If you read the guides for Mass Effect, however, they all seem to recommend that first-time players to Mass Effect sign on as a Soldier class. They cite its survivability (which is definitely true), as well as its lethality (also true). Soldiers are the only class permitted to use an assault rifle, which most agree is the most well-rounded weapon in the game. It also has the unique ability Immunity, which provides the soldier with short-term damage resistance that makes it almost impossible to take down in a fight. Its certainly true that they are a powerful and tough class.
However, while you see nods to the Vanguard, I think its underappreciated as a class. The Vanguard is sort of the equivalent to a fighter/mage: it has skill with shotguns, a lethal close-range weapon, and yet still has access to powerful biotics to enhance its capabilities. The downside is that it does not get access to heavy armor, and is limited to the shotgun and thus not good at ranged combat.
In practice, these shortcomings are overstated. I found the shotgun to be effective even out to medium range pretty much from the start of the game. While there are some cases in which long-range combat was emphasized, most combat in Mass Effect occurs at medium-to-close range. And unlike the assault rifle, which requires you keep the barrel pointed at a foe while you pump it full of ammunition, many kills with the shotgun require only a single burst. This allows you to quickly get back behind cover, hit space, reassess the situation, find the next target, and then unpause to fire again. In a lot of games, I often find that it is sometimes easier to aim effectively when you have just one large shot at a time, rather than a constant barrange, and this was the case here as well. I found that I really loved the shotgun, as just as I did in Fallout 3.
Furthermore, I am not at all sure that medium armor is a limitation. Medium armor does, on average, have lower damage resistance and, depending on the armor, lower shield ratings than heavy armor. However, it almost always also has superior biotic defense ratings, which makes you better able to resist damage from your opponents' biotic powers. While its true that only a handful of opponents use biotics, it is handy to have those defenses. Furthermore, the key biotic ability for the Vanguard is Barrier, which creates a powerful energy shield around your character capable of soaking more damage than any heavy armor can provide. When maxed out along with shock trooper, you can use barrier almost at will, as the ability will recharge within a few seconds of the previous barrier disappearing.
Therefore, the Vanguard might sacrifice a tiny bit of durability and ranged weapon attacks for a great deal of flexibility. You have a lot of different options for how to deal with a foe, from effective medium-ranged fighting, to biotics, to in-your-face close combat. Therefore, a typical skirmish in the game would go something like this:
- Encounter foes and get behind cover.
- Start shotgunning down any nearby foes. Use Throw or Lift to disable anyone packing too much heat, or getting too close for comfort.
- Activate barrier, leave cover, and charge around the cover of any remaining combatants.
- Shotgun them in the face.
Ah, so much fun! And by endgame, you can start that sequence with a Barrier and expect to be able to re-activate it mid-fight. Fortunately, all of this never got grindy, because sometimes there wouldn't be cover, or some other factor else would keep this approach from working. The most problematic enemy were Krogan, who have an annoying tendency to activate immunity and then charge into melee range. Melee attacks are not resisted by shields, and Krogan, being so large, are resistant to abilities like throw unless you put a lot of points into maximizing its force. Vanguards don't have a lot of HP, so getting within melee range was really the key to taking me down.
Another advantage is that, as a Vanguard, you can readily take the most interesting NPC's in the game along with you. Since you have no tech abilities, you have to take one of the two "tech" companions: Garrus or Tali. Garrus frankly does all the tech he needs to, plus he wields an assault rifle and is good in a fight...and is a cool character in an "ends justifies means" sort of way. And then you have another party slot that is pretty much wide open. I usually took Ashley, for the durability and firepower, and because I enjoyed her spunk. Wrex also slotted in just fine in that role, without any problematic redundancy. He brought biotics along with him, and a great deal of attitude. On Noveria, I even took Liara so she could face off with Benezia, and didn't really miss a beat. Her support abilities meshed very well with my vanguard's offensive abilities; the team functioned differently when she was present, but not really any less effectively as long as she could stay alive (sometimes a challenge). In contrast to this flexibility, if you play as a soldier, you really need some biotic and tech help, and so you can't really take Ashley (unless, I guess, you punt on combat for one NPC and take Kaidan). If you go as an infiltrator or engineer or adept (or sentinel!), you probably won't want to take Garrus or Tali or Liara, because you'll want NPC's like Wrex and Ashley to hide behind.
The other "multiclass" type class in the game is the Infiltrator, which is what I played during my first play-through. That class is a mixture of engineer (which focuses on support abilities, though with some useful abilities to jam opponent weapons) and soldier, in that you get to play with sniper rifles. Sniper rifles are really fun in mass effect, but ultimately are far less practical than the traditional shotgun. I fond that I had to use my pistol more often than naught while playing as an Infiltrator, because its rare that one can be completely comfortable using a sniper rifle to pick up foes from afar. I'm sure it's possible to play that character all the way through the game, and there would be some situations in which you'd have a tremendous advantage. But a tough, in-your-face magic user like a Vanguard seemed to fit the typical combat situation far better than the at-a-distance character like the infiltrator.
Long story, short (too late)? Try out the Vanguard. It's fun, powerful, and you won't regret it.