Why Mass Effect 2 Failed to Live Up to Its Predecessor

Spoilers for Mass Effect 1 & 2, and you probably need to have played those games to understand what I’m saying.

IGN recently released its list of the top 100 modern games (that is, made during the current console generation), and, to my dismay, Mass Effect 2 topped the list. The ranking wasn’t terribly surprising; the Xbox version of ME2 currently holds a spectacular 96 metascore, received a glowing 5-out-of-5 star review from Brad, and won innumerable Game of the Year awards last year (including Giant Bomb’s). Personally, I consider Mass Effect 1 to be one of the greatest games ever made (and my personal favorite), but ME2 has always left me disappointed, and if you’ll bear with me (this is gonna get long), I’d like to explain why.


 Let’s start with the games’ openings. From the outset, I could tell that the first Mass Effect was something special. The first moments aboard the Normandy, devoid of action but dripping with an amazing sci-fi aesthetic, were like a statement of intent; as if the game was assuring me that it would make good on its space opera premise and RPG pedigree by taking story and exposition seriously – I loved it so much that I dragged it out, exploring the ship and exhausting all dialogue options, so that it took me an hour and a half just to start the first mission and land on Eden Prime. By contrast, the opening minutes of ME2 are spent watching non-interactive cutscenes, and playing out an opening set piece aboard the destroyed Normandy filled with inane dialogue (hmm…should I tell Ashley “Go away” or “Please go away”)  and consisting of a linear walk through the ship, albeit a cool looking one. To be fair, I’d have appreciated Shepherd’s death scene had it not been spoiled for me before hand, but then upon being reawakening, the game forces you through a plain BORING shooting level requiring you to repeatedly shoot robots in the face with a pistol. The entire thing (cutscenes, setpieces, shootouts) felt to me not like the slow burn, narrative-heavy intro of the original, but like some Uncharted wannabe with less flair and lower production values. These are not the elements that make Mass Effect great.

 Saren, on his way to do something totally horrible.

The entire story of the first game is a step above, in my opinion. For one, the antagonists are awesome. Saren, the rogue Spectre, is so incredibly menacing. We’re first introduced to the baddy when he meets up with his friend Nihlus (an extremely skilled warrior spy) and shoots him in the back of the head. Then we see Saren try to blow up an entire human colony, use a mysterious but important beacon to have some sort of crazy revelation, throw a crazy tantrum in his awesome spaceship, and finally convince the leaders of the entire intergalactic government that NONE OF THAT SHIT EVER HAPPENED. Saren is probably the coolest antagonist I’ve ever seen in a game. He’s stronger than you, he’s meaner than you, he’s smarter than you, and he has more guns, training, and troops than you. He needs to be this cool, because if he weren’t, the revelation that his ship has been controlling him through mind control this whole time would fall flat, but instead, it makes you think how strong IS this Sovereign if it can control Saren? Convincing Saren to pull the trigger and kill himself at the end of the game to thwart Sovereign is an incredibly powerful and poignant scene of redemption (easily on par with Darth Vader turning on the Emperor in Return of the Jedi) … and the best part? Making him do that is entirely optional; I even missed the opportunity on my first playthrough. That choice far outweighs any of the decisions made in the final level of ME2 (but more on that later).

The collectors fill Saren’s role as antagonist in ME2, and they’re dissapointing partly because the levels in which you fight them are the least inventive in the entire game. In both Mass Effect games, the premises for most of the individual levels were quite cool - persuade the Citadel council that Saren is evil, help the sick colonists of Feros, investigate the strange scientific experiments being conducted in the labs of Noveria, join a posse to hunt out the outlaw Archangel, etc. etc. The reason I find these objectives interesting is because you don’t just have to shoot everything in your path from A to B; you have to talk to people, compromise, find the truth, deal with bureaucracy - the sorts of things games don’t usually concern themselves with. Well, the collector levels are nothing like that. They are all linear paths from A to B, filled with lame looking, anthropomorphic insects. In fact, the bad guys don’t even talk except for their one-dimensional leader, who you never actually come face-to-face with and whom repeats the same annoying lines about “taking control” in each and every one of their levels. The collectors are boring, they’re gun fodder, and they’re sure no replacement for Saren’s awesomeness.

