A couple months have passed since Shepard saved the day and tore Saren and Sovereign a matching set of complimentary arseholes, and Shepard is set on a chase to discover more hints of the coming genocidal machine galaxy apocalypse death thing. Until aliens came out of fucking nowhere and blew Normandy to hell. Then he, or possibly she, historical records are kind of non-commital at this point, got sucked into space and died. Very heroic, very tragic.
At this point the Mass Effect universe goes off in a couple tangents, producing bastard off-shoots into Drew Karshpyn novels, graphic novels and lots of creepy fan-art on internet forums. The first ME had become a big, massive hit, thanks to some innovative game play, solid writing and Liara’s blue, naked bum. So the time was to franchise out and streamline game play, do a huge graphics overhaul, give a fresh new story with new characters and turn all the box-art into a reddish orange colour.
Shepard is officially on sabbatical for two years, on account of having no metabolic functions, while some of the other products set in the ME universe form back-story for Shepard’s resurrection, and what is going on behind the scenes while (s)he’s out for the count. The short version goes something like: Cerberus dicks people about, mercenaries mercenary, hustlers hustle and super-biotics biotic, while the Reapers still work in the shadows, getting ready to murder everyone everywhere.
Carrying on from Mass Effect
There is a bit of a hick-up in BioWare’s ambitious plan for letting the player pull out their character from ME1 save files, and continue the story with all the history and choices from the previous title coming back to affect yer gaming experience. The game offers Paragon and Renegade options throughout ME, determining between Shepard the Benevolent and Shepard the Raving Racist Maniac, and regardless of which choices you happened to make, Mass Effect 2 has to fit them both into the story-line. So in practice, the only impact past choices have is whether Normandy SR-2 offers coke or pepsi in the canteen, and whether you are going to be talking to Wrex on Tutchanka, or his brother wearing a slightly different hat.
Either way, the game has to keep the same doors open, and you still shoot at all the same mercenaries, crouching behind the exact same concrete blocks. Still, the idea is pretty clever, while never used to full potential, and finding a sense of agency is pretty fun, even if it is only seen in bits of dialogue or emails from passing ME1 characters you’d forgotten all about. All the big stakes are still left open for ME3, where some of the best possible outcomes are made impossible, if you decide to act like a total dick all the way through ME1 and 2.
Advances from Mass Effect
The biggest overhaul is seen in the graphics, which seem lightyears ahead of the original. Particularly cut-scene animations are much more impressive and offer a nice, warm colourful style. Graphics issues are completely absent and the frame rate doesn’t start buggering about, even when there’s a lot happening on screen. So that’s fine.
A lot of game play content got the chopper for ME2, and the Mako with shopping-trolley free exploration are gone, as well as much of free roaming around the Citadel. The 3rd person shooter is given a major overhaul, which does work much smoother than ME’s, and the AI has fortunately started to give a fuck about current events. Which is just as well, since the cover-based shooting has expanded to cover most of the actual game play, not including running all over Normandy and trying to squeeze dialogue out of crew members, which itself becomes a chore very quickly.
The character sheets are much more simplified from the first Mass Effect, with somewhat more limited abilities. It is somewhat limiting when making character development choices, but also means you don’t need to put 10 points into your pistol ability, before arbitrarily unlocking the ability to use a shotgun.
Also, this time the power wheel has a cool-down time for all the powers, when no powers can be used until the timer is reset, as opposed to every individual power having its own cool-down. A new introduction is the ability to combine biotic powers into powerful combinations, which can be very fun when using two biotics at the same time.
DLC, or paying more money to unlock the rest of the game
This is the first play-through I’d played with any DLC, since so far my resentment of handing over any extra money to EA had overwhelmed my curiosity. Extra characters Zaeed and Kasumi are quite fun as extra companions, with heaps of dialogue and their own loyalty missions, and particularly Zaeed has some genuinely funny moments, on account of being a completely dried up, old, cynical fuck. Lair of the Shadow Broker and Arrival are fun as well. The Shadow Broker’s Network provides some reliably funny character moments, even though it’s pretty blatant fan-service.
The armaments and armor DLC, however, is a load of bullshit in a stinky old sock. It seems somehow backwards to buy shit in order to make the game less challenging, meaning all you can really hope to do is mess up the game balance and make the experience slightly poorer. It’s nice the people over at graphic design had something to do, but beyond pimping up your space-pants, there isn’t much there.
