If Mass Effect 1 was the game that got me to fall in love with the series, Mass Effect 2 was the one that made me annoying about it. If Mass Effect 1 was the raw, proof of concept, then Mass Effect 2 was the refined work they wanted to make, but with a bit of the personality lost in the process. Mass Effect 1 had to be loved despite (and sometimes because of) its flaws, but it is much easier to love Mass Effect 2. That’s reflected in the amount of hours I’ve sunk into the games too, as I’ve played Mass Effect 1 maybe four times, but I’ve played the second one close to ten. By late 2011 I was playing it over and over again, with my New Game Plus runs getting faster and faster. At a fundamental level, the sequel fixed a core problem that the first game had, that no matter how much I loved it, the fact was that most of my time was spent on the activities of combat, inventory management and exploration that just did not feel all that good. They were functional, and rarely were any of them actually bad, but whenever I went to replay Mass Effect 1, those bits would definitely slow me down. Mass Effect 2 has the exact opposite sensibilities, and puts most of its effort into improving the aspects that the player will be spending most of their time on. As a result, it is a much more enjoyable game to play overall. Mass Effect 1 is a game of ups and downs: this bit of exposition is great, this bit of combat is a slog; this vocal performance is great, this ten-minute drive in the mako is borderline unplayable. Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, holds a consistent level of quality throughout, which means that while some of the highs of the first game aren’t quite as high in the second, the lows are evened out much more.
The combat in Mass Effect 1 was tolerable at best; the combat in Mass Effect 2 is slick enough that I play it for its own sake. The world in Mass Effect 1 was brimming was exposition, depth and interesting answers to interesting questions; Mass Effect 2 actually stuck you in the middle of it. The characters in Mass Effect 1 were charming and lovable, the characters in Mass Effect 2 are so goddamn charismatic I don’t have enough hyperbole to express it. That consistency of high but not highest quality makes it easy to get lost in Mass Effect 2, to play it over and over again because there are barely any of the moments that you would run into in the first game where, when faced with an hour-long sequence of combat and mako exploration, you just dreaded moving forward. Everything feels like an incremental improvement, like the team finally got the budget they wanted and could bring their universe to life. The game set the standard for how a modern RPG would work, and still finds its way into top ten lists six years after its release. And while I genuinely love the first one more on a personal level, I know that that added consistency of quality makes going back to the original often very difficult. I have multiple friends who started on the second game, loved it, but could never go back to play the original; the gap in quality is simply too big. So many parts that work so well in the second game feel like they’re missing from the first. But so too are there aspects in the original that feel missing in the sequel, and while this problem would only deepen in the third game, the makings of this redefinition of Mass Effect can be clearly seen in this game. Mass Effect 1 was niche art; Mass Effect 2 needed mass appeal. The difference between the two approaches, while it can be subtle at first, is one of the most fascinating things about the series. Let’s dig into it.
When Mass Effect 2 came out, I hadn’t played Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto, or any of the other myriad of cover shooters that were flooding the market, so cover shooting seemed like a cool idea at the time. While the genre has almost completely lost its luster in the six years since, I still enjoy Mass Effect 2’s combat system, and I was freaking ecstatic about it at release. Compared to the clunky, buggy combat of the first game, this felt fluid and slick. I could move from cover to cover, pop off a few shots and activate a few biotic powers all without forgetting which button got you into cover and which one snapped your aiming to your eye line. While the basic shooting is taken straight out of Gears, Mass Effect adds some fun twists to the formula that make it fun on a second-to-second level, but also have a bit of strategic depth. In the first game, I rarely gave orders to my companions (despite beating the game on Insanity multiple times), and I rarely switched between guns. In my last hour of playing Mass Effect 2 (running through the Overlord DLC), I was giving orders to my squadmates every time their powers came off cooldown, switching weapons based on the current defense type of enemies, and even ordering positions as enemies moved around the combat arena. Simply put, the combat requires you to make more interesting decisions than its predecessor. Even on my most recent playthrough (number 11, I think), I was learning new parts of the combat. On Insanity difficulty, pretty much any improvement to your fighting style matters, so I finally selected a couple guns that worked better against each defense type. Enemies in the game have four types of defense, and usually have two, while some of the tougher enemies have three. Those layers are shields or biotic barriers, armor, and health. Different weapons and damage types work better against each one, and certain powers are designed just to take down specific defense types. This means that, while building my squad, I want to select members that have powers that react to the potentially most common damage type of the enemies I will be fighting. Am I going up against geth enemies? I should probably take Kasumi, Tali, or Garrus, since they have abilities that counter shields well. Lots of weak humanoid enemies or husks? Probably Jack, because her abilities only work on unshielded targets. Collectors or highly-equipped humanoids? Better keep my squad diverse so I can react to multiple types of defenses. These are types of decisions you just didn’t have to make in Mass Effect 1, and squad choice was mostly based on who you liked the most.
