“I’ll tell you what — you help me finish off these mechs, and I’ll play Twenty Questions with you all day.”
This is the first line of Mass Effect dialogue that got a smile out of me. It comes early in Mass Effect 2, as the recently revitalized Commander Shepard escapes a research station on the fritz. (Really, is there any other kind of research station in this universe?) Her newest comrade, Jacob Taylor, is an employee of the shadowy Cerberus organization, a company that trades in every morally ambiguous sci-fi conundrum you can name, from rearing Akira-like psychic younglings to reviving the killed-in-action Shepard for one last suicide mission. More importantly, though, he is the first person Shepard encounters with little patience for her pestering questions and complete ignorance of social cues. He’s understandably dumbfounded when she wants to play Sherlock Holmes 2185 instead of, you know, escape the explosion-filled Cerberus base swarming with deadly robots. His reaction is a small, practically disposable meta wink, but one of the series’ first character beats to read as recognizably human. Finally, a Mass Effect character reacting to a Mass Effect scenario in a manner similar to how I would!
Mass Effect 2 tweaks many aspects of the original (both for good and for ill), but perhaps the most palatable improvement is this subtle shift toward self-awareness and economy in its plotting. While Shepard eventually gets to play many insomnia-curing rounds of Twenty Questions, greater attention paid to form and phrasing finally tempers the blunt storytelling instrument that is the Bioware Cutscene. Mass Effect 2 contains moments that feel authentically crafted. It’s as if the writers actually, y’know, considered the best means to display the necessary information on-screen, instead of squirreling away plot mechanics in lore-heavy, Q&A info-dumps otherwise concocted to assure nitpicky nerds that they triple-checked their plotholes. No longer is the “camera” a static being, plopped arbitrarily in front of characters as they explain entire alien histories. While the angles and camera movements of Mass Effect 2′s cinematics rarely exude the deliberation or aesthetic consistency of even the most by-committee Hollywood product, the animators and storyboard artists display a filmmaking dynamism that’s lightyears beyond their work in the first game.
The script is simply more suited for this quasi-cinematic telling. Here, Casey Hudson and his writers even flirt with moments that show rather than tell. During this adventure, a character reunites with her estranged sister, and we’re actually allowed to imagine their conversation instead of hearing it. After my Shepard breaks things off with Liara (their relationship was easily my least favorite element of my first Mass Effect experience), they say more through the looks between them than their conversation. Even the obnoxious Joker goes through a pretty empowering emotional arc, one that draws attention to itself through action and gameplay rather than words, words, words. I’m still not a convert to so baldly grafting the language of mainstream film onto the gaming experience, and I wish the divide between play-time and movie-time in Mass Effect wasn’t so wide. (Several moments that play out in cutscenes could have been video game dynamite had I remained in control of Shepard, most notably a famous, climactic leap of faith. Even if these moments came down to a mere Quick Time Event-esque button push, the mere illusion of interactivity would still be a very visceral and welcome addendum.) But this formula is undeniably Bioware’s niche now, and Mass Effect 2 is the best argument so far that the developer’s style can engage emotionally and formally.
Unfortunately, these newfound levels of naturalism and restraint do not wholly define Mass Effect 2. Hudson’s writers still haven’t met a plot point or superfluous bit of lore they couldn’t over-explain, a habit that costs them dearly whenever they intend for players to greet a reveal with shock or surprise. Their story work remains quintessentially uneven here. For every intriguing character awash in moral grey, there is still a dead-eyed sex object or one-liner spouting killing machine written as more badass than believable. For every classic sci-fi “what-if ” that harkens back to Clarke, Asimov, and Dick, there is a dollop of portentous space opera gobbledy-gook unfit to follow Xena‘s Saturday afternoon slot on UPN circa 1997. This story is the work of some very clever people united by passion but no singular artistic vision. The lines between different writers and talents are often noticeable and distracting. Sometimes this sort of creative group-think can lead to solid or even marvelous work. But the key to success in anti-auteur collectives like Valve or Pixar is bringing aboard ruthless self-editors, folks who can quickly parse good ideas from bad in their own work and (especially) in the work of their partners. With apologies to Mr. Hudson, the Mass Effect team does not have this kind of artistic self-discipline. Too often their ideas feel like their first ones, edited and rewritten for clarity instead of quality.
