After playing through Mass Effect, teeth grit and sick and tired of the experience, I expected Mass Effect 2 to be, at best, a slight improvement. There were only two mechanical changes I knew the game had over the first: the removal of grenades as a fiddly, oh-wait-that’s-not-what-R-does mechanism, and the removal of the Mako vehicle sections. I expected then to play a game that was at least shorter, but also more linear, and without that same gristly connecting tissue. Ironically, when the Mako stopped being part of a game I was playing, and was just a part of a game I never intended to play again, I became more fond of the little guy. It was an enthusiastic little bouncy-castle-on-wheels. Thus, I buckled myself in for what I hoped would at least be a shorter experience. Maybe I’d finish it before the end of the year!
A week later, I realised I may have had something remarkable on my hands as I reloaded the game to play it over again.
In Mass Effect 1 there were basically two regular characters I gave a damn about. I liked Wrex because he reminded me of an angry muppet, and Tali’s voice and her hidden expression were interesting. Other than those two, the bulk of my crew were all well-drawn marionettes hanging in my vessel and getting in the way when I needed to shoot things. What made this truly strange to me in hindsight was that even then, Bioware had done fantastic work in giving the other, less prominent characters clear, meaningful voices and goals. You were meant to care about your squad, and I didn’t – but that wasn’t because Bioware were bad at creating characters!
I remember fondly the lone Hanar fussing about its right to preach. I remember the Green Asari who was consumed by the Thorian. Hell, I remember the Thorian! Saren’s crazy purposefulness, where he tried to justify the unjustifiable was well-handled, with the voice actor and the dialogue making it clear that he believed it, even if you didn’t. I remembered the magnificent menace of Sovereign itself. God, how wonderful that Space-Cthulu-Ship felt! There was also the bitter, sniping diplomatics between Udina and Anderson, with its Die Hard style action sequence. No mention of characterisation would be complete without Kirrahe’s wondrous We Held The Line speech, too! It’s such a shame so much of Mass Effect was about plowing through things designed to impede my ability to enjoy those bits. The game surrounded me with characters, and then made all the interesting characters the ones I’d see the least.
Mass Effect 2 made the core of the game about characters. There are missions to recruit characters, missions working alongside those characters to fulfill a personal goal of theirs, conversations to unlock morality choices and upgrades that come from learning about what they care about, and then there are basically five other missions. That’s it. Either missions that directly relate to characters – recruitment or loyalty – or they’re one of a tiny handful of missions whose only purpose is to move the greater plot forward. Some people have complained that there’s not enough to do in the game that isn’t loyalty missions – but surely that’s the point? Character is what this game does well – why the hell wouldn’t you want to make it important?
Shepard is also given renewed focus, with a system that rewards your everyday behaviour with larger, more prominent moments in cut-scenes. Oh, complain about quicktime events all you like, but the events in these are deliberately used, used regularly, and you have a clear idea of positive and negative outcomes: they’re some of the best-implemented quicktime events I know. This gives Shepard even more character – she can show in those kindest moments a care for her friends, hugging them or refusing to accept their excuses. She can yell and threaten or shortcut fights with moments of callous badassery, and it’s under your control. Planning out these story forks so that the vast array of options have some cause-effect relationship still impresses me, when I consider the scope of it.
I have heard one friend compare the character-driven story of Mass Effect 2 to squeezing pimples, noting that he hated everyone involved. Yeah, that’s pretty much the flip-side of this idea. If the entire game lives and dies on the basis of how much it can make you care about and love the characters in the game, if it fails to connect those characters to you on any emotional level, the whole game falls apart.
Mass Effect 2 further refines the previous game in its effective use of mystery. The setting already featured the Reapers, vast and terrible entities that came from outside, that exterminated all extrastellar life in the galaxy every 50,000 years. The Reapers are the driving antagonists of this plot, and their proxy, the Collectors, offer us only the tiniest additional insight. The Collectors simply are. There’s also Cerberus, the terrorist organisation you work with in this game. You’re never given an easy, clear ‘They are bad’ or ‘They are good’ sign – there are denials and some of those denials are even proven. The same is true of the Alliance Council and C-Sec – they’re good, but they’re not that good.
