift is probably the best defense against being rushed in melee or close-quarters combat, which is extremely dangerous on Insanity difficulty. Throw lets you control the direction, but doesn't last very long. In the late game, something to hold the enemy or at least prevent them from fleeing is virtually necessary for taking down soldiers, who tend to flee quickly and can quickly regenerate health. Combat becomes very tedious otherwise, as you struggle to isolate them and kill them before reinforcements charge your flanks.
- Sniper Rifles lets you win with very cheap shots, and is pretty much the only way to handle very-long-range engagements. Also, your team can't use sniper rifles properly, so it's really up to Shepard to handle it.
Since you can fire only one type of weapon at a time, investing in multiple weapons is generally wasting points. You can switch weapons while one is cooling down from overheating, but this is generally a temporary situation.
You can get away with NOT mastering any weapon if you know what you are doing, but generally you will want at least Pistols with the Marksman ability.
At mid or short range, don't worry too much about weapon cooldown if you have powers ready to use -- If your weapon overheats, just switch to throwing out powers. By the time you have used one or two, your weapon will have cooled down.
This is a remarkably versatile weapon class. If you only want to invest in one weapon skill, choose this. It's not sexy, but it is good at any range. Even at long range, pistols retain good accuracy and you can get even more accuracy by using the Marksman ability. You can therefore "snipe" at far-off enemies when there is too much weapon sway with your sniper rifle to make it useful, or if you have nothing else. As long as you can keep landing at least one hit, the enemy's shield cannot fully regenerate, and it becomes only a matter of time before you win. Against enemies that regenerate health, use poison rounds like Chemical or Polonium. On Insanity difficulty, this can take a long time if enemies are far enough that there is still too much spread to your shots. But it's better than nothing.
At short ranges, Marksman is also good for reducing the spread in your shots, allowing you to shoot at whatever partial body part is exposed by the enemy from cover. The enemy thinks it has cover and will often remain in cover because it is shot at or being hit, but against your sharpshooting, it has effectively no cover.
Assault Rifles are actually not as good as Pistols if you only want one weapon. Their special power is Overkill, which is not as good as Marksman at long range. To maintain accuracy at all ranges, you need to fire only short bursts at a time, which makes it little better than a pistol.
Where the Assault Rifle is better than a pistol is at short or medium range against exposed targets.
The spread and low fire rate (before overheating) means this is a tricky weapon to use on Insanity difficulty. Enemies have so much staying power that you can't do the same thing they do, which is charge in and get a one-shot or two-shot-kill.
For Shepard, I recommend not sinking Talent points here. Even when untrained, you can use Shotguns in close quarters, if only to knock down or stagger enemies like Varren. And if the weapon overheats, whack them with hand-to-hand. If you can keep them down, keep whacking.
For Shepard, I highly recommend every career take this Talent, even if they have to take it as their Bonus Talent, UNLESS you do not have Lift at your disposal. Lift or something like it is recommended over Sniper Rifles because it helps with the most dangerous situation of being caught in melee, whereas Sniper Rifles are more of an extreme convenience. With a Sniper Rifle, a Shepard of any character class can solo most encounters and just about all long-range encounters.
At extreme ranges, on Insanity difficulty, the Sniper Rifle is useless unless you have enough levels that you can quickly stabilize the gun sway or you can one-shot-kill an enemy with Assassination (extremely doubtful against any enemy on Insanity difficulty, especially in the late game). As soon as possible, get this skill up to 9+ levels so that you can completely stop the sway shortly after zooming in on the scope. At lower levels of skill, the gun sway never stops, and the lower the skill, the wider the sway.
At 9+ levels, if you can wait it out, the gun sway after each shot will eventually return to its initial resting position, so if you have good cover, just wait and fire again.
The Assassination ability also zeroes your sway for you to take a shot, but the cooldown time is long enough that you can't rely on it on Insanity difficulty since enemy shields will have regenerated between uses of Assassination.
At long ranges, Shepard can often engage enemies before the party can react to them. This is extremely helpful because the long range gives Shepard plenty of time to avoid rockets and artillery-level fire. Only enemy snipers will be dangerous, but they are poor at taking cover whereas a human-controlled Shepard can look for cover first before sniping.
Remember that you can zoom a second time and look even further, by using the "use" button while zoomed. On the PC, this is "E".