However, this more slapdash approach can have its advantages. Whereas the original Mass Effect‘s spotty success rate derives from its inability to abandon well-worn genre tropes and structure, Mass Effect 2 is uneven because it is gloriously unafraid to fail. (At least when it comes to characters, scenarios, etc.; we’ll get to mission design and combat in a moment.) Unlike the first game, where the characters stay one-note and the story plods through Joseph Campbell’s well-worn footprints, Mass Effect 2 gambles on some truly problematic conceits. Sometimes these noble failures aren’t worth the risk. One of the game’s most layered, well-defined characters — tragic gecko-man assassin Thane — becomes increasingly difficult to stomach as a misguided visual device portrays his unsettling flashbacks as wonky, quick-cut close-ups of his eyes and mouth.
But just as often, these fumbles put the “interesting” in “interesting failure,” and they’re largely why Mass Effect 2 already sticks with me more than its predecessor did. Take a mission Shepard embarks upon to earn the loyalty of Samara, an Asari warrior out to kill her succubus daughter before she seduces another victim. That set-up alone crosses enough sexual and familial wires that it makes you wish Freud had lived to diagnose these fictional, CGI aliens, but it gets so much better/worse. Once Shepard tracks down Samara’s daughter, Morinth, she can switch sides, murder Samara, and take the she-beast daughter in as part of her crew. And on top of that, Shepard can willingly fall for Morinth’s seductive powers at any time, instantly dying upon engaging with her. This succession of plot contrivances is rather pointless, thematically confusing, and difficult to justify for Shepard’s character regardless of how you play her. It is also deeply, gloriously batshit, so gonzo and out of left field that it borders on camp. I’m fascinated by its inclusion, by the sheer thought process and gall that birthed such a wacky scenario. I don’t enjoy it through some snarky, so-bad-it’s-good lens, either. This is exactly the sort of surreal, fever-dream insanity I wish more science fiction had the balls to capture, and I never thought milquetoast, self-serious Bioware had it in them. Mass Effect 2, at its best and worst (and it’s often both at once), finally stops trying to fit in with the cool, gritty sci-fi shooters and just admits to being the weird kid in the back of the class, mind adrift in Moebius illustrations and his self-recorded Farscape VHSs.
Mass Effect 2‘s riskiest move is jettisoning the original’s time-tested three-act structure and substituting approximately one Chrono Trigger in its place. Like that 1995 high-water mark (still my favorite RPG; a controversial opinion, I know), Mass Effect 2 presents the endgame to its heroes early, daring them to test their skills against a mighty alien force whenever they feel ready. Also as in Trigger, the back half of the game largely consists of character-specific sidequests (no one expects to come back from the game’s finale alive, so the whole crew has personal shit to wrap up), deepening Shepard’s bond with her party and filling in characters’ back stories and motivations along the way. This being a Bioware game, though, how Shepard completes these quests contributes to a binary “loyalty” algorithm that determines a team mate’s chance of surviving the suicide mission. It’s not quite as gloriously imaginative as watching Crono and his friends alter time and space in Chrono Trigger, but it’s a clever device that smartly focuses the game more on the characters and less on the drab, impersonal ancient evil they’re railing against.
