By: Patrick Morris
Mass Effect 2 exceeds the extremely high bar set by its predecessor in almost every way. The sequel stands as arguably the perfect second part of a three part story arc while also creating its own identity to stand on its own as a distinctly different game from Mass Effect 1. If the theme of the first game is optimism in the face of certain defeat the theme of Mass Effect 2 is despair and the long term effects of despair on the human psyche. Mass Effect 2 strikes out on its own with a radically different tone allowing players to experience a more sinister side of the existing universe, but still feels as though it belongs all the while amplifying the good and trimming the fat of the first game making for a perfectly rounded part 2 of an epic trilogy.
At its core Mass Effect 2 is a character driven drama. Accounting for the intensity of the bond built between the player and the characters that make up the crew of the Normandy in the first game, it's natural that the player feel somewhat resistant towards building relationships with their new crewmates at first. But the remarkable absence of weak links in the chain quickly overcomes any hesitation. The personal motivations and back stories of nearly all the characters are enthralling achieve their goal of endearing the new cast to the player in a slow but lasting way. One of the very few ways in which the game makes a small misstep is in the characters the game pushes on the player early on. Including Jack, Mordin, and Grunt as three of the first four members of the squad that are to be recruited makes for a slow opening act. Mordin's arc gets great eventually when arriving at Tuchunka but initially doesn’t stand out as anything remarkable. Grunt's acquisition mission is one of the weakest of the entire game with unimaginative combat and afterwards player hesitancy can result in not even recruiting Grunt. And Jack's entire character feels as though she was developed by a focus group of edgy middle schoolers and what they thought was cool in 2012.
After acquiring such a massive crew of new characters the developers clearly make the assumption that the player will need time and individual interactions in order to build a bond similar to that shared with the alumni of the first game, the answer to this was loyalty missions. Giving each character their own specific time with the player to explore something of personal importance to them in order to earn that character's loyalty achieved precisely the intended effect. Each loyalty mission allowed for me to get to know the characters and appreciate their individuality to a significantly greater degree. Being allowed to be a part of Grunt's rite of passage, assisting Miranda in finding and protecting her sister, and representing Tali as she is on trial for treason makes you feel like you are the commander of the Normandy and these really are your crew that have asked for your help. With the exception of Jack and Jacob every loyalty mission took me from being somewhat lukewarm on the character's to feeling like they are a fully realized individual with their own history and motivations.
After recruiting all of the main crew the more minor characters stand out as well. Commander Bailey, and of course Captain Anderson are some of the most enjoyable. Anderson's father figure relationship with Shepard continues to develop especially well if he is assigned as a member of the council at the end of the first game. And Commander Bailey plays a significant and touching role in Thane's loyalty mission by relating to Thane and his motivations as a father and helps Shepard better understand Thane's feelings. While not as impactful as Anderson or Bailey but Oriana, Keiji, and Kolyat all enhanced the emotional depth of the main crew members during their loyalty missions. It shouldn’t come as any surprise but even the minor characters in a character focused drama are excellent.
Not all elements of the game are best in class however. While the character relationships are the games biggest strength the main plot is it's biggest weakness. The mystery's surrounding the primary antagonists of the game known only as the collectors and the actions of the private militia known as Cerberus are intriguing, but without major payoff's occurring in this entry of the story it ends up feeling like treading water. Despite the underwhelming resolution's to these mysteries it's somewhat understandable, as the middle part of a trilogy typically functions as the connecting tissue between the intriguing beginning and the finality of the end making a less than stellar story more forgivable. From the outset it was clear that the collectors would somehow be connected to the reapers making the progression through that particular plot one of the less exciting story elements the game has to offer. But the impunity with which Cerberus operates and the insecurity the player is made to feel in their interactions with the Cerberus boss the illusive man make for more intriguing B plot that unfortunately is left to be resolved in the final chapter of the trilogy. Where the main story was the driving force of the first game it takes a back seat to the character's and even the mystery of the B plot in this sequel.
Also the human reaper at the end of the game reeks of 2010 corny.
When setting out to develop a sequel to what is arguably the hardest hitting sci-fi property since Star Trek: The Next Generation hit television in the mid 80's one of the greatest challenges was undoubtedly differentiation and the single most differentiating part of Mass Effect 2 is tone. Where Mass Effect was full of optimism and exposing the player to the best things the galaxy has to offer Mass Effect 2 takes a much different approach. The sequel explores a much more grim and seedy underbelly of what was previously such a plucky and perky universe. Bioware made a conscious choice to shift the tone of the series and that choice is justified by the inexplicable despair being experienced by so many as the galaxy is ravaged by the collectors. The story and ultimate results demanded that shift in tone and the developers made the right decision to move the series away from a major part of what made the first game so successful. While the tone is more of an acquired taste in this sequel it all culminated perfectly and was made worth it by the finale.
The suicide mission that functions as the game's climax and is appropriately labeled as such is one of the best finale's of any video game I have ever played. This being a 2010 game I was unable to entirely avoid spoilers and was aware that there would be a suicide mission coming. As a result I was careful to complete all the loyalty missions as I was sure that would be the deciding factor in who did and didn’t die. Prior to starting the suicide mission I was convinced that the game would push me into a position so dire that without the loyalty of my crew members they would abandon me potentially leaving us weakened to the point that I could lose everyone. Upon arriving at the collector base it very quickly became very apparent that what I had prepared a plan for couldn’t have been further from what the game actually had in store. When it became clear that my plan of action would not be working I made the decision to just play through the suicide mission and make choices as my extremely paragon Shepard would, the best crew member for the job regardless of how likely I thought it would be that they would die…even Garrus. When all was said and done I only lost Jack and Kasumi and both of those were a result of having not made enough upgrades to the Normandy. But with each choice the game left me distraught and forced me into a state of mental paralysis and a feeling of decision fatigue that no other game has ever been able to make me feel.
Mass Effect 2 is an absolutely stunning part 2 of an incredible trilogy. Amazing character, interactions, subplots, and world building are more than enough to make up for somewhat lackluster story resulting in me being on the edge of my seat the entire time. Against all odds Mass Effect 2 somehow manages to outpace its predecessor and raise the bar for what the medium is capable of in the genre of science fiction. 9.5/10.
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