A common criticism that has been leveled against the game, however, is its removal of traditional RPG elements from the combat. In the first game, you had an inventory filled with different levels of armor, weapons, and amps. You would get these items as loot from random enemies in the world, the same way you do in most RPGs. However, you never really had to make any choices with these. It was basically a matter of finding which thing had the highest numbers and using that. It took time, and rewarded exploration, but you weren’t making interesting decisions that payed off in combat. A YouTuber I really like, Noah Gervais, framed it really well in his video on the Mass Effect series, where he asked, “Which assault rifle was your favorite in Mass Effect 1? How about Mass Effect 2?” and my answers to those two questions, respectively are “I don’t care, whichever one is the best” and “The Mattock, screw the Avenger, I’ll take the added precision and scope over higher damage and rate of fire any day.” Those two questions and my subsequent answers were enough alone to convince me that I liked the inventory management system of the second game significantly more than the first, because even if there was less stuff to do, the decisions you were making mattered, and stuck with you. I think it might have been a bit excessive to remove the inventory system completely, and I think the third game’s system of weapon customization over looting is probably the best option.
But, the second game did have a few unique ideas to replace the upgrade system of the previous game, in the form of the game’s most hated addition: planet scanning. See, the game would let you find upgrades in the world or buy them from vendors that would do things like boost your shield capacity or increase biotic damage, and you would need to research them with resources harvested from planets. You would get these resources from going to planets in the galaxy map and scanning them for resources, in a tedious process that involved moving your cursor over every square inch of the planet and clicking when the resources you want showed up in a great enough capacity. The process took forever, especially before the speed upgrade, offered no real choices or really anything interesting to do other than move your mouse up and down, and was subsequently removed in the third game, so I think the developers learned their lesson. Independent of the way you got resources, however, I like Mass Effect 2’s upgrade system. It gives you unlocks and progress that rewards exploration and does require some decision making on which upgrades you will buy, without the clunky mess of the previous game’s inventory. It got better in the sequel, but it’s pretty solid in this one as well.
However while the game’s changes in combat made it overall more replayable, what makes it truly great is the game’s characters. They are the undeniably the meat of the game, the real reason people come to the series and remember this particular game so fondly. Mass Effect 1’s characters definitely had their interesting moments, but most of that was in concept, not so much in execution. The structure of the second game fundamentally changes to accommodate these characters, from the mostly linear plot of the first game that is structured more like a film, to the more open-ended, disconnected set of missions of Mass Effect 2, that play out more like a season of a TV show. The majority of these missions are focused exclusively on the characters themselves, but are clustered together to give the game some semblance of progression. Each act will begin with a plot-mission, related to the Collectors, the main antagonists of the game, and then is followed by three to four character recruitment missions, where the player involves themselves in the personal struggles of the person they are trying to recruit. Then, each squad member is given a loyalty mission, further following their personal struggles in a way that is almost wholly disconnected from the main plot of “stop The Collectors”. This means the the vast majority of the game isn’t focused on this main plot, but is instead an episodic bit of character development. With this shift in focus, the game can really define itself as a character-focused work, not a plot one.
With that added freedom comes a more complex and focused look at each character. Firefly creator Joss Whedon originally pitched the show as being about “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things”, the Mass Effect 2 is a focused exploration of that same approach to sci-fi. For many of these characters, we get to see how their experience with Shepard in the first game changed them, and how each one of them tried to interpret what made Shepard such a powerful force in the galaxy. We get to see how each one of them tries to be Shepard. Many of them have gone from the encyclopedia entries on their species to having a complex relationship with it. Garrus calls himself, “A bad turian”, Tali is tried for treason, Grunt struggles to be accepted by his own species, Mordin is celebrated by his people but for the wrong reasons, and Liara is becoming uncomfortable more like the mother she killed in the first game. These characters are much messier than they were in Mass Effect 1, they don’t embody their respective cultures, they struggle with them. They become political leaders, begin their own projects and try to shape the galaxy in their own way with the absurd amount of influence they’ve gained. Wrex is trying to unite his race and bring them into a renaissance, Liara is a busy information broker, and Ashley/Kaiden just go back to being a soldier in the alliance. In a game that deifies the player character and places an almost masturbatory importance on the player’s own agency in the galaxy, telling the player “Sorry, I don’t have time to go adventuring with you” is both a brilliant piece of world-building, and a subtle rejection of the player’s omnipotence. These characters shape the game’s world, and their relationship to Shepard defines both them and the player. Any exploration of the game has to dig deep into those characters, since that is clearly what the game cares about. So I’m going to devote a section to each (err, most) of them, and see what they have to teach us about the character, the game, and the world.
People loved Garrus before, but Mass Effect 2 was what got him to meme status. After spending just a few minutes with Garrus, it becomes very clear that the game is trying to cultivate this reaction. When you find Garrus, he is on the space station Omega, the seedy underbelly of the galaxy that serves as an easy foil for The Citadel (and later Illium), and he is single-handedly taking on every gang on the station. His identity isn’t revealed at first, but when you fight your way to him, and see, oh hey, it’s Garrus, the game plays it up, and does everything it can to give you the feeling of seeing a long-lost friend again. And this becomes the perfect lens to explore Omega with.