It’s such a solid structure that I ultimately wish Bioware pursued it to its logical conclusion. Mass Effect 2‘s greatest weakness is that these missions never feel as inventive or inviting as the world and overriding composition that house them. As in the first game, the desire to push past video game convention is in place, but the actual gameplay mechanics never rise to the challenge. With a few exceptions, every “loyalty” mission consists of Shepard and two squadmates traversing a linear corridor, fighting and killing four to five enemies at a time, then finally taking down a larger foe before the situation hands Shepard a moral dilemma over which to go all King Solomon. On a plot level, this design structure greatly limits the actual favors Shepard’s crew asks of her; they all must somehow fit into a completely conventional video game level, and they all must involve murder. (For a game so hung up on morality and ethical decisions, the characters have no qualms slaughtering “bad” people in the dozens, just like in any other mindless shooter.) There is little aesthetic or mechanical detail that ties each mission to its specific character. Even those that are more tailored to their specific protagonist, such as baby Krogan Grunt’s gladiatorial battle for his manhood, they still play out roughly the same as any other Mass Effect mission. (The one major exception, “Lair of the Shadow Broker,” is a wild, constantly changing thrill ride with environments that actually affect combat and some surprisingly amusing banter and plot twists. It was, of course, originally released separately for an extra fee.)
Even beyond the missed opportunity of crafting character missions that more deeply reflect its characters, Mass Effect 2‘s combat and level design just gets monotonous after a point. Once I figured out who I needed to take on a mission and which heavy weapon I should carry to blow the boss’ brains out, every level became a roughly interchangeable slog of spamming my most powerful special moves. Bioware certainly does its best to maintain a level of strategy while also greatly improving upon the first game’s shooting mechanics. In fact, every combative weapon, from pistols to biotic combos, gives a more satisfying, pleasant feedback this time around. Limiting the title’s RPG elements creates an overall sharper, meatier experience (I do not miss the first game’s menus or gear-trading at all), but a few innovations work better in theory than in practice. Limiting each character to a handful of special abilities makes squad selection more crucial, but it also results in more inherently repetitive combat in the field. And a system of color-coated shields that only cave to certain attacks is so limited that it feels more like Rock-Paper-Scissors than Magic: The Gathering.
Though some will consider this sacrilege, maybe Bioware should have ditched Mass Effect‘s RPG elements entirely. Level design is a completely different beast within different genres, and the shooter and the RPG require subtle but incredibly different environments. In an RPG, level design can be a little more rambling and open-ended, because the game’s strategy comes from how the player levels up his character, not just from how that character interacts with the world during combat. (Although the best RPGs certainly do make squad placement integral.) But shooters are often more equalizing; they hand every player a similar, recognizable arsenal of weapons, and the challenge is to discern how best to use those tools within the map’s confines. I don’t think these design schools are entirely mutually exclusive, but I think Bioware crossbreeds them with mixed results. Because Mass Effect 2 offers so many character classes, squad members, and different approaches to every level, its combat never achieves the fidelity and clear vision of the best shooters. Conversely, its narrow, linear corridors and predictable enemy AI do not lend themselves to RPG strategizing, either. They are two great tastes that taste pretty damn average together.
So why do so many people put this in the running for “The Best Game of All Time,”* while almost always simultaneously having beef with huge elements of the game itself? There is one intangible quality that Mass Effect 2 exudes, and it’s what causes players to talk about its characters as if they were close enough to list them as Emergency Contacts. This game has deep reserves of pure, undeniable charm. It’s an awkward, dorky charm, of course, but it’s appealing and affecting nonetheless. While I prefer the open-air, expansive Utopia of the first game’s Citadel design, taking a stroll through Mass Effect 2‘s incarnation (and its similar hub-worlds) quickly confirms just how far Bioware’s come in infusing its creation with life and vitality. It’s these little moments that make Mass Effect 2 what it is: An alien upset he can’t bring his ancestral scimitar through customs, a games vendor lamenting how RPGs are all about “action and big decisions” these days, a Krogan cocktail that knocked even my borderline-alcoholic Shepard on her ass. Elsewhere, an alien with a fragile immune system worries about swapping bodily fluids with her human boyfriend, foreshadowing a goofy, weirdly touching tryst Shepard can have with well-meaning, awkward Garrus. (When you hear me speaking positively about a goddamn romance subplots in a Mass Effect game, you know there have been some huge leaps in quality here.) In Mass Effect, I wanted to defeat the Reapers just to get to the end of the game. After observing the weird, witty inhabitants of Mass Effect 2, I would honestly be a little upset if Psychic Robot Space Cockroaches destroyed this world.