Getting into Mass Effect 2
The mysterious, racist bogey men of the first ME, Cerberus, play a big part in the sequel. Human colonies are mysteriously disappearing off the grid, and since Shepard apparently is the only human in the galaxy who knows how to point a gun, the shadowy pro-humanity group Cerberus decides to spend all their money resurrecting Shepard and giving him another ship, which is even bigger and more stealthy than the first Normandy. This is a bit of an odd choice, since Cerberus is by this time supposed to have another super-agent of their own, Kai Leng. Someone who, incidentally, didn’t spend a good bit of time murdering Cerberus’ agents, raiding their bases and vowing eternal vengeance against them during the last game.
Shepard grudgingly agrees to take up the mission with the dangerous and unpredictable group, and discovers that the collectors, completely unmentioned before this point, who are working for the reapers are the bastards kidnapping humans for their own cryptic reasons. The buggers refuse to be good sports and hang around for a game of honourable fistie-cuffs, and always disappear behind the omega 4 relay, from which no ship has ever returned.
The ultimate goal of the game is launch a suicide mission and pass beyond the relay and find the collector home world to do some serious murdering, and put a sharp, terminal stop to their dastardly plans.
Building your crew of Murderers
Most of the game, this time, is spent headhunting and making new friends with varied and fun murderers, to complete your murderer crew on a ship of murderers, and running murdering errands for them to ensure their loyalty. Only Tali and Garrus remain available from ME1 followers, but the new cast of murderers is very varied and they are all fun in their own way. The mad Salarian scientist Mordin is a strong favourite for a lot of people, and I have to agree he has some of the best moments in the game, in both tragedy and comedy. His ethical dilemma and reflection on the Krogan genophage is pretty compelling, and he has some of the funniest moments in the game, particularly his performance of “A Scientist Salarian” and the sexual health lecture in response to Shepard’s romance choices.
My personal favourite would probably have to be Grunt. Grunt stands out from all the murderers, interestingly enough, not through being a complex and brooding murderer, burdened by ambivalent moralities, internal struggles and dark backgrounds, but the very opposite. Grunt is a genetically modified, lab-grown super-Krogan, displaying an almost child like innocence and glee in brutal violence. Jack, Garrus, Mordin, Thane and to some extent Samara have to go through complex character arcs, and find a way to find a balance between their ethical principles and murdering enough people to be classified as a minor natural disaster, and find some measure of peace through (token) redemptive actions.
Grunt just doesn’t give a fuck. He’s a Krogan, just doing what Krogan do. Murdering people is perfectly right and correct, and personal honour is gained through murdering the toughest enemies, so joining up with Shepard and plowing through armies of mercenaries and gunning down boss enemies the size of the Hermitage is the biggest fun-ride in the Universe. All Grunt dialogue is funny as Hell, often with Grunt saying something very cynical and violent and Shepard blandly scolding Grunt for being a psychotic thug. And Grunt just does that little laugh of his at the soft mammal.
The new characters who feel most bland are Miranda and Jacob, whose personalities seem stretched most thin, while they are the two new characters present from the word go. This says a lot about the cavalcade of murderers, since both the characters are by no means bad or poorly written, but are interesting and well-rounded enough (particularly Miranda*), with interesting backgrounds and loyalty missions. The other followers are simply colourful enough to overshadow the more generic followers. The blandest of all the characters is of course Shepard him/herself, because of the narrative necessity of keeping all options open to the player and leaving room for player projection.
So Shepard goes out and solves all the problems in the Galaxy, no matter how big, such as impending, unstoppable, galactic genocide, and no matter how small, like doing grocery shopping on the Citadel, because the crew is complaining about the food being a bit crap. N7 leadership curriculum apparently is a bit short on delegation.
This time plot completion plays quite a crucial part in the story, as Shepard has to have the ship and crew pimped out with the latest and the best armor and weapons before hitting the Omega 4 relay, if you want to bring back a full compliment of crew from the final suicide run. So most of the game is spent running everyone’s errands and sorting out their laundry for them, which is fine enough since it’s all very immersive and fun. Even running around Normandy, with the insanely long elevator transitions, and pestering people for dialogue trees is interesting enough to be worth the trouble.
Once Shepard has things pretty nicely wrapped up, his ship pimped and things about as ready as they get, it’s time for shit to go down. This time the Collectors pull a fast one, dangling a passage key through the relay in the form of a Reaper IFF downloaded from their ship, which itself is a trap: sending a hidden signal, so the Collectors can take capture the Normandy and its crew while Shepard is away buying fresh oranges. The boarding sequence sees a short sequence of game play, where the player takes control of Joker, who activates the ship AI’s full capabilities and sorts the problem out. However, the human crew is captured and Shepard has to move arse through the relay to save them in time.