Omega is, as previously mentioned, the darker side of the galaxy. Shepard is working outside of counsel space, he’s exploring areas that aren’t as cleanly under government control, so there is a lot more in-your-face crime and injustice for Shepard to play the superhero to. This marks a pretty heavy tonal shift from the first to the second game, because while ME1 had a sort of golden age, idealistic take on sci-fi, ME2 takes on an aesthetic that is closer to cyberpunk. High tech, low life is an apt description of how the game’s world works, Omega especially. This gives your character a sense of being isolated from the rest of the game’s formal authority structures, as you spend most of your time on morally neutral actions. Yeah, the overall frame narrative is pushing you towards saving people, but most of the time you’re just trying to find and recruit people. As a result, renegade Shepards really come into their own here, because instead of playing the galactic space cop, you’re working for a shady organization recruiting the baddest of the bad so that you can eventually save the galaxy, but it’s going to take a lot of work before that. Omega is perhaps the best example of this new theme. It’s a criminal-run space station, dark and grimy, filled with the most dangerous types of people. And this is where Garrus shows up after Shepard’s death at the beginning of the game (long story, she died for two years. She got better.) In the years of Shepard’s absence, Garrus tried to be her. He put together a team to take down the gangs and mercenary groups on Omega, basically forming a Suicide Squad meets Avengers Superhero group. I’m not going to go into too much detail about this and Garrus’ loyalty missions, but while Garrus serves as a big part of the game’s love of “the old days”, his story on Omega, of betrayal and murder, of crushed idealism on a corrupt space station, is a great summation of the game’s approach to tone.
Also on Omega, the player meets the salarian doctor Mordin, one of the most beloved new character additions. Mordin hides away in a corner of Omega, running a clinic with next to no resources while trying to cure a plague released on the station. He is a brilliant scientist, and spent a great deal of his life in government work, working on the Krogan genophage, which I will expand on shortly. Omega is the perfect setting to let Mordin shine, as it has both a great deal of people who need help, and a morally reprehensible criminal infrastructure that would come up against Mordin. As a result, Mordin’s later-revealed role as “The Doctor Who Killed Millions” doesn’t feel out of place. Mordin works tirelessly to save those infected by the plague, then kills the mercs who attack him without hesitation, leaving their bodies outside of his clinic as a warning sign to others.
Mordin is also a wonderfully charismatic bit of writing, though the person himself is much less so. Mordin is socially clueless, talks in curt, efficient sentences designed to communicate quickly but not elegantly. He tackles problems with brute force speed and efficiency, but most players can’t help but love him. He is adorably awkward (especially later on when he starts singing), unintentionally funny, and refreshingly idealistic. Conversations with Mordin run the gambit from genuinely unsettling, to intellectually fascinating, to laugh-out-loud hilarious, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Mordin’s core conflict, though, centers around the previously mentioned genophage. The genophage was released several hundred years before the events of the games as a response to the Krogan’s attempts to take over the galaxy soon after being given spaceflight technology by the salarians. It limited their birth rate to somewhere around one in a thousand, crippling their population and crushing their dreams of an empire. When the player visits Tuchanka, their homeworld, they find it in ruins not because of the results of the genophage, but because of centuries of war, nuclear and otherwise, between the various clans of the species. The krogan seem inherently warlike, with a culture that has violence at its very core. This, coupled with how bloody the Krogan rebellions were described to be, makes the release of the genophage seem less like the war crime it definitionally was, and more like a desperate last hope. Still, even hundreds of years after its initial release, krogan civilization is crippled, disorganized, and just as warlike as it was before. While a player can feel sympathy for the loss of krogan culture, it doesn’t seem like that culture was or ever will be anything other than warmongering. However, if the player saved Wrex in the first game, there does seem to be a glimmer of hope. Wrex, fresh from his work with Shepard, is working to unite the clans under one banner, slowly forming a unified krogan government based more on something akin to what we would call the social contract than a mite-makes-right approach that is so ingrained in their culture it isn’t even really questioned. But the ruined state of their world and their civilization makes this difficult. When the player first sees Wrex, he is sitting on a throne made from the rubble of buildings destroyed in countless wars, you get the symbolism pretty quickly. And it is into this incredibly messy and complicated situation that Mordin enters.
