I completed Mass Effect 2 a couple of days ago for the first time.
This article contains spoilers for ME1 & 2.
I played it on release, but for some reason didn’t get more than about halfway through, so these are my hot takes on an 11 year old game, albeit the slightly remastered version bundled with the Legendary edition, which smoothes out the levelling a bit, and has altered a lot of the camera angles to be less focused on Miranda’s arse. I’m sure there are other changes, but those are the major advertised ones.
Mass Effect 1 is one of my favourite sci-fi universes in gaming, and it threaded the needle – for me – on being a cinematic experience without sacrificing the personalised story aspects of an RPG. The ability to actually respond and roleplay in things that would otherwise be cut-scenes was great, the left-hand side of the conversation wheel, where you could dig into the conversation and go into detail on the world lore and reasoning for things, or continue on with the right hand side, was a great (and even patented) system for giving the lore-monkeys and action-junkies the experience they were looking for, and the KOTOR-style planetary story breaks – where once the world opened up, you did the major story sections in your preferred order and then it came back together for the finale – worked really well. There was a great sense of agency, in that you had been given this ship by the Alliance and carte blanche by the Council to fix what you think needed fixing.
The mechanics of ME1 aren’t great. Even with the legendary edition, the vehicle handling of the Mako feels like you’re suggesting steering to a rubber ball, the cover-based shooting gets confused by geometry, and the inventory management gets old quickly. But the core narrative mechanics are great, and at the end, when you’ve comprehensively proved the Reapers exist and dedicated yourself as a spectre to doing something about them, with the knowledge of the Promethean language and the best Promethean researcher in the universe, it’s a solid foundation to ME2.
My problem with ME2 is, fundamentally, that it isn’t a sequel to ME1. That is, you could replace Shepard with a brand new character, and the same story would play out in the same way. In fact if Cerberus hadn’t resurrected Shepard, then Miranda or Jacob could have run the Normandy the same way, and (depending on your playthrough) to the same effect. Shepard goes from a character with agency within two powerful hierarchies to being spoon-fed objectives by the actual protagonist of the game, The Illusive Man.
Cerberus brings you back from the dead, installs you as the captain of the ship for a mission (which the operatives on the ship will tell you is being run by Miranda), tells you to go and recruit some people, lies to you in order to bait a trap, tells you to collect more people, lies to you in order to bait a trap which infects the ship with a virus that gets your entire crew kidnapped, and then you go and get them. In between that you do things for the people you’ve recruited for a bit.
Meanwhile none of your previous chain of command trust you because you’re suddenly working for the incompetent terrorists whose “research” systems would make Aperture Science ask for a bit more rigor. Every single Cerberus encounter you have in all three games is based on a lie. Either The Illusive Man lies to or tricks you, or a mission site is lying to Cerberus to “get results”, or there is a terrorist within the terrorist organisation to terrorise it.
This wouldn’t be quite so bad if you could react to it. You can complain to The Illusive Man in cut-scenes, but the writers will always give The Illusive Man the final word and command. Shepard can do nothing. At the end, you steal the Normandy and everyone on board stops working for Cerberus.
The only way any of this makes sense to me is if the entire plot went though some major reworking very shortly before they started recording dialog, and everything had to be dragged into place and stitched roughly around the new form. Personally I think The Illusive Man was actually The Shadow Broker until fairly late in development, but I’m pretty sure something major got excised.
But the thing that really annoys me is at the very end, where without warning the game removes one of the consistent aspects of almost all cRPG games:
Suddenly the main plot doesn’t stop for you to complete side missions.
It’s not that this doesn’t make sense as a mechanic, and I don’t actually dislike it as a thing. It means you have to make some extremely tough choices if you haven’t completed all the loyalty missions, but the fact that it is clearly labelled as the normal “This is the final sequence, mop up now” from every other cRPG but every mission you complete between that label and doing the mission has invisible plot consequences is a heavy and unsignposted Out of Character mechanical change, and that’s just bad design.
Then you go through one of the strongest end-game sequences for a squad-based game that I’ve seen, where you actually set up multiple squads and their powers and loyalty means something other than how it works with yours, and carries the risk of permadeath for companions (and, having looked up afterwards, some of those risks and payoffs are bullshit, but it’s still a nice system), and then you either make TIM happy or sad, and then the main game is over.
At the end of ME1, you stopped the Reapers using the Citadel as a Special Mass Effect Relay to be able to get back to our universe from Deep Space, trapping them there until they could find another way though. At the end of the ME2 DLC is “Arrival”, where you sacrifice a Batarian colony to stop The Reapers from using the Alpha Relay as a Mass Effect Relay to get into the system, thus trapping them in Deep Space.
Which leads into ME3, where everything gets worse, including the story integrity.
The game mechanics get much better as the trilogy advances, but the story seems to be getting more disjointed and further away from the knowledge-and-advance scifi setting that I enjoyed most from ME1.
I’ve started ME3 now, and this seems to be a continuing trend, so lets see how this goes…