At medium range, enemies like to stay in cover unless they have a Shotgun or like to melee. If you can position yourself so that the enemy remains in cover but you can snipe at a body part like a foot or knee or elbow (or even their gun, sometimes), you can quite safely win with attrition without using other powers, while staying in good cover yourself. Often this is just a matter of facing the enemy from a diagonal instead of head-on.
At short ranges, the Sniper Rifle has too much spread but you can quickly zoom in and fire a shot. When zoomed, the sniper rifle has perfect accuracy where the crosshair is pointed, no matter what the range. You need either a static target, predictable target moment, or a fast aim. (Or, you can pull out your pistol or shotgun).
At close engagement range against an aggressively approaching enemy (because they have a shotgun or they intend to go hand-to-hand) use ammunition that can help you knock down the enemy, since a knocked-down enemy can be easily zoomed-in on for another shot, or whacked with your gun in hand-to-hand combat while your rifle recovers from cooldown.
Also, crouch if you can to instantly reduce the spread of your shots so that you don't have to zoom in at all.
When fighting enemies, especially if they are using rockets or artillery (like the energy bolts from Geth walkers), try to locate cover where the enemy thinks it can hit you, but their shots will in fact slam harmlessly into cover. Typically they will not reposition, which means you can safely sit and aim. Unlike other weapons, when zoomed in a sniper rifle has no spread, so you can pinpoint even a very small body part. You can sometimes hit small exposed areas with a pistol (especially with the Marksman power active) but there is still quite a bit of spread.
For Shepard's teammates, skill in Sniper Rifles is generally useless: They will often not engage at very long ranges where Sniper Rifles really shine. At shorter ranges, you might as well let them use an Assault Rifle or Pistol because those are more forgiving if they miss.
Also, the AI for cover is very weak. In outdoors settings where there is frequently little or no cover that a character can press their backs against, they do not generally know to just duck behind an obstacle or move out of the way of a rocket. This means at long ranges, team mates are generally easy targets for even assault rifle and pistol fire.
There are two cases where the Sniper Rifle should work but does not:
- When an enemy is crouched behind cover and the top of their head sticks out, it is often not possible to hit that, even at fairly close range.
- When an enemy is extremely far away -- far enough for even large targets like automated turrets to be small in your sights. If you do not see a visual cue of having hit (shield blur, blood, or enemy hit reaction), then you may be too far away.
Generally not critical if you learn how to strafe (moving laterally while shooting) and positioning yourself for cover. Using the pressed-against-and-object cover mechanic is not critical, and how it hampers your movement makes it inferior to careful positioning and agile movement.
Armor is also generally useless on Insanity difficulty. Either you are properly in cover (which stops an infinite amount of damage) or the enemy is in melee distance. And if they are in melee distance, you are in very serious trouble. On Insanity Difficulty, this means you are basically dead if you cannot immediately control the battlefield: A single Krogan or a couple of Varren in melee can wipe your whole party, and relying on Armor isn't going to help much. Instead, invest in talents that are not so specific in application.
In general, do not spend points here except to unlock Talents and powers that you want or if you insist on doing everything in hand-to-hand. Instead, learn how to move in combat and learn how to use your powers.
The main reason to invest in Assault Training is to get Adrenaline Burst, which lets you immediately reuse a power in an emergency. This is actually a really good power, but for Shepard only the Soldier and Vanguard careers have it.
Melee, even without Assault Training, is strong because it ignores shields and you can typically knock down enemies of your size or smaller. Once knocked down, you can keep pummeling them or back off to shoot a bit before knocking them down again. You are vulnerable to other enemies, and you are often in the way of your allies trying to shoot the enemy, but if there aren't other enemies around then you've basically won.
The main reason to get Fitness is to get the Immunity power. You can experience just how annoying it is when enemies use it against you, and they frequently do on Insanity difficulty. You cannot always expect to do the same, but if you want to survive a Krogan in hand-to-hand with you, then Immunity helps a lot.
I prefer to control the flow of battle instead of subjecting the team to situations that would require Immunity to survive, so I recommend against investing in this Talent, unless you insist on going into hand-to-hand. Hand-to-hand, if you can master it, is very fast and powerful even without Assault Training, but the opportunities are limited and can be tricky to set up without getting Shepard killed. In general, it involves rushing to the enemy. When your shields are down, turn on Immunity. When you are in trouble, back off and use another power to restore some of your shields as you flee for cover.
Except for hacking, Tech skills are basically free grenades with side effects. Like grenades, you can hit targets behind cover because of the blast radius. Even against enemies with no technology to disrupt, they still inflict a good amount of damage and can be deployed in rapid succession much faster than regular grenades.