Mordin was part of a team that noticed that the effects of the genophage were lessening. The krogan birth rate was rising, not rapidly, but enough that it fell outside of the salarian projections. So, Mordin and his team corrected that. Despite the moral complexity of the genophage’s original release, they altered the plague to account for this, and the birth rate normalized. These adjustments to the genophage probably border on a war crime, just as the original release did, and it’s implied that this isn’t the first time the salarians have done this. Mordin is now partially culpable for this plague that wreaked havoc across krogan culture, and he doesn’t seem the least bit conflicted about it at first. When the player confronts him about this, we start to see the first bit of what becomes Mordin’s tragic flaw, in the traditional literary sense: he is a classic example of not being able to see the little picture in the face of the big picture. When you talk to Mordin about the geophage, he talks about high-level models and simulations they had run, testing the likelihood of more krogan rebellions, of the number of casualties that war with the rest of the galaxy would cost, and with your experience with the krogan, you might believe him at first. But then comes Mordin’s loyalty mission, where you hunt down an allegedly kidnapped member of his team who, it turns out, was not kidnapped at all, but rather joined the krogan willingly to help them cure the genophage out of guilt for his actions. Along the way, Mordin is forced to look at the smaller picture of his actions, seeing the death and cultural stagnation that his actions helped reinforce. Throughout the mission, Mordin is thoroughly uncomfortable, and you see his composure slowly start to break with a subtlety that is far too uncommon in most game narratives. Mordin leaves the mission undecided, considering that perhaps his actions were a mistake, and that he might revise them in the future. It isn’t a dramatic change of heart, but it is the beginnings of one, and it is one that the series will expertly continue with and conclude in its final entry.
I have a whole lot to say about Jack, but not too much of it has a place in a piece (ostensibly) about the big-budget updating of the series. But I’ll touch on a few points. Yeah, Jack’s character design looks like they targeted marketing first, and actual character design second. Yeah, her arc can be summed up as “broken woman needs a man in her life to fix her problems”. But I actually like what they ended up doing with Jack’s character, even if I still agree with a lot of the criticism. Importantly to this essay, though, Jack is a perfect example of the seedier side of the Mass Effect universe. She’s got the fairly classic story of being kidnapped as a child and experimented on for her biotic abilities (classic in genre fiction, anyways), and as a result, hates everyone and everything. The Alliance couldn’t help her, the Counsel and its influence couldn’t help her, no one even tried, so Jack serves as a perfect example of how, in a galaxy as big as this one, it is very easy to slip through the cracks. Seeing a person so explicitly broken yet also so incredibly powerful helps the player see parts of the universe the normally wouldn’t. The series, especially the second game, sees the player interacting with the best of the best, the most competent, focused and driven individuals in the galaxy. Having Jack on the team, however, lets the player see a bit of just how a completely but sympathetically broken person might live in the Mass Effect universe. And even just for that, I am grateful that Jack is in the series.
Before we move on to Act II of the game, there are two DLC packs that add characters that we can discuss. The day-one DLC for the game added Zaeed to the franchise, a badass mercenary that I was so thoroughly bored with, I never talked to him after his recruitment and loyalty mission. Not too much to say there. Kasumi is mostly the same, since the DLC didn’t add many conversations for either of them, but that pack does have one of my favorite parts of the series: a heist mission. Now, I love heists. I love them in games, books, films, stage plays, interpretive dance, whatever, heists are freaking great. And despite how goddamn engaging every single heist bit I’ve played in a game has been, there are unforgivably few heist games. Off the top of my head I can think of Payday 1 and 2, this mission in Mass Effect 2, a few 2D indie titles, and those few missions in GTA V. Payday and GTA V are the closest we’ve gotten to actual heists in video games, and those were depressingly shallow. Payday probably had the most potential, since it does have systems for stealth play, messing with security systems, and interaction with NPCs in ways other than killing, but it so quickly dissolves into an all-out gunfight that it is barely worth playing (hasn’t stopped me from putting over 20 hours into it, but still). Basically, I love heists, and I need more of them in games. Payday might have touched on the thrill of planning a heist with your friends and suddenly having it all go wrong at the last minute, but Mass Effect 2 tries to make that more narrative-focused by having you run a heist with a fictional friend instead. There isn’t much mechanical depth to it, it plays mostly like one of the newer Telltale games, but the theming alone and my unquenchable thirst for more heist games has kept this mission as one that I look forward to on every playthrough.
I kick off Act II by playing Tali’s recruitment mission first, though the game does give you multiple reasons to go to Illium as well. But just like Virmire in the first game, I always save Illium for last. Tali, fortunately, has evolved into a fascinating character in the time between the games. Tali was basically a teenager when you met her in ME1; a wide-eyed girl seeing the outside world for the first time. By the time you see her in ME2, she has changed from a caricature of an encyclopedia dump on quarians to a fully fleshed out person. Tali is competent and confident, a science nerd, but with a bit of experience under her belt. You find her leading a classified mission on a geth world, one hand on her gun and the other on a keyboard. She is fiercely loyal to her people, but often at odds with her government. You later hear her talk about how seeing the outside world radically shifted her feelings about her home, how it gave her more perspective to see what she loved and didn’t about the Flotilla. And when she is charged with treason during her loyalty mission, that conflict is brought to the forefront.
