Mass Effect 2 (ME2) holds a special place in my heart. As the middle chapter to my current favorite gaming series, ME2 represents the pinnacle of the Mass Effect franchise, but also demonstrates how far videogames, particularly gaming narrative, has to go.
The Best of Times
Building a videogame sequel (or any type sequel) is not an easy task. When creating ME2, developer Bioware, recently bought by mega publisher Electronic Arts (EA), needed to broaden the appeal of the first game while not losing its existing fan base. For the most part, ME2 succeeds in three critical areas: combat, pacing, and inventory management.
Compared to ME1, the combat in ME2 is completely reworked. Having recently finished ME1 on my way to replaying the entire Mass Effect trilogy, the difference in combat between ME1 and ME2 is nothing short of amazing. Gone are the awkward cover mechanics, and having to rely on menu driven commands to use your squad’s abilities. In ME2, Shepard glides in and out of cover with ease, and my squad’s abilities can be mapped to the left and right arrow buttons, allowing for quick use of their abilities. Also gone are the annoying Mako missions. Thankfully Bioware realized that the enjoyment of Mass Effect’s missions derived from the ground combat Shepard and crew faced, not traversing rocky planets back and forth to locate said missions.
Just as improved is the game’s pacing. ME2 breezes along at a fast clip. I’ve been able to get through the entire game in under 20 hours (Shepard and company all died in the process, however). The story is constantly pushing you forward. Recruit this person, obtain another’s loyalty, locate this critical item to complete your mission, etc. The player is always engaged and the game is always ready to deliver more.
Finally, inventory management. I’ve never been into “looting” in my RPGs; at the end of the day, I just want to have the best armor and weapons, not manage an inventory of older items. ME2 strips all that away. Shepard and his team only have a few weapons to choose from, Shepard’s armor is upgradeable rather than replaceable, and you don’t even equip your team’s armor! I know some RPG purists didn’t much care for this change, but I’m not one of them. I’ll take more time enjoying the story and playing through combat than inventory management anyday. In the end, these change make ME2 feel more like a third-person shooter with RPG elements than an RPG with tacked on third-person shooter mechanics.
The Worst of Times
As great as the improvements were to ME2, the game stumbled in one very important way: the story. Put bluntly, the story in ME2 doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if any of the characters in your party die because the ones that play an important role in ME3 will simply be replaced by a doppelgänger. It doesn’t matter if you side with Cerberus in the end and give them the Collector base because in ME3 you’re back with the Alliance as if working for those Cerberus terrorists never happened.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised with the way the story turned out, as it never really started on solid footing. *SPOILER* Shepard dies within the first five minutes, but a few cutscenes later, voila, Shepard is back! This cheap trick adds nothing to the story. Why kill Shepard if you’re only going to bring her back a few minutes later? Is it to get some great character building moments as Shepard’s old crew has to deal with seeing their leader die, then miraculously come back to life? Of course not. With the exception of some expository dialog from Liara during the optional Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC, Shepard’s crew barely makes a mention of Shepard being dead for the last two years! The typical first conversation with your old ME1 crew goes something like this:
Crew member: Shepard, I heard you died (forgetting they actually saw her die)
Shepard: Yeah, I got better.
Crew member: Wow…wait, you’re with Cerberus now?! What is wrong with you!
To make matters worse, not even Shepard has a strong reaction to her resurrection. She dies, loses two years of her life, but carries no emotional or spiritual scars from the experience. There is zero fallout from this death, Shepard simply gets resurrected, and immediately gets back on her mission. You just died, Shepard!
Even if you’re able to get over the “death” of Shepard, the complete lack of ramifications for your actions in ME2 proves the game’s biggest narrative flaw. As I mentioned, your decisions in ME2 have almost no bearing on what happens in ME3. Doesn’t matter if you destroy the data regarding the genophage Mordin’s student Maelon creates. There’s still a way to cure the genophage in ME3. Destroying the Geth heretics in ME2 doesn’t impact their ability to provide support for Shepard’s campaign in ME3. The list goes on and on. In my perfect gaming world, these decisions would have real consequences. No, you can’t cure the genophage in ME3 because Maelon’s data was critical and you destroyed it, or you got Mordin killed and only his genius could manufacture a cure. Yes, you’ve severely weakened the Geth as potential allies against the Reapers because you destroyed half their civilization. In this perfect gaming world, I imagine Bioware letting you start ME3 still working for Cerberus because all your choices in ME2 suggested you feel strongly about sticking with them. At some point in ME3, you’d realize the Illusive Man had lost his grip on reality (probably when he’d started turning his own men into husks), and you’d turn against him. You’d still have to rebuild your team, assemble the crucible, and solve the galaxies lingering problems, but you’d do it from a Cerberus ship.
This level of lazy storytelling simply reiterates how juvenile narrative in gaming truly is; a topic near and dear to my heart. Bioware missed a great opportunity to truly elevate storytelling in gaming, to make the characters in ME2 feel more human. Yes, I realize a lot of my criticism of ME2’s story stems from how it is ultimately resolved in ME3, but at as a retrospective look on ME2, it’s nearly impossible for me to separate my thoughts on ME2 from the series as a whole.
With ME2, Bioware improved upon all the elements of the game most gamers care about: gameplay. The combat is smoother, the pacing is faster, and inventory more easily managed. ME2 by all accounts is a great game, and as I said at the beginning, the best in the Mass Effect series. But this gamer wants more. For a game built upon the premise that choices have consequences, ME2 drops the ball. Narratively, while the game itself is enjoyable, its events are ultimately inconsequential. But for now, I’ll put that aside because I have a Reaper invasion to stop.