Party member tech skills can be invoked by Shepard. When this happens, it is as if Shepard uses the skill: That is, the tech proximity mine that delivers the effect originates from him. The party member doe not have to have line of sight to the target. The mine continues to move forward until it encounters an enemy in its blast radius, whereupon it explodes. If it doesn't explode, it will stick to a surface or hang in mid-air, and shortly after will disappear. During the period it is in existence, if an enemy comes into its blast radius, it explodes with the appropriate power effect. You can therefore stack several as a big explosion trap, then rush in to quickly finish off the weakened enemy.
This is a pretty specialized talent that is generally not critical until the mid to late game. Until you start encountering several biotics or techs, it basically gives you another tech grenade to throw. If you do encounter dangerous biotic or tech power users, then it becomes another talent you can chain to keep them neutralized. The best defense against biotics and techs, however, is to keep your distance or moving out of line of sight. Biotic and tech powers are best in short range. Many biotics can be dodged at mid-range because there is a visible and not-that-fast pulse. At long range, they don't extend far enough and are therefore useless and you are safe from them.
The stunning effect lasts only 3 seconds. After applying any Hardening from talents or armor, this is basically nothing useful. If you need to stop something cold, use biotics like Throw, Lift, Singularity, or Stasis.
Decryption / Sabotage
This ability works on even artillery pieces like Geth Armatures. And since they cannot simply pull out another weapon, they are essentially helpless. If two or three characters in the party have Advanced or Master Sabotage, you can effectively keep an Armature helpess and safely shoot it to death at close range. A mix of Sabotage and Biotics can do the same to keep the Armature helpless.
Enemies can pull out another weapon, if they have it. If this happens to be a shotgun, you may have made the situation worse because now they will probably charge you. You could sabotage a shotgun, but that might just make the enemy close for hand-to-hand, which ignores shields and is very dangerous on Insanity difficulty. Fortunately, only Krogans like hand-to-hand; everyone else typically prefers to back off and keep shooting, even if they were the ones who closed the distance first.
Sabotage can also cause an enemy to retreat if their fighting style does not favour hand-to-hand.
Electronics / Overload
Because of the bonus to shields, investing in Electronics is better than investing in Armor skills to use heavier armor.
Overload is the first skill to use against enemies since it blows off shields. If you use other powers first, they would have to contend with shields which you could have collapsed.
Hacking needs only line of sight and does not require a tech proximity mine or pulse of energy or anything like that. This means you can sight an enemy through a small opening that might otherwise intercept a tech proximity mine. The effect is also immediate.
Enemies must have line of sight to react to each other, so if you are the only enemy visible, they will still attack you. However, enemies will react to hacked allies as if they were enemies.
If you are patient and can stay hidden, you can let robotic enemies kill themselves. However, since you can kill enemies in so many ways, this should not be the main reason to get this Talent. Instead, the cooldown bonus of up to +30% is the main draw for developing the Hacking talent. Even so, you will want to consider that there are many other ways to reduce power cooldown, and therefore that 30% has diminishing returns. A predominantly tech character like an Engineer or Infiltrator will have maximum use of this. As a bonus talent, it is generally wasted on anyone else.
These are associated with Tech users, but on a separate cooldown reduction period from Damping / Decryption / Electronics / Hacking.
On Insanity difficulty, tactics relying on healing yourself are a losing game. Also, medi-gel is a limited resource on a mission. If you are in trouble, go for cover instead.
If you absolutely have to have First Aid, have a party member develop it instead of Sheperd.
Medicine / Neural Shock
Neural shock is the only reason to take this Talent, but it is a very weak one unless you are insisting on grabbing as many powers as possible that will completely neutralize an enemy. The cooldown is very long, the duration is very short, and the prerequisite of First Aid can be useless. Also, toxic damage is not "real" damage per se. It inhibits regeneration of actual health by forcing all healing to neutralize toxic damage first. Ammunition that delivers a good amount of toxic damage is easily available, so that is even less reason to take this Talent.
At mid to long range and/or fast-moving enemies, Biotics are annoying to use because of line of sight issues compared to the large energy pulse that can get intercepted by obstacles and which requires you to lead your shot. Also, the pulse that accompanies the use of some powers travels quite slowly, so sometimes you will need to lead your shot.