In what is easily one of the best-written sections of the series, Tali is caught in the middle of a feud between two factions of her people, which she is only slightly involved in. The issue is mired in the politics and history of the fleet, which requires a bit more explanation before I can go further. The Quarians started out on their homeworld of Rannoch, but as they progressed as a species, the started developing AI. This isn’t unusual for spacefaring species in the Mass Effect universe, but the Quarians pushed the technology far enough to create an entire species of sorts, the synthetic Geth. The Geth slowly became self-aware, and when some Quarian scientists realized this, they tried to shut it down, to which the Geth responded by killing their Quarian masters to defend themselves. This escalated from a single lab to the entire planet, leading to a full-scale war that forced the Quarians off the planet and into a migrant fleet. The Geth eventually conquered all of the Quarian’s colonies, leaving the entire species confined to what would eventually become the largest fleet in the galaxy. Because of the centuries they spent in space, their immune systems grew so weak that they were forced to wear environmental suits at all times, as even the slightest infection could kill them. This lets the writers pull from all kinds of real-world history, and gives the Quarians a longing for a home that they most likely would never see again. But, some of them still want to fight to return, chief among them, Tali’s father. Promising to build his family a house on the homeworld, he worked tirelessly to create a weapon that might defeat the geth. In the process, he accidentally activated a powerful network of geth on a Quarian ship, who quickly took it over and slaughtered every Quarian on board. Because Tali had been sending him Geth parts, she had been implicated, and changed with treason. Shepard and Tali clear the Geth from the ship to clear Tali’s name, and the conflict is resolved with Tali in high standing among her people, but the lingering conflict between the Quarians remain. In an incredibly adept move of graying up the morality of the game, the person hell-bent on seeing Tali charged and exiled is actually against fighting to retake the homeworld. He believes that war with the Geth would cost millions of Quarian lives and would have little return. Meanwhile, Tali and Shepard mostly work with Quarians who support war with the Geth. This leaves the player in a constant state of unease, working against the anti-war Quarians just because one of their friends got in their way. I always leave that mission slightly uncomfortable, never really sure where I stand with the various factions and leaders of the species. That plotline, fortunately, is also resolved brilliantly in the third game, making this mission easily one of my favorite in the series.
This jumps around in the game’s timeline a bit, but I think it’s important to talk about Legion at this point, partially because he’s a Geth, but also because of how his presence in the story contributes to the continued moral grayness of the series. The Geth were basically cannon fodder in the first game. Yeah, they were interesting from a lore perspective, but they were never ethically complex or interesting as characters. Legion’s presence, and the lore he brings with him pulls off the brilliant move of turning a simple enemy into a complex one, continuing one of my favorite trends in this game. In a strongly unique move for the series, the player first encounters Legion in a combat sequence, where he helps Shepard from a distance with sniper fire. Starting out with a mechanical (heh) connection with Legion helps the player to quickly bond with him, which is necessary as Legion is usually the last new companion the player meets in the game. Once out of combat, the player can talk to Legion, and he is thoroughly interesting from the get-go. He explains how there are multiple, warring factions of geth, how Legion’s geth are at war with the geth the player has fought, and how the previously homogenous race of evil robots that they player had seen before was actually a fascinating exploration of science fiction genre tropes. Coupled with the player learning about how Geth were created during their adventures with the quarians, the player is immediately predisposed to be sympathetic to them, and I know I personally wanted to learn every scrap of lore Legion had to offer. My favorite moment with Legion is when the player realized that Legion is wearing a piece of Shepard’s armor, used to patch up a bullet hole. When the player presses Legion on why he did this, he eventually ends with a pause and, “…No data available.” The geth appear mechanical and alien, and they most certainly are, but there is a messy core of emotion underneath, and Mass Effect 2 loves exploring it. This is something games centered around combat have a very difficult time doing, because they need hordes of endless enemies for the player to shoot without seeming like a monster. For a lot of the series, the geth are that monster, simple and easy, but, even while fighting against the mechanical necessities of its genre and its medium, Mass Effect 2 managed to pull of making them complex and interesting.
Illium is always the last planet I go to when playing Mass Effect 2. You get the option to go there about half-way through the game, but I love saving it for last. When you first land on the planet, it seems as stark a contrast as possible from Omega, or the other grimy reaches of space you have spent the game exploring. It invokes more traditional sci-fi than cyberpunk, with a hint of Star Wars’ Coruscant thrown in for good measure. Illium is one of the asari’s most prosperous colonies, and gets the player a bit closer to understanding just how vast the asari’s influence and wealth truly is. However, Illium sits right on the border of the Terminus Systems, serving as a connecting point between the lawless outer reaches of the galaxy and the orderly domain of asari space. It is the perfect blend of the wealthy and high-class with the dangerous and low-class, and as such, it is the perfect capstone to the themes of Mass Effect 2. The player has spent almost all of their time exploring planets where there SPECTER status barely has any meaning, and now the contrast of that world overlapping with the more respectable one is a perfect time for the themes the game has been building up to culminate. A few hours into their time on Illium, the player will hear the line, “Illium is just Omega with expensive shoes”, and I think there is no greater summary of the planet. This is where we find Liara.
