It took me a super long time to finally get to Mass Effect 2–I only finished it last year. And I got some serious flack, involving repurposed Rick Perry memes, from friends for initially saying that I was pretty sure the original Mass Effect was better.
In retrospect, I’ll admit some of that evaluation came from the sudden and shocking overhaul in gameplay style that the series experienced between these two games. The original tried to go for the feel of a more open-world action RPG with a huge variety of equipment (though a lot of it was just retextured models) and seamless transitions from exploration to combat sections. This time, ME2 wanted to move more into an arcade-y shooter realm with a relatively limited selection of equipment and clear separation between exploration and combat sections delineated by weirdly intrusive mission summary screens at the end of each combat section.
There wasn’t much about the change that was bad in itself, but at the time I felt robbed of the original’s open-world experience that made space feel.. big, I guess. And it’s a feeling I’ve never totally been able to shake, despite all the justifications for the gameplay shift. The new, more shooter-y mechanics made for much more balanced combat gameplay. No longer was I getting ruthlessly murdered early in the game, nor was I able to exploit the game into making myself nearly invincible by the end. This time around, everything felt much more responsive, and enemies behaved in noticeably more intelligent ways–as in they didn’t stand stupidly in the middle of a fight, totally exposed, if there was no cover nearby. But, in spite of all of this, I’ve just never been sure. Yeah, the Mako rover from ME was clunky and awkward, but it made planets feel like sprawling alien geography–not like little bits of settlement with maybe 40 people walking around. Clearly designated combat and exploration sections probably made it a lot easier to design fights and get the combat AI to work well, but if felt like the experience was being delivered to me in little pre-baked packages, not in an entire galaxy I could explore for myself.
I’ll happily give ME2 credit for not backing down on the privilege/marginalization theme of the original. This time around, Shepherd, after being killed in an attack on his ship, the Normandy, is resurrected through cutting edge medical technology by the radical pro-human terrorist organization Cerberus, to help them discover more about the Reapers while the Citadel Council’s more legitimate organizations are paralyzed by fear and politics. While the privilege/marginalization theme spent most of ME simmering close to the surface, it takes center stage here as Shepherd finds himself working with dangerous pro-human radicals–people disillusioned by humanity’s second class position among council the council races, and people willing to terrorize in order to further humanity’s goals in the galaxy.
Being an RPG, the game turns the implicit questions to the player, and sometimes they can get pretty tough. (Spoilers) It throws the player straight into a difficult decision near the beginning of the game. Shepherd and his Cerberus operative team investigates a human settlement from which all the settlers have mysteriously disappeared. Instead of human survivors, they find a quarian alien who could have vital information on what happened to the settlement, but whatever trauma he’s gone through has left him with serious psychological damage. In addition, Talizora, the quarian party member from ME, has come to rescue him. So, you have a choice: You can take the quarian to Cerberus, thus submitting a traumatized alien to a terrorist organization unsympathetic to non-humans and betraying a friend, but taking your last best chance at finding out what happened to the hundreds of people in the colony, or you can let Tali rescue him, thus making sure the traumatized quarian is in the best hands and keeping Tali’s trust, but possibly betraying all the colonists who have been damned to some unknown fate (End spoilers). It’s the same sort of moral and philosophical dilemma that popped up all through the original ME. How much is an intelligent alien life worth compared to a human life? How much anger and bitterness toward aliens does human marginalization justify? And what would you do about it if you had the power to make a life-changing decision that took all those kinds of questions into account? But the really big addition here is the personal factor of a friendship with Tali, and that is what gives ME2 enough bonus points to almost definitely make up for all the shortcomings I perceived.
This might be an unreasonably bold claim, but, I have to say it. Given the volume of dialogue, number of characters, and the consistency of their fantastic quality throughout the entire game, ME2 is an unsurpassed masterpiece of characterization in video games. This is first emphasized in the game’s new, more interesting dialogue animations and especially in the new “quick time event” paragon/renegade response system, but, in principle, characters are what the game’s narrative design is all about. Shepherd’s main goal through most of the game is to put together a team of the galaxy’s most skilled soldiers, spies, engineers, scientists, and whatever else to perform a suicide mission against a new race of aliens in league with the Reapers, setting up a nice little action sci-fi premise that’s entirely in service to meeting and growing closer to a collection of the best characters in gaming. The wonderful writing, voice acting, dialogue, backstory missions, and other subtle bits of character design made for my deep personal investment in all of them, and I’ll even go so far as to admit that I think I like, care about, and generally believe in Garrus Vakarian more than I do a lot of real people. The guy was already a great character with whom I deeply identified in the original, and then ME2 made him into almost a real person. And he’s an alien.In general, when it comes to describing most other video game characters, I’d probably have a hard time squeezing out more than three meaningful sentences, but when it comes to talking about most of the characters in ME2, I would excitedly go on for paragraphs.
Unfortunately, the narrative design of spending the whole game picking up new characters, getting to know them, and then going on a personal mission to right their past wrongs or discover something about their past all kind of sacrifices the game’s macro story arc. As it is, the arc comes in two parts: “Part 1: get ready to go through the Omega 4 relay for 95% of the game. Part 2: finally go through it.” But I find myself honestly pretty ok with it. Like I said, everything is in service to the characters–even the finale, where you find yourself choosing who has to be sacrificed in order that the mission be finished.
The genius (or perhaps a little bit of an undoing) of it is how the game uses this masterful characterization to comment on its central theme. What happens to the ideologies of Cerberus or the Citadel Council or whoever else when put alongside these intensely crafted personal relationships with humans and non-humans? It could be that the game is showing its colors, throwing in for inter-species egalitarianism by making the player care about non-human characters as much or maybe more than they do the human characters, but I’m not sure that it is. Some of the aliens themselves don’t really believe in this philosophy, and they make convincing cases for abandoning it when necessity demands it. The game still elects to leave the answers up to the player.
It might not be totally fair to ask whether ME2 is better than the original on account of how different a thing it’s trying to be. I would say that it might have sacrificed too much of what made the original such a good sci fi space epic in trying to be so different, but I think, in the end, I’m pretty alright with what it did. The last question, then, is what ME3 does with everything the series has learned and accomplished.