Nevertheless, biotics are extremely powerful for controlling the battlefield: Several biotic powers will completely neutralize an enemy from taking any actions, so chaining them together, especially by having one or two biotic teammates, can theoretically keep dangerous enemies at bay and harmless for a long time. Against enemies that cannot simply pull out another weapon, biotics can be further chained/combined with Sabotage. Once you get your cooldowns down with gear, between Shepard and his biotic companions, mid to short range fights can become laughably easy if you can control the direction the enemy approaches you. Even if you can't, Lift or Throw can clear an area and let you reposition.
If you want an easy game, have lots of biotic powers in your team (Liara, Kaidan, and/or a biotic Shepard). If you want a challenging game, reduce the number of biotic characters. If you want a really challenging game or the frustration of getting wiped in melee frequently, play with no biotics.
Like armor skills, Barrier should not be relied upon, especially as they are as useless against melee as regular shields. Even if you had talent points to spare to get Advanced Barrier or Master Barrier (both of which absorb an astounding amount of damage), tactics which require such are questionable at best. I recommend getting no more levels of Barrier than are necessary to get Stasis.
Lift instantly neutralizes an enemy, making it one of the few reliable choices for getting yourself out of trouble when engaged in melee. The area effect also means it is forgiving of targeting mistakes and can grab targets from behind cover (cover that is light can be lifted along with them, so they may still end up being behind cover). Maximize Lift to eliminate guessing whether you have enough power to affect a particular target or not.
Lift does not stop momentum. Combine with Throw to help you push enemies into normally inaccessible areas, which results in an instant kill no matter the enemy's health or shields.
Hitting objects while Lifted, and falling from a Lift, inflict an unpredictable amount of damage.
Lift does not work against flying or hovering enemies (like Drones). Fortunately, those enemies only have one weapon, so Sabotage will neutralize them almost as effectively.
Singularity is like Lift, but generally harder to use. Whether it has a weight limit or not is unclear.
The effect of Singularity is to pull enemies "toward" itself. But in practice, they drift randomly near the centre instead of simply being sucked directly toward the centre. Enemies behind cover are affected and can be drawn up and over cover by this drifting effect. If their cover is light/movable, it will get pulled along with them, so they may still be behind cover. However, that cover may also crash into them and thereby inflict damage.
Targets that wander into a singularity field once it is active will not be affected by the field but may be affected by whatever is floating around.
Where Singularity is theoretically superior to Lift and Throw is in choosing the direction to pull an enemy. Enemies can be pulled into environmental hazards or off into normally inaccessible map areas for an instant kill (e.g., off a bridge). This is highly situational, however, especially as Singularity fires outward and stops when it hits something. If you want to pull something somewhere, you must first "anchor" the Singularity effect by having it collide with something that is in the direction of where you want to pull the target. In the best case, you may have to hope for their drift within the Singularity to send them in the right direction.
In play, Singularity is effectively another use of Lift as an enemy-neutralization / battlefield-control power.
Like Lift, Singularity does not work on flying creatures, including ground-level hovering enemies like some Drones.
Stasis gets you instant respite against a single target, which makes this a rather specialized situation since you can't hurt them during that time. One level of this should be enough, if any, UNLESS you are an Adept or Sentinel with the Bastion specialization, in which case it becomes on par with Lift for neutralizing an enemy in the early game.
Where the Bastion Stasis Specialization is better than Lift is the duration and weight limit: It lasts longer and it is not dependent on the target's mass.
In the late game, the duration (presumably modified by improved armor worn by the target or the target's talents) can be too short against some targets at basic levels of Stasis mastery, but it can still get you a few critical seconds if you have nothing else.
Stasis has limited ability to stop momentum, so an enemy going for cover can still slide behind it and be in stasis behind it.
Like Lift, Throw also instantly incapacitates an enemy, though for typically less time. You typically still have several seconds, however, as an enemy needs to get back onto its feet.
Throw fires off a pulse of force, so multiple Throws from multiple biotics can be combined. It is not clear whether this will affect a target normally too heavy to be affected by each separate Throw used.
If enemies are thrown into normally inaccessible areas, they are instantly killed.
Being Thrown into an item inflicts an unpredictable amount of damage.
Throw does not work against flying or hovering enemies (like Drones). Fortunately, those enemies only have one weapon, so Sabotage will neutralize them almost as effectively.
Warp reduces damage protection, which in turn is dependent on whether they have armor or appropriate talents. Obviously it is best used when an enemy has Immunity, which temporarily grants very high damage protection.
Other than this specialized usage, Warp does not inflict a lot of damage quickly, so unless you have no better talents to buy, get some other power with a better side effect.