Liara went through a very similar arc to Tali, changing from a wide-eyed, awkward, and nerdy character without too much of a defined personality into a cold, calculating information broker. The first line the player hears her say is a threatening, “Have you ever faced an asari commando unit before? Few humans have” to a potential client, immediately showing her shift away from the socially clueless archeologist of the first game. However, this line was also spoken by her mother, Benezia, during their fight with Shepard in the first game. The implication that Liara is becoming more and more like her mother is not exactly a subtle one. But, moral grayness aside, Liara is still a deeply good person, and willing to help Shepard to the best of her very considerable abilities. Despite this, Liara is one of the first characters to tell Shepard, “No, I can’t go adventuring with you, I have a goddamn job.” This stings particularly hard if you, say, romanced Liara in the first game and were hoping to go on a grand planet-hopping adventure with your space girlfriend (not naming any names). And the game doesn’t back away from this. An easy way to react to Liara not being present in much of Shepard’s affairs in the second game would be to just not make the content for her. Cheap, easy, and narratively consistent. But the writers committed to this, and have a cutscene specifically tailored for the player having romance Liara in the first game, but not romancing anyone else in the second. It’s a quiet, brief bit of Shepard pacing around her quarters, frustrated, taking a longing glance at a picture of Liara that she keeps on her desk, then going back to work. That is one of the moments where I see Shepard characterize most strongly, as she rarely is. The player doesn’t really control the scene, though they are likely feeling similar emotions, and we see a bit of the pressure that Shepard is under, independent of the player. I like that Liara can bring out these moments in Shepard, and while her absence is important, Bioware wasn’t going to leave us hanging.
Liara gets her own DLC pack, Lair of the Shadow Broker, and it is one of my favorite bits of DLC ever made. Expanding on the small side quest and brief cutscene in the main game, Lair of the Shadow Broker takes the player on a hunt across Illium and later to one of the most beautifully designed areas in the game, with Liara taking center stage. The mission starts with the eponymous Shadow Broker trying to assassinate Liara, and her escaping but leaving clues for Shepard to find her. The game briefly turns into a goddamn police procedural (a full year before LA Noire!), with Shepard searching for clues, piecing together information, and figuring out where to go next. Later sequences in the DLC include a flying car chase that mimics Star Wars Episode II’s take on that idea, a fight with a corrupt SPECTER, and a fight up the side of a spaceship that hovers right on a planet’s horizon. Along the way, we see that Liara is just as complicated as the rest of the game’s characters, dealing with the power that her information broker status gets her, her genuine affection for her friends, and the past legacy of her mother. Liara’s complexity is so refreshing given her starting point in the first game, and it feels like something the main game just couldn’t have done. In retrospect, this DLC is probably what made me so positive about DLC as a concept, despite the horrendous business practices it has inspired in the industry. It lets you get a big-budget focused mission that can experiment in a way the main game might not.
But my favorite sequence in the DLC remains Shepard and Liara’s date, which is even more surprising when you consider that it is entirely optional, and only applies to a subset of players. Liara opens the sequence with, “I’m not sure people like us have dates, but I’m looking forward to it”. I think the writing in this sequence conveys a really interesting take on romance as a subplot when your main plot is about saving the world or whatever. Shepard and Liara are not exactly stable people, they’re going all over the galaxy righting wrong and altering intergalactic politics. They’re as romantically inclined as the next all-powerful space superhero, but they don’t exactly have the lifestyle for moving in together and focusing on their relationship. Shepard and Liara’s date gives them a brief chance to stop saving the world and focus on each other, and they both treat it like a treat, something temporary. They are people with lives, friends, adventures and plans wholly separate from each other, and while they can get together from some hardcore romance every once in awhile, it’s not their default; not their normal. Being motivated people trying to get shit done is their full-time job, and the game respects that. Liara does not quit her job to become your space consort. She’s a person with her own plans, and the player is not at the center of all of those.
Thane is one of the most explicitly tragic characters in Mass Effect 2’s lineup, and also probably my favorite. His character description of, “assassin with terminal disease” is loaded with enough irony to give the writers a strong base to work with, but they go much farther than that. Thane tells you stories of a whole planet of tragedies that the player will never see, and weaves a narrative of a people dealing with an exodus that is every bit as tragic as the Quarians. Thane’s people, the drell, were saved by the hanar moments before their world died. Very few of them made it off the planet, leaving them with a handful of refugees on the hanar homeworld. Unlike the Quarians, who have a unified government and home of sorts in the migrant fleet, the drell live with the hanar in a sort of gratitude-driven servitude, though they wouldn’t call it that. The hanar resemble floating jellyfish, and while they are intellectually brilliant, aren’t the best assassins in the galaxy, so Thane was one of the drell chosen to take that role. Thane, like all characters in Shepard’s squad, was one of the best at what he does, and when the player encounters him, he has just completed what he hopes to be his last job, an assassination of a prominent crime lord of Illium. Thane quickly tells Shepard of his condition, an incurable, terminal disease that affects many members of his species. He says that he will survive until the end of the mission, and that it won’t affect his performance, so for many characters, that is all the depth Thane has. However, talk to him more, and you’ll learn a great deal more about the tragedy, in the literary sense, of his disease. The drell lived in incredibly arid environments, and the Hanar homeworld on which so many of them are refugees is comparatively humid. Over time, the drell developed this disease because of the conflict of environments. Thane tells the player that it gets worse the longer her spends in human environments, where most of his jobs take place. In a very real sense, his job is killing him, and little hints of his condition are scattered throughout the writing related to him, such as him staying in the life support area of the ship. Talking to Thane is usually a somber experience, as he shows you bits and pieces of his life through his species ability for perfect recall. He relives past moments of his life in perfect detail, an ability that he warns many drell can be consumed by. Yet, from this tragic character, comes some of the most life-affirming moments of the game.