The last aspect of the story that bears mentioning are the decisions you make. In Mass Effect 1, important decisions come at unexpected times and force you to make hard choices, and there’s seldom a right or wrong answer. You have to choose to save Kaiden or Ashley and, in a gut-wrenching scene, listen to the crewmate whose fate you’ve doomed thank you for being a good captain. You have to choose to spare or kill the Thorian’s accomplice, who’s caused you such grief but promises to repent. You have to choose to kill or let live the Rachni Queen who swears she’s just misunderstood. These decisions are difficult, and promise to have ramifications felt throughout the trilogy.

Did YOU save the Rachni Queen? 

Such promise turns out to be lost potential. In ME2, if you’ve saved Wrex, he’s the leader of his clan, but if you didn’t, a look-alike, sound-alike Krogan fills the role. The story isn’t altered in any meaningful way. Remember the Rachni Queen? Her only mention in ME2 is when she sends someone to basically tell you “hey, you should remember me because I’m going to be important in the third game”. If you killed her, you’re at least spared that silly, pointless conversation. And, because years have passed between the games, your friendships and love affairs hardly carry over…everyone occupies the same roles regardless of your past experiences with them, with only throwaway lines reminding you of your decisions (mostly, it’s the difference between “it’s good to see you” and “it’s really good to see you”).

The decisions you make in Mass Effect 2 itself are also less impactful. That’s because you don’t manually assign paragon and renegade points in the second game; you are forced to min-max and don’t get to really make up your mind on the best course of action in individual situations. If you try to play somewhere between ‘total jerk’ and ‘nauseously saintly’ you WILL be locked out of dialogue options…and that sucks (during Samara’s loyalty mission, I swear I thought her daughter was going to rape me because of this). Another problem is that the major decisions are all shoehorned into the very last mission of the game (on the suicide mission). Throughout the game you’ve either been upgrading your ship or you haven’t. This determines people’s fates in a single, simple cutscene that shows their death scenes, one by one. Once you land on the collector base, you have to make decisions about which party member is the most capable biotic, technician, etc. and people’s lives hang in the balance. The problem? These choices are too simplistic. Obviously you want all of your party to survive – why wouldn’t you? So the choices basically boil down to “right” and “wrong,” unlike, say, choosing between Ashley and Kaiden, which has no wrong answer. The choices, stripped of their moral ambiguity, devolve into a simple game of “how well do you know each character’s archetype?”

      Remember that awkward        brandy drinking scene with  Space Helen Mirren?

Finally, the concept of the suicide mission itself, while cool, doesn’t make sense within the context of the game. The entirety of ME2 is a lead-up to this mission, and you’re promised that there are hard decisions ahead, and you must build a team to survive against impossible odds. But in actual gameplay, you have only two squad members with you at a time, and Shepherd kills the vast majority of enemies by himself, so having an entire squad of the best soldiers in the galaxy doesn’t really matter. The only time, as far as I can tell, when any specific person on the squad is actually VITAL is when you need a biotic to protect you while you walk down a certain hallway. Oh, and you need somebody to catch you as you jump onto the Normandy at the end…but even I could’ve done that! You didn’t need any engineers, assassins, shocktrooper; Doctor Chakwas could have pulled Shepherd up at the end if she weren’t so wasted on brandy. Oh, and the less said about that end boss, the better.

Fingers Crossed...

I have many other problems with the game, but they seem to come down to personal taste more than my above gripes. I

 liked overheating weapons, floaty space grenades, and the mako from the original. I don’t like cover shooters. I LOVE loot, and playing around with my inventory, and putting different enhancements on different guns, so I was irked when all these features were taken away. I liked the cut-and-paste side-quests of the original (set on overly huge planets) because that’s how I imagine space would be like, and it really sells a sense of isolation. And I would take the bright, expansive maps of the Citadel and Noveria over the dark, closed off worlds of Omega and Illium any day of the week.