Once past the relay, the ship is put through the paces that puts the new armor and weapons to the test, meaning that several crew members die if Shepard was too stingy to cough up the cash for important upgrades. If all goes well, they show the Collector ship who’s the boss and crash onto the gigantic Collector space station, and wander in to blow it up from the inside.
Once inside Shepard has to make some tactical choices to pick the right experts for the right jobs, which can be a bit tricky if you’re under nine months, or have recently been inhaling lighter fluid fumes. It’s almost disappointingly straight forward – tech expert for tech job, tactical expert for team leader, biotic expert for biotic job – which also result in dead crew members if you don’t make the right calls. If Shepard doesn’t fuck about too much, (s)he also manages to save the Normandy crew.
After cutting through the Collector forces, Shepard has the final boss battle against a Reaper that is under construction, made from dissolved human paste – the reason for all the kidnapped humans from remote colonies. Shepard goes through a pretty generic boss battle, and then has to decide whether to blow the base up, or radiate it to kill the remaining Collectors and hand it over to the Cerberus. Of course, since Cerberus is one of the ME3 antagonists, one of these choices is obviously right and one obviously retarded, so I think it’s very strange how Shepard bases his decision. This is one minor point that really bugs my shit..
Shepard bases the decision to blow the base on that it’s “an abomination”, and that too many people have died for it. The Illusive Man bases the will to capture it on the impending threat of the Machine Bastards coming to kill absolutely everyone, and needing every edge imaginable. The problem is that, on rhetoric level, the Illusive Man is absolutely right, and Shepard’s reason is sentimental batshit. However, the real reason you are supposed to blow it up, is precisely because Cerberus is too unpredictable to be trusted with that kind of technology, as all the characters say in post-mission dialogues. I just find it a bit crap that the dialogue trees force the decision to do the correct thing based on crappy reason, when common sense and the game’s own dialogue clearly state that the true reason is related to Cerberus being a bunch of amoral, racist thugs.
The Galaxy is given a brief respite by the games victory, and the end lays out the stakes for the trilogy completion: hundreds and thousands of Reapers emerging from dark space and heading straight for the Galaxy to do the murdering they’ve been preparing for this entire time.
Dark Tone and Being a dick about things
Bioware worked hard to make the game dark, shown in a lot of ways. Mostly it comes from exploring the Moss Eisley’s of the Mass Effect universe, traveling from one decadent shithole to another. The murder-ride begins in the lawless Omega, going through ruined Tutchanka, prison stations, abandoned laboratories – where experiments have less to do with science, more with Battle Royale – and the corrupt and unregulated corporate-governed Ilium.
The other big factor is taking orders from Cerberus, instead of the Galactic Council. Throughout the story it becomes increasingly clear Cerberus is as moral as a really hungry alligator and is more dangerous than Santa, if he was dispensing weapon grade plutonium and poor judgement. The Illusive Man is very selective in how much he tells Shepard and lets the crew dive into shit more than once, and it’s pretty clear trusting the Cerberus to do the best is only slightly more sensible than driving a car down a busy street, using your arse to steer – plus the car is on fire and you’re drunk. And the street is made of babies, and not tarmac. There is a very tangible feeling of tension while flying under Cerberus colours, and there are times when you really feel slightly tarnished by the uncomfortable connection.
This time the renegade/paragon choices pretty nicely coincide with Shepard’s loyalties, either embracing the racism-dripping Cerberus or trying to convince everyone the alliance with Cerberus is not what it looks like, and his true loyalties still lie with the Alliance and lost kittens. Many times the renegade choices, however, are simply bad bloody decisions, and don’t really even make sense. A sociopathic, renegade, fuck-the-police type should surely be impulsive and opportunistic, taking every advantage he can, but sometimes the option is just Shepard going out of his way to be a dick about things.
Anyway, Mass Effect 2 is still the dog’s bollocks, and overall might very well be the strongest Mass Effect title. Game play is very enjoyable and the story and characters are strong enough to allow almost any amount of small deficiencies. It is well balanced and enjoyable, and compared to it’s predecessor is much more comfortable in its space boots, despite feeling slightly smaller and more simplified. It certainly benefits from the technical upgrade, and compared to the sequel that wraps things up, at least was developed all the way through before being pushed out into the market.
*Note clever joke about bottoms.