As a gaming enthusiast I’m always interested in new gaming experiences, but every once in awhile I feel compelled to go back and put in some serious time replaying some of my favorite games from the preceding years. In that spirit, I have created a new series of writing pieces titled Replaying the Classics, wherein I discuss the games that I have replayed recently. Unlike my Late to the Party series, my goal with these writing pieces is not so much to give a strong analysis of a particular game, but rather to give an informal recounting of a game and try to convey to the reader why it’s one of my favorites. I do not come to you this time as a game reviewer, but merely as a friend wanting to have a casual chat about what he’s been playing. Today, let’s take a seat in our comfy chairs and talk about Mass Effect 2.
Seeing as how Mass Effect 2 is a sequel to a very story-heavy game, I think I need to give a touch more context than usual to properly set things up. Don’t worry, it’ll only take a minute to go over what happens in Mass Effect 1, and if anything it’ll give us time to ease into these chairs I brought for us. I think you’ll agree they’re quite nice, and very conducive for enjoying the epic tale I’m about to spin for you.
The distant future. Mankind has finally traveled beyond our solar system and stood in the light of other stars. As humans expanded further into the galaxy they encountered a variety of alien races—some friendly, some not so friendly—but with time and effort humanity earned its place in the galactic community. Into this exciting new future steps our protagonist, Commander Shepard (who can be male or female, depending on your choice). During the events of Mass Effect 1, Shepard becomes the first human to join the ranks of the Spectres—elite agents of the council that governs most of the galaxy’s civilized space—and together with his/her crew Shepard thwarts the schemes of Saren Arterius, another Spectre who has been indoctrinated by a race of sentient machines called the Reapers. Having triumphed at the Battle of the Citadel and destroyed the Reaper flagship Sovereign, the galaxy is seemingly safe again at the end of Mass Effect 1, but Shepard’s journey has just begun.
Mass Effect 2 begins with a particularly memorable opening sequence, in which the ship Shepard called home for all of Mass Effect 1, the Normandy, is destroyed by an unknown alien vessel. Although most of the crew manages to reach the escape pods, Shepard is hurled into space by an explosion that rips the ship apart. Floating amongst the wreckage in the cold, dark expanse of space, we see Shepard is alive, but this moment of relief is fleeting, as both the player and Shepard realize the same thing—Shepard’s air supply is leaking. Shepard struggles but his/her flailing become progressively slower until Shepard’s body ceases to move altogether. As Shepard begins to fall into the atmosphere of a nearby planet the opening logo of Mass Effect 2 appears and we are confronted by reality—Commander Shepard is dead.
No, not permanently, of course. The Mass Effect games are all about your character making choices and seeing their consequences farther down the line, so it wouldn’t make sense to get rid of Shepard for good. Anyways, Shepard is brought back from the dead by Cerberus, a pro-human organization that is generally distrusted by everyone else in the galaxy. Cerberus’ leader, the Illusive Man, commissions the resurrected Shepard to stop the Collectors, a mysterious race of aliens that have been abducting thousands of human colonists, are suspected of working for the Reapers, and also happen to be the aliens that blew up the Normandy. Defeating the Collectors means hitting them where they live—by all estimations a suicide mission. For the mission to have any chance of success, Shepard will need to assemble a team of specialists that can help him/her stare down the impossible odds. Survival is not expected, but failure is not an option.
“Well, that’s an interesting premise,” you say, “but what makes this game great?” “Why is it on your personal list of gaming classics?” Those are fair questions, so let’s dive into the answers. The strength of Mass Effect 2 and the reason why it stands the test of time is all in its characters and their stories. It all starts with creating your Commander Shepard, whose appearance and character class you can custom-tailor if you so desire, and whose choices are yours to make. Your Shepard can be an emblem of virtue, or a total jerk—your call. This ability to mold the main character and their actions to your desires means that when you’re playing Mass Effect 2 you’re not playing a pre-set Shepard, you are playing your Shepard. But arguably more important than Shepard are the other characters you meet in the game. The characters you recruit to your crew, an eclectic mix of humans and aliens, are the big standouts, with each of them coming with their own backstories, personalities, and motivations. Among them are a former cop turned vigilante, the galaxy’s greatest thief, a legendary bounty hunter, a scientist whose work helped keep an entire race near the point of sterilization, a warrior monk hunting her own daughter, and a genetically-engineered super-soldier. The true heart and soul of Mass Effect 2 lies in these characters, as they’ll be the ones you’ll talk with the most and they have the game’s most significant character moments, both between them and Shepard and with each other. As Shepard moves from planet to planet across the galaxy, bonds are formed with your crew and the stories you build with them make the events of the main plot all the more meaningful. You can even form romantic relationships with certain members of your crew, and in my playthrough Shepard developed a romance with Thane, a terminally ill assassin who is seeking redemption from his past deeds before his illness overtakes him. The main story of Mass Effect 2 is good on its own, but it’s the individual tales of all the characters you interact with that make Mass Effect 2 one of my all-time favorite games.