Thane’s loyalty mission deals with him reconciling himself with his son, with whom Thane has grown apart from since his wife’s death. The actual reconnection between the two isn’t given much screentime; this isn’t about the player and they’re not really involved beyond helping Thane find him. But in addition to the mission’s more literary strengths, it also lets you be a space cop again, which is always one of Mass Effect’s greatest strengths. You are trying to stop Thane’s son from assassinating a politician, so you tail the politician from the rafters, give status updates to Thane, all good stuff. But you also get the interrogation sequence earlier, which literally gives you the option of Good Cop or Bad Cop, with a decent amount of dialogue written out for each one based on your paragon/renegade score. On my most recent playthrough, I had maxed out my paragon bar by this point, so I was going renegade as hell, and played bad cop without a second thought. The guy left the interrogation room bloody and beaten, and, yeah, it was a little evil, but he sold kids into slavery or something so it was totally justified.
There’s one last character before we close this section out, and that’s Samara, one of the stranger character’s in the game’s lineup. Samara is an asari justicar, an ancient religious order that acts in a similar fashion to the SPECTERs. They can freely, though not entirely, disregard the law, the asari people respect them and fear them, they are both a product of an older version of asari society, and while they struggle for relevance as their numbers dwindle, are still important. Some of the asari you talk to say they dreamed of growing up to be one when they were young, and they take on a mythic quality. All of this is a brilliant bit of world building that shows a role in an alien society that said aliens struggle to explain to humans because it doesn’t really have a perfect comparison. It’s messy and complicated, mired in pages of societal wiki pages, and that complexity alone makes them feel distinctly alien. Samara is largely defined by her justicar status, but that is not the whole of her character. The core of the justicar’s role in society is their very strict code, which outlines how to act in every kind of situations so that they justicars can act without question. Samara comments on this, saying, “In this age, people see many shades of gray. The code of the justicars is black and white. I might seem a hero to many, but I would kill all of them if I had to.” Samara is a unique take on the moral grayness that has found its way into Mass Effect 2, responding to the uncertainty of an amoral galaxy with a code that provides absolute certainty. Samara never visibly struggles with an ethical decision. She is cold, calculating and, on the surface, little else. The is the textbook definition of the D&D Lawful Neutral type.
When the player talks to Samara to gain more detail, this lawful neutral surface is not removed to reveal some amoral core, Samara sticks to how she presents herself, but further discussion does show that she chose that lifestyle for a reason, and also reveals a mountain not of uncertainties, but of regret and insecurities. Samara firmly believes in the justicar code, but she chose to follow it out of the guilt of three of her daughters becoming ardat yakshi, a complicated asari genetic mutation that instantly kills anyone they “mate” with (asari sexuality is a really complicated topic, basically they mind meld) and a burning hunger to kill as many as they can. Her loyalty mission involves hunting down her most dangerous daughter, Morinth, and I’ll get to that in a bit, but this adds a lot of depth to Samara’s character. She didn’t just decide one that day a crazy-strict code was the way she wanted to live her life, she chose it to deal with the insecurities, guilt and messiness of giving birth to a monster. Samara spends most of her time hunting down Morinth, and has been doing so for centuries. During that time, her view of the galaxy has shifted to one that demands absolute certainty, because anything less would involve her facing the mountain of doubt that Morinth’s existence brings with it. She’s hiding behind it.
The mission to actually bring Morinth to justice (lol), however, doesn’t involve Samara that much. That’s frustrating, but it’s still a great mission regardless. Samara tracks Morinth to Omega (because of course she’s on Omega), and Shepard begins a hunt to lure her out and take her down. Part of the mission involves Shepard entering the VIP section of the Afterlife club and trying to lure Morinth out by seeming as edgy and cool as possible. And goddamn is that fun. Punch a dude in the face for pressuring an asari who clearly was not into him, buy everyone a round of drinks, dance awkwardly with another patron, have a staring contest with a krogan; I’m having the time of my life here. And then Morinth finally calls you over and you have to out-edgy-hipster her by saying that your music is to obscure for her and boom, you’re back at her place awkwardly flirting before Samara bursts in. Helping a guilty mother kill her monster of a daughter should not be described as fun, but goddamn if it isn’t one of the funniest sequences in the entire game. Oh, and if you’re a goddamn idiot you can choose to save Morinth and kill Samara and Morinth joins your squad instead. You can even romance her in a sex scene that literally is a fade to black with a goddamn Game Over screen. Because she kills people that she has sex with. Never change, Mass Effect. Never change.