Normally, I complain about a game where threats are non-specific, where a lack of explanation substitutes for a mystery. I don’t feel like that was the case in Mass Effect 2. While there are some plot threads that just vanish (Haestrom), every single force has some good and some bad to them, creating a more ambiguous universe, which feels thought-out, not incomplete. Part of this, I think was a change-over of writers, and partly the knowledge that they needed some mysteries to explore in the third game.
This use of mystery comes to a peak at the end of the game, where a surprising type of character is introduced. I’d been told, ahead of time, that I was going to meet this character, and I was still surprised by them. The entire scenario is creepy and touches on that same mysterious, ineffable horror aspect.
I have left out one detail of what drove me to blast through Mass Effect 2 so fast. When I told two of my friends I was playing the game, they both asked me to tell me about how I fared in the final mission. They friends who, without wanting to reveal details, asked me to tell them how I fared at the final mission. A subtle challenge: they also expected me to screw up.
Remember how I said that Mass Effect 2 was a character-driven story? The ending of Mass Effect 2 becomes an enormous final exam in characterisation. You are given a final mission where having talked to all the characters in your ship prepares you. Doing all the loyalty missions slants the odds in your favour. More than that, though, knowing who the characters are enables you to make the best possible decisions. What happens if you make the wrong decisions?
Oh, no, it’s not the bullshit way most videogames will handle it, either. Every character has uniquely suited dialogue to their task. There are unique cinematics. There are character interactions that differ from combination to combination. The first time I tried this, I almost screwed up, and heard one of my crewmates (Legion) distressedly calling for help? I went nuts. There was not a trick I did not pull, not a risk I did not take as I rioted across the battlefield. I would save them, and there was not a force in this world that would stop me.
This sequence is extraordinarily powerful. The game world sets up the view of Shepard as this unmitigated badass, so powerful and important that all the other characters move in the wake of her turbulence, and then, in this one sequence, with a combination of character acting, dialogue, pacing and yes, endangering people you may care about? It makes you feel like her. These people were my people! These people had thrown in their lots with me in a suicide mission, whether out of fatalism or out of hope, and I would not betray them.
Describing this part of the game has my hands shaking.
Thus is the threefold genius of Mass Effect 2. It excises the fat. It focuses the story on what Bioware does excellently, characters. Rather than dedicate much time to developing the antagonists, they instead make the inherent inscrutability of the Reapers as part of their threat. You know what they’re going to do, and you know how hard it’s going to be to stop them, and that’s almost it. They make you focus on the characters, and then, after keeping you in that mental space, they then make the end of the game about the finest and hardest hour of those characters that the game has strived to make you love. Shift the focus to your strongest point, refine that focus, then add the real, tangible possibility of losing what the focus makes you care about.
You could use that formula for improving any videogame sequel, really.
Mass Effect 2 is not perfect. There are things in it I don’t like – I have some thoughts about Tali’s sexuality, the lack of options for a non-heterosexual Shepard, and the planet-scanning mechanic isn’t very fun. It’s not particularly nice that the game accidentally implies that while homosexual relationships exist, they’re not really relationships. I’m not happy with the way the DLC of the game doesn’t decrease in price over time, making some of my favourite experiences in this game can cost as much as the game itself. The game isn’t as moddable as I’d like it to be! And yet, with all of these problems, I have returned to replay Mass Effect 2 three times through, from start to finish, back to back. I can’t tell you what to blame for that. With my hand over my heart and my brows as high as I can hold them, I think that it’s as simple as Mass Effect 2 made me want to be in its world.
Buy it if:
- The first game disappointed you.
- You enjoyed Star Control 2.
- You really liked any of the characters in Mass Effect, as you’ll probably see them again, or echoes of them.
- You can enjoy almost any decent third-person cover-based shooter.
Avoid it if:
- Permadeath as a consequence upsets you.
- You find it hard to empathise with or appreciate characters who appear like the Mass Effect 2 characters.
- You dislike being presented with ‘no right answer’.