I also gotta commend developer Bioware for all the effort they put into building Mass Effect 2’s universe. Each of the dominant races have their own deep histories and all the major locales you visit have their own distinct look and feel. From the slums of Omega to the glimmering Illium skylines to the wastelands of Tuchanka, everything you see has been crafted to reflect the story of the races that live there. Similar care was put into the technology found within Mass Effect 2, which although obviously falls in the realm of science fiction is still somewhat plausible, given the universe that spawned it. To learn more about all the things you encounter while playing the game there’s an entire encyclopedia filled with entries on just about anything you might have questions on. You can lose well over an hour just on reading the finer details of species, starships, and planets, and I’d certainly recommend doing so as it makes the experience of Mass Effect 2 all the more interesting.
Now, having built up Mass Effect 2 as this paragon of gaming excellence, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of its flaws. Most of these are technical issues, though it’s fair to point out that the game’s performance will vary noticeably depending on what platform you play it on. I played Mass Effect 2 on PlayStation 3, which as I understand is the platform most prone to problems. Framerate drops and minor glitches (such as NPCs sitting on air or Shepard running around the Normandy with his/her head tilted at an odd angle) will be encountered a decent number of times. Audio is also not properly synched in a few of the cutscenes, leading to moments where something happens but it takes a second or two for the sound to occur. Additionally there are a few gameplay mechanics like planet scanning and the fact that you can only sprint for short distances that can be a little annoying. And yet, in spite of these and some other problems, I still love Mass Effect 2 and would recommend it to anyone who likes RPGs, science fiction, or just a really good story. Just try to play it on PC or Xbox if you can.
My goodness, where has the time gone? I realize we both have other things to do today, but before we vacate our comfy chairs let me just regale you with a few personal stories from my time replaying this classic. Would you believe that even on my fourth playthrough of Mass Effect 2 I was still doing things I hadn’t done in the three previous times I completed the game? It’s true. For example, I opted to recruit Grunt before everyone else and brought him with me on almost every main mission. This probably made my playthrough a little harder since I chose the Soldier class for my Shepard and Grunt’s powers generally don’t compliment the Soldier class very well, but on the other hand Grunt has some great dialogue, so it was a worthwhile tradeoff in my mind. I also came across a side mission that I had somehow had never noticed prior to my recent time with the game. You have no idea what a pleasant surprise it was to have a genuinely new experience in a game I thought I knew inside and out. Lastly, one of the most amusing things about Mass Effect 2 is that at certain points you can use the game’s freedom of dialogue options to make Shepard blatantly contradict him/herself in the middle of conversations to hilarious effect. During Tali’s trial I chose a dialogue option that humiliated one of the members of the admiralty board that was running the proceedings, but then immediately after that I chose a dialogue option that had the same admiral raising a metaphorical toast to me. Oh, and I almost forgot one of the very best things about Mass Effect 2, namely that you can use a renegade interrupt to punch a news reporter in the middle of an interview. That really should be an option for every single conversation in the game.
Back in 2014 I ranked Mass Effect 2 as my overall favorite game from the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360/Nintendo Wii era of console games. Now three years later, I think I’m willing to stand by that decision, or at the very least, if I went back and decided to shake up the rankings, I think Mass Effect 2 would still be in my top three games of that console generation. It’s on a level that not too many other games I played back then rose to, and hopefully you’ve come to understand why I hold it in such high regard. Alas, I think our time chatting about Mass Effect 2 in these comfy chairs has come to an end, but don’t worry, the chairs aren’t going anywhere. Today’s was just the beginning of a journey through some of my favorite games from the last few years, so you’ll get plenty more time in them.