The Suicide Mission
The characters of Mass Effect take center stage in this game, and, regardless of the final mission, they would have been great. But, for me, the game’s final mission is its crowning achievement, because it takes the character focus the game had been building up and uses it to build The Suicide Mission into something that few games have ever managed to do. You walk into the suicide mission feeling the progression that RPGs so often focus on; you have the best gear, the best team, the best ship, the best tech. You have the best of the best ready to go on this mission, and it emphasizes that feeling of growing power in a way few few other RPGs do. When I played my first few BioWare games, I never liked only having to pick two or three companions at a time, I was always hoping that the final mission would allow me to play with all of them. The Suicide Mission finally did that. You spend most of it coordinating different teams, picking different members for different jobs, and making life-or-death decisions about how the mission will play out. And these are life-or-death choices; actual ones. If you didn’t make the right decisions along the way, didn’t complete loyalty missions or upgrade your ship, send the wrong teammate to the wrong place, they will die, and that will carry over into the sequel. Even Shepard can die at the game’s ending if the player loses enough teammates. The fact that so much work was put into making the decisions you make feel meaningful is frankly astounding, especially considering how expensive that content is to produce. The Suicide Mission feels like your best ironman run of XCOM, but with characters you are invested in both because of how they help you on a gameplay level, and because of how much you like them as people. I can’t think of a single other mission in gaming that evokes this feeling so strongly, and through that feeling, you love the characters even more. The game has been building up to this for twenty hours, and damn, does it pay off.
The first bit of real interaction the player has during the Suicide Mission is a planning sequence. You made it to your enemy’s base, crashed on the surface, and are planning what looks like a one-way trip. The song, suicide mission, plays in the background as you make your decisions, and the music adapts to the stage of the planning you’re currently at. It adds to the brilliantly building tension that the narrative and gameplay decisions have created, making you focus on something that exists in other games, but is never as emphasized. You pick your primary and secondary teams, a specialist for hacking into the base’s systems, and get ready to kick some Collector ass. You feel like you are finally planning your own mission, not letting the game tell you what to do. Even though the sequence is still fairly scripted, the decisions you make create an illusion of choice that is stronger than any of the game’s other missions. At specific stages in the mission, you have to shuffle your team around, pick different specialists, and react to changes in the mission objectives. On repeat playthroughs, I was worried it would lose its luster, since I knew each beat of the mission by heart, but nope, on my most recent playthrough, I was giddy as all hell, tabbing to my notes on the game to quickly type out some notes before tabbing back somehow getting even more excited. The buildup and payoff is sublime, and each bit of game before the mission feels like it pays off during the mission. The final boss fight is infamously lackluster, but by that point, I didn’t care. I had pulled off the Suicide Mission, with an actual, game-recognized possibility of failure. I felt like a goddamn space hero.
And that’s how Mass Effect 2 closes. You get a quick moral choice about keeping or destroying your enemy’s base (which ends up not mattering at all), you blast out of there before the place blows up, and you get a quick cutscene of your team looking all badass while an army of reapers descend on the galaxy. You can play some DLC or extra missions afterwards, but that’s how the game officially closes. There are few games I have played that can hit that high of an ending note.
I came into this playthrough of the game and accompanying essay expecting to write something very different. I was going to write about how it watered down the world and strengths of the first game to create something with more mass appeal, how it toned down the literary influences in favor of a cinematic one. But honest, now that I’ve finished it, I think I found more depth in it than I have in the first. I still love Mass Effect 1, and I think it does have some strengths in world building that the second one does lose a bit, but the game’s greater commitment to showing you the parts of that world, to making it a bit messier, and somehow pulling this off while looking great, is enough to easily make it one of my favorite games ever made. While Mass Effect 1 feels like a rough take on something brilliant, and Mass Effect 3 feels like a polished but ultimately less expansive entry, Mass Effect 2 feels the most complete of the trilogy. It knows what it wants to do, and it executes it to near perfection. It doesn’t feel confused about what it wants to do, and there are very few parts of it that feel incomplete. It cares about a few things, it’s characters, building a complex world, and having fun while doing it, and it does all three of those things really damn well. The first two games in this series had an enormous impact on how I looked at games (a massive effect, if you will), and Mass Effect 2 comes the closest to realizing the perfect version of that idea that affected me so profoundly. During his final conversation, Grunt tell Shepard, “I have everything. Clan, kin, and enemies to fight”. I couldn’t think of a better summary.