If there is a Mass Effect 2 character who I went out of my way to protect above all the others, it’s Mordin Solus. He’s the perfect Bioware character in many respects, his motormouth vernacular and nervous twitchiness syncing perfectly with the company’s long-winded dialogue and herky-jerky character animation. Plus, he’s got a weight on his shoulders that’s truly monumental but not too far abstracted from its real world parallels. A scientist with a deep, affectionate interest in all races, Mordin’s patented RPG Character Tragic Backstory concerns his involvement with the Genophage, a horrifying — but possibly necessary — bioengineered infertility plague he helped create to keep the combative, quickly expanding Krogan species at bay. It’s a dilemma that reverberates through any number of historical problems and their sometimes inhumane solutions, from the Manhattan Project to current population crises. And Mordin’s reaction to his work — by turns hideously proud of his achievement and deeply ashamed of its cost — doesn’t seem too far removed from what real men of science probably experience when they are asked to make impossible sacrifices. He’s a tragicomic mini-masterpiece of a character, and the beating heart of Mass Effect 2 as far as I’m concerned. Screw the Reapers and their fate-of-the-galaxy bullshit; I want more potential mass murderers who are also well-versed in Gilbert & Sullivan.
My quest to see Mordin survive the suicide mission raises perhaps the most pertinent question in Mass Effect 2. It’s not a moral decision, or whether Shepard leans Paragon or Renegade; it’s not who she sleeps with or what fish she buys for her aquarium. It is, simply, “What sort of storyteller are you?” Any major character can die during the game’s final battle (including Shepard), and it’s not hard to parse out the decisions that will send teammates to their certain dooms. So the final raid on the Collector base essentially asks if you’d rather have a happy ending where everyone survives, or send a character to die nobly and complete a well-earned emotional arc. Personally, I kept everyone alive, if only to insure that I wouldn’t miss their appearances in Mass Effect 3. But while watching clips of various other ending scenarios, I became less sure I made the right decision. A death or two certainly would have made all that talk about a “suicide mission” feel more earned; it might have made me feel better about uniting these people with their loved ones one last time. It’s like Tolstoy said: Happy interspecies suicide squads are all the same, but every unhappy interspecies suicide squad is unhappy in its own way.
I made another interesting (and completely unexpected) discovery watching my squad get picked off one-by-one on YouTube: I did not like watching these characters die. No, sir, not one bit. I’m not even sure when I suddenly cared about these characters, or why. I even felt a pang of guilt seeing the ones I found fairly under-developed and uninteresting — Jack and Miranda, here’s looking at you! — get zapped and blasted into smithereens. (Okay, so Jack’s death was kind of funny.) Was this some sort of Stockholm Syndrome? Had I finally watched these weirdos trail behind me through enough space warehouses and mercenary bases that I had no choice but love them? Or was there something more at work in this silly little space opera than I originally saw? I guess I have to complete Shepard’s story (okay, fine, but I’m only gonna say this once: my Shepard’s story) before I know for sure. But the road to one’s heart is a strange and thorny path. You can’t navigate it with Dungeons & Dragons dice rolls and dialogue wheels alone. Mass Effect 2 isn’t perfect, but it gives me hope that Bioware finally understands this.
*I’ve come around on old Mass Effect 2, to the point where I might even claim I — gasp! — “like it” in casual conversation. But come on, fellow dweebs, “Best Game of All Time”? Let’s not lose our heads here.
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